WATERTOWN — With record-breaking passenger numbers at the Watertown International Airport, Jefferson County legislators are collectively breathing a sigh of relief that a switch from Chicago to Philadelphia flights so far has not hurt business.
“We don’t want to pop champagne corks or anything,” said Philip N. Reed, R-Fishers Landing, chairman of the Board of Legislators General Services Committee. “Last month was the most activity we’ve had at the airport since we took it over.”
During a General Services meeting Tuesday, Mr. Reed reported that in July, 2,275 passengers departed the airport and 2,299 arrived. The total of 4,574 passengers represented a 14 percent increase over the same period last year.
After a dismal winter, which saw January passenger numbers fall by 42 percent compared with January 2013 — largely because of weather — the county was hit with an ultimatum from American Airlines: switch to Philadelphia flights or risk losing air service completely.
Factors related to the merger of American Airlines and US Airways necessitated the change, county officials said they were told.
May 8 saw the first flight depart from Watertown for Philadelphia. Numbers for the month climbed by 2 percentage points from the previous year, though flights for the first week of the month still went to Chicago.
Then numbers dipped slightly in June, with ridership declining 1 percent compared with the previous year.
But ridership rebounded in a big way, and the numbers posted in July are the highest the county has seen at the airport since it took over the facility from the city of Watertown in 2006.
The increased number of passengers using the airport could be due to the fact that the switch from Chicago to Philadelphia also brought with it a change in the type of aircraft used, according to Mr. Reed.
Instead of the 44-seat jets used by American Eagle, the American Airlines subsidiary that offered flights to Chicago, US Airways uses 50-seat Bombardier CRJ-200 jets to transport passengers to Philadelphia.
The numbers are encouraging, according to Mr. Reed.
“It’s good to see this kind of activity. This is what we were looking for,” he said.
But legislators are nervously eyeing the fall, when the airline will switch to a 37-seat Dash 8 turboprop aircraft to account for changes in the north country’s weather patterns.
That could cause the number to drop again unless the county is able to complete a proposed runway expansion that would allow the airline to use the larger jets in winter, when climate factors influence the length of runway needed for certain payloads.
To complete the expansion, which would extend the runway by 1,000 feet, the county needs to acquire two land parcels — 84 acres and 46.7 acres — owned by private citizens.
Those citizens have appealed the county’s decision to seek eminent domain to acquire the land, and the case is still working its way through the courts.
In the meantime, legislators are happy with the July numbers and optimistic that growth will continue unabated at the airport.
“This was a great month, and we’ll look forward to better months,” Mr. Reed said.