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Death of American Eagle at Watertown airport in May will mean birth of Philadelphia flights

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Watertown will lose passenger jet service to Chicago in May, and flights will be offered to Philadelphia instead.

As result of the December merger between US Airways and American Airlines, the parent company of American Eagle, US Airways Express will start offering flights twice daily, seven days a week, on May 8 between Watertown International Airport and Philadelphia International Airport.

Jefferson County officials said the move was made because the airline will save fuel costs with shorter flights, offer more reliable service with fewer cancellations because of bad weather and give passengers better connections to more destinations.

The Board of Legislators General Services Committee gave its consent to the change following talks between airline and county officials last week. The county owns the airport off Route 12F in the town of Hounsfield.

US Airways will use 50-seat regional jets for the Philadelphia service, accommodating more passengers than American Eagle’s 44-seat planes.

County officials assert the Philadelphia hub is expected to open up more efficient transportation links to Eastern and Southern destinations, cutting out extra travel time to states like North Carolina and Florida. The Philadelphia airport offers 25 international destinations, while the Chicago airport provides 11.

But it remains to be seen how Philadelphia’s closer location — roughly half the distance to Chicago — will affect overall passenger traffic at the Watertown airport, where American Eagle began offering flights in the fall of 2011.

Fort Drum soldiers and their families drive the majority of that traffic, and Chicago may be a more favorable hub for military travelers, contended Carl A. McLaughlin, executive director of the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization. The FDRLO is a nonprofit whose mission is to preserve positive relationships between civilian and military communities and leaders.

“I’m disturbed by the fact that there’s a change from something that’s very successful, and if there’s a reason to believe this would be more successful, I’d like to hear it,” said Mr. McLaughlin, who learned about the news Monday. “I think Fort Drum is the primary driver of traffic at the airport and, with a hub like Chicago, soldiers can get anywhere — to the East Coast, South or West. I would hope that what we offer out of Watertown gives the most opportunities possible for our very diverse military population. If you look at the folks who come here to serve at Fort Drum, they’re from all over the country and have lots of destinations and places to go. We want the most options and destinations through a hub, and I truly hope they’re thinking of our best interests” with this decision.

Mr. McLaughlin said he wasn’t invited to the county’s meetings with American Airlines representatives.

According to County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III, the meetings included Donald C. Alexander, CEO of the Jefferson County Local Development Corp.; Lynn M. Pietroski, president and CEO of the Greater Watertown-North Country Chamber of Commerce, the office of Fort Drum Deputy Garrison Commander Michael H. McKinnon and four business owners whose names he would not disclose.

American Airlines originally contacted the county about the potential flight switch from Chicago to Philadelphia at the start of January, Mr. Hagemann said. The change affecting Watertown is part of a larger effort by the airline to streamline operations at rural airports that participate in the federally subsidized Essential Air Service program. The airline’s decision to switch the hub, made possible by the US Airways merger, will save money and improve reliability, he said.

American Airlines receives an annual subsidy of $3,356,349 for the Watertown flights, according to a two-year contract approved in October 2013. The EAS program gives other airlines a chance to bid on contracts at the Watertown airport every two years.

Because its airport is EAS-supported, the county had the authority to oppose the airline’s wish to switch the flight service. However, it decided not to do so after conducting its own research on the pros and cons of the move, Mr. Hagemann said.

The airline “assessed the cost-benefit relationship of staying at Chicago or going to a closer location, and we did our own outreach at the first of the year that fit in perfectly with its assessment time period,” he said. “They asked us to set up some meetings so that we could do some data gathering from our perspective, to see that it jibes with what is going on locally. We did have an opportunity to comment on this particular initiative and say we’re not in favor. If that were the case, the Department of Transportation would have said, ‘We’re not going to support this shift, because it’s a mid-year adjustment taking place and because it requires support from the local community.’”

Ultimately, the committee leading the review process decided that Philadelphia trumps Chicago as a hub destination. The members of the committee include Chairman Philip N. Reed, R-Fishers Landing; Carolyn D. Fitzpatrick, R-Watertown; James A. Nabywaniec, R-Calcium, and Barry M. Ormsby. As a former legislator whose term expired in January, Mr. Ormsby was asked to participate because of his past involvement in an ad hoc airport committee.

“We believe that we will see a net gain overall in passenger traffic,” Mr. Hagemann said. “In the short term, there may be a downturn until people get accustomed to their new opportunities, but we feel it’s going to be very positive in our market. We’ll be going to a 50-seat regional jet, and the timing couldn’t have been better because most of the 44-seat jets are going to be done away with because of the cost to develop their technology. We also have the potential to gain another 5,000 passengers a year, if you do the math.”

“And if you’re a passenger going south or east, you know you’re going to Philadelphia and the next stop is your final destination. Eastern destinations have increased for many of our local customers who are maybe going to Syracuse, and now we’ve opened up a door that wasn’t available to them,” he said.

Mr. Nabywaniec said a growing number of Canadian passengers from Ottawa and Ontario are using the Watertown airport, decreasing its reliance on Fort Drum traffic.

“Canadians have stopped flying from Chicago to Ottawa because we’ve decimated their ridership here,” he said. “They are flying to Watertown and then driving to Ottawa.”

Both Chicago and Philadelphia airports offer 440 daily flights and 124 destinations, according to Matthew Miller, American Airlines spokesman. He said tickets for flights offered from Watertown to Philadelphia were made available for purchase this past weekend.

A search Monday on the US Airways website revealed that the first flight leaving Watertown at 1:15 p.m. on May 8, has an estimated arrival time of 2:25 p.m. in Philadelphia, a travel time of one hour and 10 minutes. Non-refundable tickets for that one-way flight are priced at $390.

A one-way American Eagle Airlines flight on May 7 from Watertown to Chicago, by contrast, is priced at $483 per ticket. The direct flight distance from Watertown to Philadelphia is 250 miles; to Chicago, the distance is 535 miles.

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