The Watertown airport has been much busier since it started offering direct air service to Chicago rather than Albany just over two years ago. Now, the merger between American Airlines and U.S. Airways is causing a switch in destination again.
Direct flights to Philadelphia will replace those to Chicago beginning May 8.
A regional carrier for American Airlines now provides the Chicago service. American merged with U.S. Airways in December. Philadelphia, a hub for U.S. Airways, is closer, and therefore a cheaper major hub for the airline to get to from Watertown.
Jefferson County owns and operates the airport. County Administrator Bob Hagemann said the change will open up better service to further destinations.
“Because it takes less time to get there, they’re going to get there earlier to catch all the traffic going north, south, east and west,” he said. “You’re getting somewhere quicker to get into the system to get to a final destination.”
Regional carrier Air Wisconsin will operate the new flights instead of American Eagle.
As with many small airports, service here is subsidized by the federal government. And that gives the county the right to intervene in planned service changes like this one.
One local company, New York Air Brake, does a lot of business in Chicago and complained about the destination change. But, Hagemann said, the county chose not to object because the overall business community and Fort Drum were okay with the plan. And he said other changes in the airline industry could have jeopardized the longer and more costly Chicago flights.
“Ultimately, then, the choice became, do we want to go to Philadelphia, which still looks very positive? Or do we want to continue to Chicago? Which we can do, but there’s a 120-day out clause in the agreement. After that, they can’t guarantee the service would continue,” Hagemann said.
He said the county didn’t want to risk losing direct service to a major hub from Watertown.
The county is racing to keep up with the growth that has come with that service.
With the Philly flights, 50-seat planes will replace 44-seat ones. But they’re heavier, and usually need a longer runway than Watertown’s.
The county plans a runway expansion next year. Until then, the 50-seat planes will lighten the load by carrying only 35 passengers.