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Jefferson County officials say they had no choice in Philadelphia flight service switch

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The president of New York Air Brake advised Jefferson County and airline officials against making Philadelphia the new flight destination at Watertown International Airport during a meeting held last week to gather input from business leaders.

Air Brake in 2013 booked 175 American Eagle trips between Watertown and Chicago, where much of its business with railroad industry clients is based, said Michael J. Hawthorne, president of the company headquartered off Starbuck Avenue. He said he warned county officials that allowing US Airways to move the flight destination to Philadelphia International Airport would greatly diminish the appeal of the Watertown airport.

Most of the company’s travel is to Chicago and other Midwest destinations. Losing Chicago as a destination will cause the company to reduce its use of the Watertown airport by one-third to 50 percent, Mr. Hawthorne predicted.

County legislators now find themselves on the defensive over their decision, which was not made publicly. They contend they had no choice: it was give up the Chicago flights and take the Philadelphia route, or risk losing air service altogether if they objected.

Starting May 8, Philadelphia-bound flights will leave the county-owned airport twice a day to replace Chicago flights. The move follows the merger of American Airlines, the parent of the American Eagle service, and US Airways.

“The flight service out of Watertown is really an attractive option when it goes to Chicago,” Mr. Hawthorne said. “We candidly told county and airline officials that this will not be as attractive of a service going to Philadelphia. We have a tremendous presence in Chicago because of the rail industry there, and we fly to Omaha, Kansas City, St. Louis and Dallas. They told us Philadelphia would have a greater number of access points, but from what I’ve seen, we won’t use the service as much.”

Other business leaders invited to Thursday’s meeting were Jody R.A. LaLone, president of Car-Freshner Corp. of Watertown, and representatives from Watertown-based Samaritan Medical Center and Tug Hill Construction, Mr. Hawthorne said. Ms. LaLone did not respond to a call Tuesday seeking comment.

In the meetings with county officials, American Airlines officials suggested that the carrier could decide to drop Watertown service if Jefferson County opposed the move to switch flights to Philadelphia, according to County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III.

According to a provision in the airline’s two-year contract with the federal Essential Air Services program through January 2016, the company can decide to issue a notice of leave at any time. Doing so would give Jefferson County 120 days to find a replacement airline carrier.

“They said, ‘We would go back to our headquarters in Dallas to talk about, and we might have to issue the 120-day notice,” Mr. Hagemann said. “The challenge for American is they don’t know if they can continue to provide services because of external factors coming into play.”

American Eagle’s 44-seat jets “are being phased out across the country, and pilots are hard to find on a regional carrier basis,” he said. “There has been a shortage in available pilots because legacy carriers, such as United, Southwest, American and US Airways, are grabbing them from regional carriers for more money and bringing them on board.”

In May, US Airways will offer flights using a 50-seat Bombardier CRJ-200 turboprop, according to an American Airlines spokesman. In the first week of September, flights will be operated with Bombardier Dash-8 jets. The airline hasn’t specified which Dash-8 model will be used — the 100, 200 or 300 series. The 100 and 200 series planes accommodate 37 to 39 passengers; the longer 300 series planes may accommodate 50 to 56 passengers. Here is a website that compares the Dash-8 models: http://wdt.me/ErgudG

The Jefferson County Board of Legislators General Services Committee, which oversees airport operations, invited a select group of economic development and business leaders to the meetings last week to seek input on the move. But it did not decide to hold a public hearing or make any of the meetings open to the public, Mr. Hagemann said.

“We followed the same pattern that we’ve operated under for the past eight years,” he said. “Given the short time frame we were given to react, we went with our proven track record. We want to know what everyone is thinking, but I don’t know whether a public hearing would accomplish anything, one way or the other. A public hearing would have extended the decision-making process much further, and I don’t know that was an option we had. It would have been another 30 days until we got to that point, and a decision needed to be made soon.”

Board of Legislators Chairwoman Carolyn D. Fitzpatrick, R-Watertown, said she received some “nasty emails” about the decision. But, she said, county legislators didn’t have a choice in the matter, because American Airlines could have decided to leave the airport if the move were opposed.

“If we had a choice, we would have had a plane going to Chicago and Orlando, quite frankly. But we didn’t have the choice,” she said. “We knew from the get-go that we were either going to Philadelphia or staying home, and this was the way that it came out. We could have been on the chopping block, and many airports are. And from what we understand, US Airways executives are the ones taking over, so there isn’t any say here in Watertown. It was pretty much Philadelphia, or stay home.”

Legislator Philip N. Reed, R-Fishers Landing, said American Airlines didn’t threaten to leave Watertown as an ultimatum if Jefferson County opposed the switch to Philadelphia. But it was discussed as a possibility.

“They didn’t come in and use that as a hammer,” Mr. Reed said. “We were looking at the good, bad and ugly, and this is one of the ugly parts” of the Essential Air Service program.

County officials also expressed concerns about unpleasant experiences using the Philadelphia airport, which has a reputation for highly congested terminal traffic. But Mr. Reed said his concerns, which were initially serious, were alleviated by the fact that Watertown passengers will arrive in a newly renovated $127 million terminal that will provide a better experience for passengers.

“My understanding is that you’ll take a shuttle bus to the terminal,” he said. “You’re not being jammed into a bus and driven up to the tarmac, waiting for planes.”

The website Flight Stats, which allows passengers to rate their experience at U.S. airports, showed Tuesday that Philadelphia International Airport had an overall rating of 2.1 out of 5 stars, based on 205 reviews. Ratings may be viewed online at http://wdt.me/dgHSLy.

The airport had a rating of 3.2 stars in the “number of flights” category, based on 187 reviews. But its “on-time performance” rating received a meager 1.8 stars, with 195 reviews. Parking availability had a rating of 2.5 stars (161 reviews), airport lounges had 2.4 stars (180 reviews) and terminal layout had 2 stars (191 reviews).

O’Hare International Airport in Chicago had an overall ranking of 3 stars.

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