Flying – non-stop! – from Watertown to Chicago

Passengers wait for a 7 am flight to Chicago at the Watertown International Airport. Photo: Joanna Richards

Just took the new(ish) flight from Watertown to Chicago. First, the high points (and it’s almost all high points):

1) Non-stop. No connecting flight. No worries about missing that second leg, etc.

2) Jet service: when you’re a jet, you’re a jet all the way. And you go faster, smoother. Air time to Chicago: two hours. Air time back: one hour, 15 minutes.

Propeller planes of any size are loud, slow and rough. But those nightmare 9-seat puddle jumpers from Ogdensburg, Massena and Saranac Lake really test the limits of intestinal fortitude.

After boarding the plane to Chicago, I asked the flight attendant if this would be a bumpy ride. (It should be. You go over Lakes Ontario, Erie and Michigan.) He said he originally thought it would be, but was surprised by the smoothness. I was, too.

No time is a good time for this air route, but winter has to be the worst. Those who fly professionally (like the flight attendant) refer to “air columns,” which is a nice euphemism until the plane you’re on slams into turbulent air and the contents of your stomach look to exit through the in door. And yet, it was fine. No bumps, no bruises, no nauseating dips or dives.

3) Watertown airport: it’s a one-gate terminal and this has advantages, like free parking. Name any other U.S. airport—that offers jet service—that would charge less than $100 for the pleasure of parking for eight days. I didn’t pay a dime.

And another advantage: driving to Watertown means not driving to Syracuse: no snow belt to go through.

4) The American Airlines flight crews: both (there and back again) were professional and personable.

Now, the low points:

1) As any North Country misanthrope will tell you, hell is other people. There is no view of humanity so dim that it can’t be made worse by climbing onto a narrow metal tube where other members of your own species are confounded over which seat is ‘A’ and which isn’t.

Truthfully, this is not rocket science: three seats in each row. Seat ‘A’ is to the right of the aisle. This is, in fact, why there’s a big letter ‘A’ over these seats. Really. Each row. “And there it was, just as plain as dammit,” as Bertie Wooster once said about something even less patently obvious than seat ‘A.’

Seats ‘B’ and ‘C’ are on the left. They’re labeled as such. Yes, on each row. And they’re together, like pain and suffering. And yet, both going to and returning from Chicago, someone was in my ‘A’ seat. I know this is a first-world problem and ordinarily I don’t care about such things. Finding someone in my seat, I usually grab another nearby. But I was told the flight to Watertown would be full. Still, I had no intention of digging in my heels and insisting on any seat in particular—at least not until I heard the response of the woman occupying my ‘A’ seat.

“But where’s seat ‘B?’”

Struck momentarily dumb, I pointed with my thumb. Eventually, I managed to spit out, “It’s right there.”

The light, as it were, seemed to dawn.

“Ohhh… that makes sense,” she said. And then, once she’d folded the prodigiousness of what I’ll charitably describe as her bulk into the faux-leather embrace of Seat ‘B’—next to her traveling companion, who was luxuriating in the veritable Versailles of Seat ‘C’—she said, “Ohhh, this is much better.”

Seriously, the airline provides oxygen for this? It seems a bit much. Still, even in these circumstances and despite such demonstrable merit, they won’t make an example of passengers like this and force them to ride on the roof. It’s a pity, really.

2) The landing in Watertown.

I know a little about powered flight, just enough to be nervous about it. I know the pilot must maintain lift, even while slowing the plane for landing. As you begin the final approach to the airport and leave the light(s) of Watertown behind you, you’re flying somewhere between 500 and 1,000 feet. It feels like your next destination is the crash site. The minute throttle adjustments seem an existential threat, simultaneously loud and discomfiting.

Seeing the runway appear (almost magically) didn’t really make me feel better. We were going very, very fast.

Reverse thrust is one of those 20th-Century inventions that gets almost no mention or recognition. Fans of the thing can now rejoice. The landing in Watertown is a celebration of it. We went from approximately 360 miles an hour to about 40 in a space most North Country residents would consider “shovel-able.” That is to say, less than the length of my driveway.

Most of us will never know what it’s like to land on an aircraft carrier. For us, there’s Watertown.

Eventually, the impression of the seat-tray latch on your forehead will vanish. Give it time.

3) The plow driver at the Watertown airport.

A lot of snow fell during my trip. I knew this because I’m an American and a very small percentage of my taxes goes to NOAA, which packages weather info and makes it available to everyone. Meaning that, even if I didn’t have a smart phone, everyone I know would still tell me all about “all that snow falling on northern New York.”

Bless his heart, the plow driver really wanted me to know how much snow had fallen. So he graciously pushed as much of it as possible against my car. Even though both door and window were shut, a frozen block of snow—about a foot high and six inches thick—was packed inside, between the door and the driver’s seat of my car.

I brushed out as much as possible, but the remnants melting against my leg on the drive home made me recall that age-old maxim: “Ain’t nothin’ free. Not even free parking.”

