Ten thousand people have flown from Watertown to Chicago in the seven months since American Eagle launched its air service, a blistering pace that could mean millions more in federal aid for Jefferson County’s airport in Dexter.
“It gives us recognition that we’re a growing airport,” said James L. Lawrence Jr., the county highway superintendent who manages the airport.
If the airport can sustain those figures for two more years, the county will be eligible for a roughly $1 million annual grant from the Federal Aviation Administration, a huge increase from the $150,000 it currently receives. That would help fund expansions at the airport, which could beget even more air service in the north country.
The milestone was reached on Saturday, with five months in the year still to go, said American Eagle representative Will R. Livsey, who was handing out airplane-shaped magnets and pitching the service at an informational kiosk at the “Made in New York Festival” in Sackets Harbor.
Fort Drum soldiers and Canadians coming to avoid high prices north of the border account for the bulk of the airport’s growth, said Mr. Livsey. American Eagle is planning to make more inroads among Canadian customers and north country residents who aren’t connected to the federal government; for example, Mr. Livsey said, employees of New York Air Brake have taken flights from Watertown to Chicago and then on to Texas, where the company has operations.
In November, American Eagle replaced Cape Air, a Hyannis, Mass.-based company that flew to Albany with nine-seat planes. About 4,000 people a year took the trips to the state capital, according to Mr. Lawrence. The Watertown service — the previous Cape Air flights as well as the current American Eagle flights — receives federal subsidies through the Essential Air Service.
Officials in Jefferson County, unhappy with the lagging ridership under Cape Air, requested that the federal government give its subsidy to a carrier that would bring in bigger airplanes. American Eagle flies 44-seaters.
The federal subsidy is renewed on a two-year basis. It’s possible that American Eagle will not reapply for the subsidy the next time it comes up for bid, said Mr. Livsey. The airline could be able to sustain flights without being on the “government dole.”
“I think that’s the direction we’re heading,” Mr. Livsey said.
Watertown departures are on average 94 percent full, he said — well above industry standards. The twice-daily flights to O’Hare International Airport range in price depending on how far in advance they’re booked, but according to the travel agency website Expedia.com, tickets on a Thursday in August for the two-hour and 20-minute flight go for $368 round-trip, including taxes and fees.