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Mon., Jan. 26
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The world’s largest airline company has offered a textbook example of how to alienate potential customers.

Jefferson County officials announced earlier this week that as a result of the merger of American Airlines and US Airways, the service from Watertown International Airport to O’Hare International Airport will end May 8. The twice-daily, round-trip flights between the north country and Chicago — provided by American Eagle, a subsidiary of American Airlines — began in 2011 and have proven very popular.

But with essentially no input from members of the community, the newly merged airline carrier has placed the American Eagle flights on the endangered species list. Commercial service from the Watertown area will now be provided by US Airways Express to Philadelphia, Pa., rather than Chicago.

For all the good this arrangement will do for many people in the north country who regularly use the service to Chicago, it might as well be the village of Philadelphia in Jefferson County. Traveling to the City of Brotherly Love will get them no closer to their desired destinations.

Jefferson County officials defended themselves by arguing they were strong-armed by the airline company into accepting this deal. They said representatives of the airline threatened to pull out of Watertown if they didn’t get their way. This would have left county officials scrambling to recruit another carrier, which could have taken quite a bit of time.

This is a shoddy deal that was not made in the best interests of those who now use the local airport.

First of all, Philadelphia is a major national hub for US Airways. So the decision to travel there wasn’t based on some careful analysis of where air customers want to go. It was made to stuff more passengers into the fancy new terminal at Philadelphia International Airport, regardless of whether this suits their needs.

Jefferson County officials sought input on this new plan from only a handful of people from the north country rather than opening up the process to the public. It doesn’t appear that representatives of Fort Drum were included in these discussions, and that’s unfortunate. Military personnel at Fort Drum make up a sizable portion of passengers who use the Watertown-to-Chicago route.

Michael J. Hawthorne, president of New York Air Brake, was one of the invited guests. He told the county that the deal stinks because much of his firm’s business is in Chicago and points west, not Philadelphia. He said his company’s use of Watertown International Airport will decline substantially as a result of this decision.

In a Wednesday story in the Watertown Daily Times, County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III 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.”

If airline representatives weren’t willing to solicit public input on this proposed deal, that should have been a red flag to county officials that they’re not thinking of how best to serve their customers. A public hearing would have allowed people who use the airport to consider the new plan and let officials know if it’s a good idea.

What value is changing flight destinations if the customers who keep the airport operating don’t believe it serves their needs? And how do you know if this plan will serve their needs if you refuse to ask them?

The smiley-face press release issued Monday by the county regarding the change in flight service touted the “larger 50-seat regional jet” that will be used by US Airways Express. Well, there are some caveats here.

Customers will enjoy the larger regional jets for the first few months (these aircraft seat 50 people as opposed to the 44-seat jets now used by American Eagle). But beginning the first week of September, US Airways Express will switch to noisy turboprop aircraft. They could be bigger (seating up to 56 people) or they could be smaller (seating as few as 37 passengers).

This indicates that the airline will wait to see what kind of reaction it gets about this new service. It’s obvious that representatives are entertaining the possibility that fewer passengers will use Watertown International Airport as a result. This doesn’t boost confidence that they’ve done the research necessary to determine if this change will attract new customers or turn clients away.

Airline representatives also lauded this plan as an easier way for people to get to northeast, east and southeast destinations. Yes, traveling eastbound from Philadelphia toward the Atlantic coast makes more sense than coming from Chicago.

But an even better plan would be using Syracuse Hancock International Airport to travel to eastern destinations. Passengers can catch direct flights from Syracuse, which will save time and money over going to Philadelphia. It’s an option many north country residents may select.

County officials should have negotiated with airline representatives for more time to publicly discuss this plan. People who may use the service would have a chance to let officials know if the deal is practical before it’s put into effect. The county should reconsider its decision not to object to the economic threats of the airline and should seek other carriers to take over the $3 million-plus federal subsidy to provide convenient service to the north country.

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