Passengers from Watertown International Airport, Dexter, soon may be flying to the Windy City.
American Eagle Airlines, the regional partner of American Airlines, submitted a bid to fly from the Jefferson County airport to Chicago-O'Hare International Airport as part of the Essential Air Service through the U.S. Department of Transportation. It proposes flights on 44-seat Embraer regional jets.
Cape Air, Hyannis, Mass., also bid on the contract to continue its service to Albany with flights from there to Boston. It provides service on nine-seat planes.
Officials from Jefferson County, which operates the airport, are relieved to see larger planes offered through the bid.
"I would call it good news," said Legislator Barry M. Ormsby, R-Belleville, who is chairman of the ad hoc airport committee. "I think there are some more details we would want to look at, like pricing."
American is proposing two nonstop flights every weekday to Chicago, one in the morning, one in the late afternoon, and one flight each on Saturday and Sunday. It has requested a $3 million subsidy, and fares would be $142 per ticket. American Eagle has 1,500 daily departures from 180 airports.
Cape Air's planes qualify for the program only when a waiver is granted in the form of community support. Since it's unlikely that support will come — Jefferson County has repeatedly said Cape Air's smaller planes are prohibiting growth at the airport — American Eagle has an apparent edge.
"The 15-seat rule would require the community to waive it for us to consider it," DOT spokesman Bill Mosley said.
There also is one other possible airline service. Mr. Ormsby said Charter Air Transport, which previously had applied under the Essential Air Service bid process, is looking at an alternative to EAS that would allow it to fly to Washington-Dulles International Airport.
"It's a little bit outside of the normal EAS program," Mr. Ormsby said. "There's a difference on how the federal funding is handled."
A contact for Charter Air was not available, and it was unclear how such funding would come about. Mr. Mosley said a federal subsidy is available only through the EAS process.
Cape Air has been serving Watertown with flights to Albany. The airline has been able to fly out of Watertown without meeting the requirement of flying at least 15-seat planes because Watertown has been lumped into an EAS bid with Massena and Ogdensburg.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Transportation unlinked Watertown from Massena and Ogdensburg, which continue to be served by Cape Air.
Cape Air won the Massena and Ogdensburg contracts Jan. 7 for service to Boston, via Albany, starting March 8. The airline has been flying only to Albany from the three north country airports, and Cape Air will provide service to Watertown until a new contract is settled.
Cape Air proposed similar service again for Watertown. The bid included three round trips daily to Albany, followed by a funneled flight to Boston with other passengers from Massena and Ogdensburg.
"We have the flights timed from Massena, Ogdensburg and Watertown so they arrive at the same time," said Andrew W. Bonney, Cape Air's vice president of planning. "They would get in the same airplane to get to Boston."
Under the bid, one-way tickets to Albany would be $59 and one-way tickets to Boston would be $91. The subsidy would continue at $1,665,889 per year, or with a four-year contract, $1,615,912.
Mr. Bonney said the highlights of the bid include a ticket office in downtown Watertown and the possibility of more flights.
American Eagle said in its application that it recently has re-entered the subsidized air market with service to Joplin, Mo., and Grand Island, Neb., beginning in June. But it took airports in Roswell, N.M., and Manhattan, Kan., from subsidized to self-sustaining service.
"American Eagle hopes and believes that we will have as much success in Watertown as we have had in Roswell and Manhattan," the bid packet said.
The airline also says it has a dedicated marketing and sales group to promote the brand and network in Watertown.
American Eagle pointed to the potential passenger base from Fort Drum, which has been largely untapped. The county's consultant said more than 10,000 soldiers are transported to Syracuse each year for flights.
If the airport off Route 12E could get flights from soldiers and their families, the airport could have an annual allocation of about $1 million instead of about $150,000 from DOT.
"We're having ongoing discussions with our friends at Fort Drum as to what the best destination would be in their mind," Mr. Ormsby said.
But he thought O'Hare — one of the nation's most heavily served airports — would be a "favorable destination" for both service members and business travelers.
Mr. Mosley said Jefferson County has until March 3 to submit comments and then a decision will be made as soon as possible.
"We'll see where it goes," Mr. Ormsby said. "We're optimistic."