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American Airlines merger improves future outlook at Watertown airport


An $11 billion merger by American Airlines and US Airways announced Tuesday is welcome news for Watertown International Airport in the town of Hounsfield, which began offering flights to Chicago by American subsidiary American Eagle in November 2011.

To become the world’s largest airline, the combined carrier will be called American Airlines and headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas. It will serve 13 locations in New York, offering a total of 372 daily departures and access to 336 destinations across the world.

American Eagle’s flight schedule in Watertown to and from O’Hare International won’t change, and passengers won’t see any immediate changes from the merger. The company says it will take months to combine frequent flyer programs and years to fully integrate the airlines. But it’s a change that ultimately will give customers here a broader menu of destinations at the county’s airport on Route 12F, manager James L. Lawrence Jr. said.

“We are hoping it gives the traveling public using Watertown Airport more opportunities,” he said. “That’s always been the goal for our customers flying out of Watertown.”

The merger is expected to further improve the flight service offered by American Eagle, which exceeded expectations in 2012 after being launched Nov. 17, 2011. Through Dec. 31, the airport tallied 18,875 departures and 20,278 arrivals. Mr. Lawrence predicted numbers will continue to grow in 2013 as the airline captures more traffic from Fort Drum, Canada and the north country.

More flight destinations offered by American should equate to a boost in annual emplanements, enabling American Eagle to become profitable without receiving federal subsidies. The airline now participates in the federal Department of Transportation Essential Air Service program, which offers annual subsidies for airlines that elect to do business in rural regions. American Eagle now receives an annual subsidy of $3,047,972 under its two-year contract.

The EAS program gives other airlines a chance to bid on contracts at the Watertown airport every two years during a competitive bidding process. American Eagle’s contract will undergo that process this fall, which will give other airlines a chance to outbid the flight provider.

In the coming years, Mr. Lawrence said, the airline’s participation in the EAS program could end if it continues to have high passenger traffic for consecutive years.

“We’re showing that we could have the ridership numbers to maybe be off the EAS or subsidized service,” Mr. Lawrence said. “That’s always been the goal of the airport, to be self-sustaining.”

County officials have planned upgrades at the airport that could give it the capacity to offer more flights, or add another airline in the long-term future. The runway is expected eventually to be extended 1,000 feet from 6,000 to 7,000 feet, for example, which would enable it to offer flights with larger planes. American’s recently announced merger will be a step toward that end, County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III said.

“We’ve looked at the possibility of adding flights out of Watertown to Chicago, but one of the issues has been the availability of planes,” he said. “It appears that will improve. And looking down the road, perhaps (the airline) could add another hub destination. My quick response would be the next site would be New York City.”

Like Plattsburgh International Airport, Watertown has the potential to tap into the Canadian market for much of its business, Mr. Hagemann said. He said the airport’s target market stretches west from Ottawa to the eastern edge of Toronto.

“We think we can tap into that market to grow and evolve,” Mr. Hagemann said. “We envision ourselves to be in a situation similar to our sister city in Plattsburgh might be, because the demographics are very similar.”

More flight options at the airport from the merger also should mean a boost for the economy in the surrounding area, which already has benefited from the large number of passenger arrivals. Businesses owners in the town of Hounsfield, for example, have all reported increased activity from passengers who stop by after they get off planes, town Supervisor Timothy W. Scee said.

“Our restaurants are getting more traffic, and (passengers) are staying in hotels up along the Interstate 81 corridor,” he said.

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