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DOT tentatively selects American Airlines to continue service at Watertown International Airport

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U.S. Department of Transportation officials have tentatively decided not to increase the required level of service at the Watertown International Airport and have asked American Airlines to continue the current schedule with a subsidy level set at $3,356,349 — almost a full $300,000 less than the airline requested.

An overreliance on federal aid apparently is in question.

American Airlines, which operates under an essential air service contract at the airport through its subsidiary American Eagle, characterizes its tenure at the airport as a success, pointing to the fact that it has beaten the yearly passenger target it set two years ago, according to a DOT document.

But the airline, which offers nonstop flights to and from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, has been unable to reduce its reliance on the federally funded essential air service subsidy, which officials said was a cause for concern.

“The clear success American achieved in generating passengers causes us to be concerned, because it has not been matched by an ability to reduce its need for subsidy,” the document reads.

The carrier is asking for a $3,636,045 subsidy this year — a increase of 20 percent from the current subsidy of $3,047,972, according to officials.

The airport, on Route 12F near Dexter, is owned and operated by Jefferson County.

The increase was due to the proposal to add a 13th flight to the carrier’s weekly schedule at the airport, which offers two flights a day during the week and one flight a day during the weekend.

The airline is proposing to add a second Sunday flight, something Jefferson County officials have said would be an asset.

It would allow the carrier to offer flights to passengers traveling to Chicago to conduct business in the early part of the week, according to Jefferson County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III.

Essential Air Service staff met with officials from American Airlines to try to resolve the “paradox” of both increased traffic and a request for an increased subsidy but failed to reach a resolution, according to the order.

American Airlines projects a 69 percent passenger load factor at the Watertown International Airport, meaning there are unused seats that remain available with the current schedule of 12 flights a week, calling into question the need for an additional flight, according to DOT officials.

But that could be because a late afternoon flight into Chicago on weekdays is not as popular as the early morning flight to Chicago or the evening flight from Chicago to Watertown, according to Mr. Hagemann.

Aside from that, flights are virtually always full, he said.

Congress has tightened eligibility standards for the EAS program and several communities have lost service as a result, officials said.

“At this juncture, some of these airports are receiving no service. We need to feel fortunate that our service is continuing until we get to a point where we’re no longer dependent on it,” said Barry M. Ormsby, R-Belleville, chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Legislators airport ad hoc committee. “As we’ve said from day one, we’re all looking for a day when the federal subsidy won’t be necessary.”

“The good news is the award to American Eagle for another two years has been handed out,” Mr. Hagemann said.

American Airlines has 10 days to respond to the DOT’s determination, which was issued Monday. If the department receives no response, the contract will be renewed at the DOT-mandated rate.

Watertown International Airport recorded a 29 percent increase in passenger traffic this September compared with September 2012.

Grant W. Sussey, who was hired to fill the newly created position of airport manager, is scheduled to start working for the county next month.

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