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American Airlines hosts Q&A on Philadelphia flights with Rotary Club

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WATERTOWN - Questios about how passengers will benefit from flights offered from Watertown to Philadelphia, instead of Chicago, were answered by an American Airlines representative Thursday during a presentation hosted by the Watertown Sunrise Rotary Club at the Ramada Inn.

William Livsey, American Airlines regional manager, said during his presentation that increased reliability made possible by shorter flights, coupled with better flight options in the Northeast and South, are advantages that Philadelphia has over Chicago as a flight destination from Watertown International Airport.

Residents expressed concerns, however, about the relatively high cost of flights in Watertown compared with Syracuse, and whether Philadelphia will yield more passenger traffic as a destination than Chicago.

Starting May 8, Philadelphia-bound flights will leave the county-owned airport twice a day to replace Chicago flights. The move follows the merger of American Airlines, the parent of the American Eagle service, and US Airways.

The decision to switch flights from Chicago to Philadelphia came after American Airlines, which receives a federal subsidy to offer Watertown service, had already debated whether to continue its service to Chicago last fall, when it agreed to a two-year contract under the Essential Air Service program, Mr. Livsey said. The contract presents an annual subsidy of $3,365,349.

Last fall, before the US Airways merger was approved in February, American Airlines questioned whether it had enough 44-seat jets available to continue offering flights from Watertown to Chicago, Mr. Livsey said.

“One of the issues we had is the runway length. The aircraft that we currently fly is a 44-seat jet. And we ran into an issue of, do we have enough aircraft to fly this route? Because that’s the only aircraft we can fly. Any bigger jet of 50 seats or more would take weight penalties,” he said. “So that left us with a couple of choices: either exercise our 120-day out-clause and leave the market altogether, or come up with another solution. This was going on when the merger was still up in the air. But we saw the opportunity in Watertown, and thankfully the merger was approved and Philadelphia was the saving grace.”

Mr. Livsey’s explanation is consistent with what Jefferson County legislators have said to defend the flight switch to Philadelphia. They contended that they had no choice: it was give up the Chicago flights and take the Philadelphia route, or risk losing air service altogether.

When Philadelphia flights start in May, a 50-seat CRJ200 aircraft will be used by US Airways Express at the Watertown airport. In the fall, the airline ultimately will use a 37-seat Dash 8 turboprop aircraft for flights.

Larger jets likely will be used at the airport if the county completes its proposed 1,000-foot runway expansion, Mr. Livsey said.

Ronald J. Melara of Watertown told Mr. Livsey that the comparatively high price of flights at the Watertown airport has deterred him from booking tickets.

“Everyone was excited when this first started in 2011, because we wouldn’t have to drive to Syracuse. But it’s a very expensive airport — flying in and flying out. Are you going to bring the cost down so that we don’t have to go to Syracuse or anywhere else? Because that’s a big factor.”

In response, Mr. Livsey that prices are established based on demand for flights.

“The market sets the price,” he said, adding that competition from other airports, frequency of flights and available seating are factors that influence prices. “If the flight is filling up, then prices obviously go up.”

After the presentation, Mr. Melara, 69, said he knows many local residents who choose to fly out of Syracuse instead of Watertown, because of the savings.

“Most of them say they don’t feel there’s enough savings to fly here,” he said. The airline “has to present an incentive to get people to stop driving to Syracuse.”

Thomas D. Carlisle, 75, said he believes Philadelphia won’t be nearly as popular a destination as Chicago. He said he believes Chicago is more appealing for military families at Fort Drum, who fly to destinations across the country.

“I feel that we were forced into this decision and have to make the most of it,” Mr. Carlisle said. “Fort Drum is what really drives this airport, and I feel we’re going to lose some people that are going to drive to Syracuse because Philadelphia isn’t going to work for them. And some companies, like New York Air Brake, will stop using the airport and will need to take a private flight or go to Syracuse because of where they need to go.”

Michael J. Hawthorne, president of New York Air Brake, advised Jefferson County and airline officials during a meeting in February against making Philadelphia the new hub. Most of the company’s travel is to Chicago and other Midwest cities. After losing Chicago, Mr. Hawthorne predicted, the company’s use of the Watertown airport will be reduced by one-third to one-half.

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