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After Philadelphia flights start, ridership numbers climb in May at Watertown airport

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DEXTER — The flight destination switch from Chicago to Philadelphia didn’t stop ridership numbers from climbing in May at Watertown International Airport, and officials are hopeful enplanements will continue to grow.

The total number of May enplanements at the Jefferson County-owned airport, including arrivals and departures, jumped from May 2013 by 58, or 2 percent, from 3,350 to 3,408. Arrivals climbed over the same period by 23, or 1 percent, from 1,734 to 1,757; departures climbed by 35, or 2 percent, from 1,616 to 1,651.

Airport Manager Grant W. Sussey said a drop in enplanements was anticipated after the airport discontinued Chicago flights in favor of Philadelphia on May 9. The switch followed the merger of American Airlines and US Airways, which prompted the new combined airline to streamline operations at rural airports, such as Watertown, where it gets federal subsidies to offer flights. US Airways took over the Watertown flight service in May from American Eagle, a subsidiary of American Airlines that had offered flights to Chicago since the fall of 2011 at the airport, off Route 12F in the town of Hounsfield.

“We anticipated maybe a little bit of downward movement, just until people got used to the new service and opportunities with new connections,” Mr. Sussey said Tuesday. “So we were pleasantly surprised that the numbers were higher — that was great news. With the introduction of a new service, there is usually a little dip before numbers start going back up.”

Mr. Sussey said the service has been a boon, in particular, for passengers flying to destinations in the East Coast and South. For passengers traveling to destinations in the Midwest or West, though, the Philadelphia connection has lengthened their trips by adding a stop in some cases. Airport representatives attended Fort Drum’s Mountainfest on June 25 and the Made in New York Festival Saturday in Sackets Harbor, where they sought feedback from people about the new Philadelphia flight service.

“We had a lot of positive feedback from people going to Florida and various connections up and down the East Coast,” Mr. Sussey said, adding that some gave negative feedback. “Some people going to certain destinations out West had to make maybe more than one stop. But it all depends on where they’re going. For some people it works, and for some it doesn’t.”

The airport will release enplanement statistics for June in about two weeks, Mr. Sussey said. He is hopeful that the summer months, when the airport is in peak demand, will show an continuing increase in ridership from last summer.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll have some good numbers for the month of June,” he said.

May numbers appear to suggest that the number of people who are benefiting by the Philadelphia flights may outweigh those who may have been hindered by losing the Chicago service, said James A. Nabywaniec, a member of the Jefferson County Board of Legislators General Services Committee, which oversees airport operations.

“We were prepared to see a slight drop-off as people got used to the new destination,” Mr. Nabywaniec said. “But I think what we’re finding out is that just as losing Chicago would be a negative factor for some people, it’s a positive for others. Maybe we’re seeing a net gain and making up with Philadelphia what we’ve lost.”

Mr. Nabywaniec said that the strong numbers for Philadelphia flights in May are a testament to the strength of the Watertown market. He said the passengers’ cars in the airport’s parking lot have consistently shown a strong representation of Canadians and military members.

“I’ve been involved in the airport since the beginning, and I believe what we have here mirrors what we have at Salmon Run Mall,” he said. “Just as you see a lot of Canadian and military people at Salmon Run Mall, you’re seeing a lot of them walk through the airport.”

A $25,000 market study on the airport is expected to be completed this month, Mr. Nabywaniec said.

The study will determine who is flying into and out of the airport and identify ways to better market the airport and surrounding area as a destination.

“It’s going to be used as a tool to bring in other services from airlines,” he said. “One thing we’ve learned is that you have to demonstrate to airlines that they can make money.”

A spokesman from American Airlines did not respond to an email seeking comment Tuesday afternoon.

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