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Smaller planes at Watertown Airport will lead to potential revenue losses for American Airlines

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No matter how airline representatives wish to obscure this fact, commercial flights at Watertown International Airport will be downgraded later this year.

With all the intensity of a whisper, Jefferson County officials announced in February that service between O’Hare International Airport and the north country would be changed next month. Rather than direct flights to and from Chicago, service would be established with Philadelphia, Pa.

The switch is a result of last year’s merger between American Airlines and US Airways. Through its subsidiary American Eagle, American Airlines has provided commercial service between the north country and Chicago since 2011.

County officials said they were strong-armed into changing cities. They said airline representatives threatened to walk away from offering local service if they didn’t get what they wanted.

The daily flights rely on a federal subsidy through a government program called Essential Air Service. It was implemented after the Airline Deregulation Act was passed in 1978 to ensure airline carriers continued to serve small U.S. communities. The U.S. Department of Transportation approved $3.3 million in EAS funding for American Eagle this year, a boost of 10 percent over last year.

The American Airlines/US Airways merger makes this the world’s largest airline company, which benefits both entities. But the deal helped American Airlines the most as it previously filed for bankruptcy protection.

As part of the deal, US Airways agreed to take over some of American Airlines’s regional services. And since Philadelphia is one of US Airways’s major hubs, with a sparkling new terminal to boot, switching to the City of Brotherly Love was inevitable.

This will be great for passengers traveling somewhere between Philadelphia and Chicago. But it adds nothing for people whose destinations are to the northeast, east and southeast as well as to Chicago itself and points westward. Rather than flying to Philadelphia and boarding a connecting flight, a better alternative may be to drive to Syracuse Hancock International Airport and catch a direct flight to these points.

The new airline company confirmed that while commercial service will be maintained at Watertown International Airport, the mode of transportation will be downgraded.

The Feb. 24 news release announcing the change in service crowed that passengers would enjoy the larger 50-seat jets offered by US Airways Express rather than the 44-seat jets now in use by American Eagle. But the small print of the deal disclosed that this roomier plane would not last long.

Flights beginning the first week of September would be provided either by an even larger 56-seat plane or a smaller 37-seat plane. And by planes we mean turboprop aircraft, not jets.

Well, somewhere between then and now, the decision to use the 37-seaters was made — apparently without much fanfare. Imagine that!

Pilots recently rejected a 10-year contract offered by American Airlines Group Inc. that included a pay freeze until 2018. This resulted in airline officials announcing they would reduce their American Eagle fleet.

In a recent email to the Watertown Daily Times, airline spokesman Todd Lehmacher said this would not impact flights at Watertown International Airport. Well, not all that much, anyway.

“The service to Philadelphia will be operated by Air Wisconsin on behalf of US Airways Express with 50-seat CRJ200 aircraft,” according to Mr. Lehmacher’s email. “The service then transitions after the summer to a 37-seat turboprop aircraft, Dash 8, operated by Piedmont Airlines, still US Airways Express.”

Sure, that’s just seven fewer passengers from the 44-seat planes now used and 13 fewer customers from the 50-seater jets that will be used. But those nonclients add up.

One-way trips between the north country and Philadelphia on US Airways Express start at $440, while round-trip tickets start at $684 (which would be $342 per flight); by the way, this is more expensive than the flights it had to Chicago. American Airlines lists 14 trips from the north country to Philadelphia from Sunday through Saturday and 13 return trips, for a total of 27 flights each week.

American Airlines will lose at least $2,394 per flight with seven fewer passengers and $4,446 per flight with 13 fewer passengers. That equals $64,638 per week — $3.3 million per year — with the loss of seven passengers and $120,042 per week — $6.2 million per year — with the loss of 13 passengers.

Airline officials apparently have concluded that the switch in service will attract fewer passengers than the flights carry now, in effect conceding this is not in the best interest of those who use the county airport. However, American will continue to cash the regular federal subsidy checks.

The airline could more than make up for the federal subsidy if it catered to these additional passengers, but why not make the government pay for its losses? So the only people who won’t benefit from this change are those of us picking up the tabs.

The EAS program is a good way to ensure smaller markets are served. But when we’re paying more for poorer service through our taxes and ticket expenses, something is wrong.

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