Feb. 25--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.
American Eagle, the regional affiliate of American Airlines, will offer the flights on 70-seat Canadair regional jets
The new American Airlines Group Inc. is continuing to tweak its schedule as it looks ahead to combining US Airways and American, which will be Philadelphia's dominant airline
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