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Watertown International Airport nears 20,000 mark

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Watertown International Airport is close to 20,000 enplanements for the year, with more than 40,000 passengers taking off or landing at the Jefferson County managed facility.

The number of enplanements was 18,500 heading into December.

The airport has been under the management of the county since 2006, when it was taken over from the city of Watertown. Since that time, business has expanded exponentially, especially after American Airlines, through its American Eagle subsidiary, began its Chicago route in November 2011.

Now, flights run to and from the Windy City twice a day during the week and once daily on weekends.

The holiday season only increases the demand for local air service.

“December was our best month last year,” said Cindy M. Sawyer, marketing coordinator for the airport.

This year is expected to be the same.

According to Ms. Sawyer, for the last week and a half, flights have been fully booked with people on standby who haven’t even been able to get seats.

The Chicago route was decided upon with the help of representatives from Fort Drum, who felt the Midwestern metropolis was an ideal hub for soldiers traveling throughout the country.

The airport has been so busy lately that a soldier flying standby had to wait until the following day to get a flight. Recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan, the soldier “wanted to get home in the worst way,” according to Ms. Sawyer.

Goodwill abounds in the airport during the holiday season, but it will take more than that to accommodate the growing business if trends continue in the same direction.

Airport manager James L. Lawrence Jr. said the airport has a few New Year’s resolutions for 2013, including expanding the parking lot, constructing a new hangar and business center and taking advantage of newly laid fiber-optic and municipal water lines.

The parking lot was last expanded in the fall of 2011, when space was increased by 50 percent.

A major rehabilitation of a taxiway also is planned.

Physical improvement is no doubt important, but one of the biggest projects for the coming year will be increasing the profile of the facility.

“Some people say that they still don’t know about the airport,” said Ms. Sawyer.

A renewed focus on advertising and marketing, especially across the Canadian border, will be a part of how the county shapes the future of the airport.

The 1000 Islands International Tourism Council, which is partially funded with bed-tax revenue from local hotels, assists with some aspects of the airport’s marketing campaign.

American Airlines also partners with the airport from time to time to offer promotions that target business travelers, who are one of its core markets.

The airport runs its own marketing and advertising to attract more passengers to a place that many describe as having “a hometown and stress-free feel,” according to Ms. Sawyer.

To meet the current demand, increasing flights or expanding the routes offered by the airport is “a constant discussion as the numbers grow,” Mr. Lawrence said.

Much of the expansion at the airport has been funded by state and federal money, including a recent grant of $222,627.36 from the Federal Aviation Administration to complete the taxiway rehabilitation. This money has improved the physical plant and attracted airlines such as American Eagle, which receives $3 million annually on a two-year contract through a federal Essential Air Service grant.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s website, EAS is intended to allow small communities to “maintain a minimum level of scheduled air service” after the Airline Deregulation Act was passed in 1978.

This summer, Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., unsuccessfully introduced an amendment to a House appropriations bill proposing that EAS be terminated. It was defeated 238-164.

While the Budget Control Act Amendment, which will go into effect if Congress fails to avoid the “fiscal cliff,” makes no mention of EAS, it is possible that the service may be targeted in the future to reduce government spending.

Addressing those concerns, Philip N. Reed Sr., chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Legislators General Services Committee, which oversees the airport, said that the goal is to make the airport a self-sufficient enterprise that can operate without the EAS subsidy.

With close to 20,000 enplanements, the airport has “proven that it’s going to be an asset and less of a liability to the taxpayer,” Mr. Reed said.

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