WATERTOWN — Lawmakers announced Tuesday that the Watertown International Airport will receive an upgrade to its baggage handling in the spring, with a mechanized carousel replacing the current cramped checked luggage retrieval system.
As the Watertown Airport has grown dramatically in recent years, many of the facilities have been expanded to accommodate the 50-seat commercial flights.
“This was one of the last pieces that was needed to catch up” to the expansions, said Jefferson County Legislator Philip N. Reed, chair of the County General Services Committee. “It’s going to be a much better customer service.”
The upgraded equipment will be paid for by a $500,000 grant obtained by State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, from a state infrastructure fund. The grant will be administered by the state Department of Transportation.
“Several months ago I was here and was able to see what the issue was with the baggage,” Sen. Ritchie said.
During her visit to officially announce the grant on Tuesday, Sen. Ritchie observed the deplaning of a 47-passenger flight. The luggage — including large, military duffel bags — was unloaded and retrieved one or two pieces at a time. According to a news release from her office, the new baggage handling system could cut wait times for luggage by up to half an hour.
Sen. Ritchie said given the number of soldiers traveling through the airport with bulky luggage and the use by residents of Jefferson and nearby counties, better baggage handling was important.
“It’s a great resource for the area,” she said.
This is the second major grant Sen. Ritchie has announced for the airport this year. In September, she announced $200,000 to help add a second commercial route. During her visit on Tuesday, she also gave the first public indication of the destination of the new service.
“A few months ago when I was here there was talk of a new service to Baltimore,” she said.
Baltimore would allow Fort Drum a fairly direct flight to the Washington, D.C. area, but nothing has been suggested yet.
Airport Manager Grant W. Sussey is working on the second carrier and no definite second destination is in the works.
“Baltimore is one of those potential destinations,” Mr. Sussey said. “But nothing’s off the table yet.”
Mr. Sussey said a second service would have to compliment, not compete with, the current flights to Philadelphia, but that there were few resources to start new flights at the moment.
“Right now the airline industry is very short of pilots and resources and aircraft,” he said.
The new baggage handling system will go in the current waiting room area outside of security. Mr. Reed said that bids for the project will be sought in the spring and hopefully finished over the summer. The carousel will go next to the current baggage retrieval system, which will be kept for oversized luggage.
“The new motorized system will make claiming luggage a lot easier,” Mr. Sussey said. “This project wouldn’t be possible without Sen. Ritchie.”