Northern New York Newspapers
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Fri., Aug. 28
Serving the communities of Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties, New York
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Hitting turbulence


Government subsidies are great as long as you’re the beneficiary.

But seeing taxpayer money spent on items you don’t use can be frustrating. This is especially true when government budgets are becoming increasingly strained and essential services curtailed.

There is no doubt that the airline service between Watertown International Airport in Dexter and O’Hare International Airport in Chicago has offered tremendous advantages to many people in Northern New York. Military personnel stationed at Fort Drum and local businesspeople use it regularly to fly to Chicago and catch connecting flights all across the country.

American Airlines oversees two round-trip flights each weekday and one round-trip flight on Saturday and Sunday through its subsidiary American Eagle. It has offered this service for nearly two years.

And according to American Airlines, usage has increased. Just last week, the Times reported that the Watertown International Airport attracted 3,441 passengers in September, a 29 percent increase in traffic compared with the 2,670 passengers in September of last year.

But the fees charged by American Airlines have not been enough to financially sustain this service. It has relied upon funds from the federal government’s Essential Air Service program.

“The Airline Deregulation Act, passed in 1978, gave airlines almost total freedom to determine which markets to serve domestically and what fares to charge for that service. The Essential Air Service (EAS) program was put into place to guarantee that small communities that were served by certificated air carriers before deregulation maintain a minimal level of scheduled air service,” according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s website. “The department’s mandate is to provide the EAS communities with access to the national air transportation system. As a general matter, this is accomplished by subsidizing two to four round trips a day — with three being the norm — with 19-seat aircraft to a major hub airport. The department currently subsidizes commuter airlines to serve approximately 163 rural communities across the country that otherwise would not receive any scheduled air service.”

American Airlines requested $3,636,045 for the next year from the EAS program, a nearly 20 percent increase from the $3,047,972 it’s now receiving. Airline officials said they wanted to add a flight to the Sunday schedule.

But the DOT approved $3,356,349, a boost of 10 percent. It ruled the extra flight wasn’t necessary to comply with its rules.

If it wanted to create a new flight, American Airlines was told it would need to do so on its own dime. The DOT expressed concern that the company continues to rely so heavily on government funding.

“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 [this] subsidy,” according to a DOT document.

Watertown International Airport is incredibly beneficial for people living in Jefferson, Lewis or St. Lawrence counties. It’s close by; the flights are reasonably priced if purchased ahead of time; and the airport provides free parking.

But there are alternatives, such as Syracuse Hancock International Airport. While less convenient for St. Lawrence County residents, its location for most of us is no farther than airports for people living in major cities.

American Airlines must find a way to make its service more self-sustaining. Funding from Washington is harder to come by these days, and a vital transportation service should be able to pay for itself. Those of us who travel these flights need to dig deeper to keep the service viable.

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