Travelers wait to check in June 25 at Portland International Jetport. The jetport expects a busy summer as more people begin traveling again and airlines add new flights into and out of Portland. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

The coronavirus vaccination rollout this spring provided perfect timing for airlines looking to resume or expand service to the Portland International Jetport this summer, according to Jetport Director Paul Bradbury.

The added flights, combined with the rising vaccine rate, dwindling number of reported COVID-19 cases and people clamoring to travel will make for quite a different summer than at the jetport a year ago, when the pandemic brought air travel to a near standstill, he said.

“The airlines are chasing leisure,” Bradbury said. “We already knew that Maine was a very good leisure destination for the summer. Maine has done a good job with vaccinations and is a safe place to travel.”

American, Delta, Elite, Frontier and United airlines have increased service into and out of Portland this summer to take advantage of the leisure travel market Maine has to offer. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

The number of tickets for sale out of Portland for June was up by close to 2,000, Bradbury said, and in August, typically when air travel is the highest, the airport has more than 150,000 outbound tickets available, outpacing August 2018, the jetport’s busiest month on record.

Elite Airways this week is expanding its offerings to include direct service to White Plains, New York, and connecting flights to Sarasota and Melbourne, Florida. Frontier Airlines this month began offering non-stop flights from Portland to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and in mid-July will begin direct service to Atlanta and Philadelphia and resume service to Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina.

Major airlines have also bumped up their flights in and out of Portland in 2021. American Airlines now has direct flights from Portland to Miami, and Delta Airlines last month started daily nonstop service between Portland and Minneapolis/St. Paul. Also last month, United Airlines began non-stop flights from Portland to Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland, Ohio, and to Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh. Daily service to Denver, Colorado was added in June.

John Pearsall, president of Elite Airways, is excited the Portland-based airline is expanding service this summer to New York and Florida. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

That’s certainly good news for the jetport, Bradbury said, although he has concerns about having enough staff and rental cars to meet passenger demand. The airport’s fleet of rental cars is still 20% below what it was in 2019 because of pandemic.

Elite Airways is looking to hire more employees, President John Pearsall said, as the airline resumes service to Sarasota, which was suspended due to the pandemic, and adds flights to White Plains and Melbourne, two areas that are popular with customers.

Bradbury said New York and Florida “are among our top requested destinations.”

“The new Elite service should be very well received as leisure travel continues trending upward,” he said.

The White Plains service flies into the Westchester County Airport, which is 30 miles north of New York City and offers a convenient way to get into the Big Apple, Pearsall said. The Melbourne flights, he added, are expected to do well “given the amount of interest we’ve seen and the explosion of the space industry in the Melbourne/Cocoa Beach area.”

A non-stop flight to Fort Lauderdale is planned to begin in fall.

Like other airlines, Elite’s ridership dropped precipitously due to the pandemic, forcing the airline to temporarily suspend operations for two months from March to May 2020.

“Having that loss of all that traffic was huge for us,” Pearsall said. “We went from having an extremely busy 17 aircraft fleet go down to zero because we weren’t operating at all.”

Pearsall said Elite Airways received $11 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to cover the cost of payroll through the pandemic.

“It really did help us. It was a tremendous thing,” he said.

Air travel in Portland was at an all-time high in early 2020 with the jetport setting records for passenger boardings in January and February of 2020, but travel in and out of the airport plummeted by 97%  by April 2020, shortly after the coronavirus pandemic’s onset and the resulting restrictions took hold in Maine in March.

Since then it has been a slow climb back to more normal levels, but travel in June, Bradbury said, was still down roughly 11% from where it was in 2019.

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