DEXTER — Tony T. Walker, a Fort Drum soldier en route to Atlanta, was among the passengers who boarded the first flight to Philadelphia on Thursday at Watertown International Airport.
The 23-passenger flight on the 50-seat US Airways Express Bombardier CRJ200 aircraft, which left about 2 p.m., signaled the end of flights to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. The switch followed the merger of American Airlines and US Airways, which caused the massive airline to streamline operations at rural airports where it receives federal subsidies to offer flights.
American Eagle, a subsidiary of American Airlines, began offering flights to Chicago in the fall of 2011 at the Watertown airport, off Route 12F in the town of Hounsfield.
Mr. Walker, who has been stationed at Fort Drum for six months, booked a flight for the first time at the airport owned by Jefferson County. After talking with other soldiers about the new flight service, Mr. Walker learned that flying to Philadelphia offered him a better route home to Atlanta than going to Chicago would have. He said Fort Drum soldiers who live on the East Coast or in the South told him they will benefit from the flight switch. Flights to Philadelphia are now offered at the Watertown airport twice daily, seven days a week.
“I’ve talked to three guys about flying to Chicago, and they live in Philadelphia, Georgia and Florida,” said Mr. Walker, who is spending Mother’s Day weekend with his family in Atlanta. “They had to fly to Chicago and then come back, so this is a lot more convenient for them.”
Defending the move from Chicago, American Airlines has touted the increased reliability of flight service made possible by the closer Philadelphia hub; passengers should enjoy fewer flight cancellations, it said. The direct flight distance from Watertown to Philadelphia is 250 miles; to Chicago, the distance is 535 miles.
Even so, the convenience of the switch depends on the eye of the beholder. Chicago was a more convenient destination for Fort Drum soldiers who live in the Midwest and West, for example. And some business leaders in the community advised Jefferson County and airline officials against making Philadelphia the new hub. Michael J. Hawthorne, president of New York Air Brake, said the company’s use of the Watertown airport will be reduced by one-third to one-half, because it does much of its business in Chicago.
Jefferson County legislators responded to criticism by saying they had no choice but to accept the flight switch: it was give up the Chicago flights and take the Philadelphia route, or risk losing air service altogether. The airline receives an annual subsidy under the federal Essential Air Service to offer flights in Watertown, but it has the right to pull out of its two-year contract with Jefferson County.
On Thursday, the first inbound CJR200 plane from Philadelphia arrived about 1:20 p.m. Daniel T. Connell of Watertown was among the 12 passengers who debarked from a 50-seat plane operated by US Airways Express — an upgrade from the 44-seat Embraer 140 jets operated by American Eagle. US Airways will switch to operating a 37-seat Dash 8 turboprop at the airport in the fall, because of stricter weight restrictions during the winter for using the 50-seat planes. But the airport may use large jets year-round if the county completes its proposed 1,000-foot runway expansion.
Mr. Connell took a flight home Thursday from Chico, Calif., where he is originally from. He flew to California by making a stop in Chicago but came home via the Philadelphia hub.
“I’m used to going to Chicago at O’Hare. That has been the norm, and I had never been to Philadelphia before,” he said. “But it’s actually a nice airport, and I like it better than Chicago. It’s more upscale, and there are more places to eat.”
Visiting his friends who live in Pennsylvania and New York City also will be more convenient by flying to Philadelphia, Mr. Connell said.
“If I’m going to places in Pennsylvania I could be there with just a couple of small hops in about two hours, when I would drive there in six to eight hours,” he said. “I think this kind of opens up more options for someone living in Watertown. Some people who used Chicago will lose options, but I think having a closer hub is a good change.”
County Legislator Philip N. Reed, R-Fishers Landing, said some residents have called him to criticize the flight switch while others have praised the move. Mr. Reed is a member of the Jefferson County Board of Legislators General Services Committee, which oversees airport operations.
“Some people say they’re going to miss Chicago, while others say they want to go through Philadelphia,” he said. “You’re not going to make 100 percent of the people happy, but that is our goal with the service we offer here. Philadelphia has better reliability for getting in and out of the location, but Chicago was below average for that. It’s important that passengers get in and out on time.”
Nevertheless, a temporary reduction in passenger traffic is expected at the airport, as people become familiar with services offered by the Philadelphia hub, Jefferson County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III said.
While overall passenger traffic climbed in 2013, the number of passengers affiliated with Fort Drum dropped, Mr. Hagemann said. That trend suggests that the airport, which is drawing passengers from Canada, shouldn’t be significantly hampered by troop reductions at the military base. A $25,000 market study led by the county, which is now underway, will help officials pinpoint where passengers are coming from and develop marketing plans.
“The number of Fort Drum customers went down and total number of our passengers have gone up, but we don’t know why,” Mr. Hagemann said. “But that’s something that this study is going to help us find out. We think that this is partly due to our market in southeast Ontario, where we have a strong customer base.”
Video featuring the first flight Thursday at the Watertown airport to Philadelphia can be viewed at http://wdt.me/philly-flights.
Story and photo gallery: http://www.watertowndailytimes.com