Jefferson County officials optimistic about airport as Philadelphia service starts today

Watertown International Airport Manager Grant W. Sussey leads a tour for county officials at the county-owned facility. Norm Johnston / NNY Business

Watertown International Airport Manager Grant W. Sussey leads a tour for county officials at the county-owned facility. Norm Johnston / NNY Business

The first Philadelphia-bound flight takes off from Watertown International Airport this afternoon.

And though the switch to the Philadelphia destination from Chicago has caused some controversy, Jefferson County officials said they are optimistic about the county-owned airport’s future.

“There are pluses and minuses,” said Jefferson County Legislator Philip N. Reed, R-Fishers Landing. “I think the pluses will outweigh the minuses in the end.”

The flight switch brings with it other changes, including a new type of aircraft and a projected dip in bookings, which county officials say will be temporary.

Since the county took over the airport from the city in 2006, there have been up and downs, with a dip in passengers during the 2008-2011 period when the airport was served by Cape Air. But since American Airlines subsidiary American Eagle began service at the airport in 2011, passenger use has climbed steadily, eventually reaching 40,000 passengers a year. County officials have touted the airport as an unqualified success. They have been quick to capitalize on its vibrancy.

Several airport projects are underway:

■ A $25,000 True Market Study that will determine who is flying into and out of the airport, and how to better market the airport and surrounding area as a destination.
■ A $2.4 million taxiway rehabilitation project.
■ A 1,000-foot runway expansion.
■ An eminent domain proceeding to acquire land for an FAA-mandated safety buffer zone.
■ A Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency-sponsored plan to build a corporate park.
■ The completion of a new $1.5 million hangar.

Funds for the study will come from a tax levied on out-of-county visitors who stay in hotels in Jefferson County. Money for the taxiway rehabilitation and hangar construction came from state grants.

The county became involved directly in airport operations when it purchased a company that makes money on things such as fuel and rentals two years ago. The county paid $1.6 million for Tom Brouty Aircraft Service after the owner, who had a long-standing contract to provide services at the airport, retired.

Last year the county created its own airport department and named a director, Grant W. Sussey, an Oswego County native and former aviation director at the Orange County Airport, Montgomery.

The passenger figures and investments made the change to the Philadelphia route a tough pill to swallow. But county officials said they had little choice in the matter. Service at the airport is subsidized by the federal government, which allows airlines to issue a notice of leave any time.

Concerns over the change in flights and their high price were voiced during an April presentation by an American Airline regional manager in Watertown.

Today’s flight will be serviced by a 50-seat US Airways Express CRJ200 aircraft. In the fall, the airline will switch to a 37-seat Dash 8 turboprop aircraft, but may use larger jets if the county completes the runway expansion.

To that end, the county needs to acquire two land parcels — 84 acres and 46.7 acres — owned by private citizens. The residents appealed the county’s decision to seek eminent domain to acquire the land. The decision is working its way through the courts, according to Jefferson County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III.

Meantime, county officials are optimistic that a new terminal at the Philadelphia airport will increase reliability and improve passenger experience, and that the change in destinations will prove to be a popular one.

“This is somewhat what we’ve experienced before,” Mr. Reed said. “We have a strong, viable airport and we’re making progress. These are just bumps in the road.”

By Daniel Flatley, Times Staff Writer