But these low points weren’t so bad and might be unique to my trip. There are two other tidbits I’d like to mention:

I rented a car at Payless. It was cheap and off the airport, meaning that—once I got into the car—I didn’t have to contend with the dizzying vortex of O’Hare traffic. I reserved an all-wheel drive car and that’s what I got, despite the recent blizzard that passed through the northern Midwest. And here’s the kicker: the shuttle driver (who loaded my bags outside the terminal) got my rental as I signed the paperwork inside. When I walked out the door next to the rental desk, my car was running—with the heat on—and my bags were loaded in the back. I have never said this about a rental-car company and I’m pleasantly amazed to say it now: everyone I dealt with at Payless was wonderful. Really, everyone, and I strongly recommend giving them a try next time you land at O’Hare.

And finally, I flew to Chicago on a dark and foggy Christmas Eve. O’Hare is one of the busiest airports in the world, offering lots of opportunities to see other planes aloft while you’re in flight. And so it was easy to tap my wife’s shoulder, point out the window at a red blinking light in the distance and say, “Look. There’s Rudolph.”

She smiled and nodded. And she agrees, this flight from Watertown to Chicago is a gift.

31 Responses to “Flying – non-stop! – from Watertown to Chicago”

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  1. grumpiestoldman says:

    Even a short-time North Country resident knows to keep a snow shovel in his trunk.

  2. Bill Butler says:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. My wife and I are flying out of Watertown through Chicago and on to Miami in March. We’ll be gone 9 days so the free parking was a big deal and the fact that it’s only 15 mins from home. Couldn’t believe how inexpensive it was, we could not find flights out of Syr for anywhere close to the price we paid out of Watertown. Thanks again.

  3. cheri scharp says:

    i have family in watertown and i think that if u can fly from watertown to chicago it could fly as well into peoria as well chicago is three hrs from me and i would love that it could fly into peoria as well would make it so much easier for me and my family to fly back and forth

  4. Sharon Wuerschmidt says:

    I was on one of the first American Eagle flights from Watertown to Chicago- final destination was Denver. Enjoyed the free parking (“If you are going to be gone for a few days, could you please park toward the back of the lot?”) and the free coffee. As we taxied to the runway, the Captain welcomed us aboard, saying “The good news is that we are Number One for take-off!” Have flown in and out of Watertown four more times last year. Please, please, please let’s keep American EAgle. We have never had it so good.

  5. Tom says:

    I have nothing but good to say about my (well, our – my wife too) experience. What a relief not to be in a busier than $^&t airport. Two hours to Syracuse from where we live. Maybe on campus parking, maybe a shuttle. And the one hour leeway for check in/bags/TSA. Route 81…snow? Well – be prepared.
    The flight….yeah, we flew – but aside from takeoff & landing I could have been sitting in my car in Price Chopper Plaza. Just a bit louder, I guess.
    Don’t care for O’hare, but who does? Even if I flew from Syr,Roch, or Alb, we could have ended up there anyway…or (gulp) JFK, Altanta, or some other gem. Sure – Chicago was not our destination. But we’re glad we chose Watertown airport. And would do it again in a heartbeat.
    Still in the “heartland” and waiting on our return flight…..

  6. Paul says:

    What about the cost? I wanted to fly to Chi in July with my daughter when we saw a taping of Wait, Wait. But we simply could not afford the $900 fare. Flew instead from Ithaca for about 350. Had to connect in Detroit and it took a long time to fly there, but it was just too expensive to fly non-stop from WTN.

  7. Paul says:

    Just checked. It’s $782 round trip! Still pretty pricey for me.

  8. Darby says:

    My husband and I have flown American Eagle out of Watertown twice for round trips to San Diego. Our first, we were delayed for deicing on an early spring flight. We were late getting into O’Hare after the pilot aborted our landing as he’d been directed to a runway that was already occupied. Fifteen minutes of circling used up all the spare time we had to make our connection to American Airlines. The baggage handlers were kind and gave us and another traveler making a transfer our baggage right on the ramp. The attendant called ahead, and the San Diego plane waited while we ran a half mile. We were greeted with smiles, and everyone was gracious. Since then American Airlines has filed for bankruptcy. American Eagle and American Airlines aren’t the same company, technically, any more. We had the same problem arriving late FROM San Diego in October. This time no-one would call ahead. We got to the American Eagle gate and the door had just closed. The baggage hadn’t even been loaded. But two supervisors said they couldn’t help us, as the plane sat at the gate for 20 minutes more–weather. They are all working to the letter of contract to protest the frivolous bankruptcy filing. We spent the night on a cot in O’Hare airport. If you’re making connections, allow a couple HOURS at O’Hare.

  9. Steve says:

    I don’t know where you get the prices from, but they are not that high. Right now if you book 1 month in advance it will only cost about $380 round trip. That is the same price I paid in Oct.

  10. Janet says:

    My daughter has flown in and out of Watertown and it was great; so very convenient! However, most times it is just too expensive. Wish there was something we could do about that, but it is what it is.

  11. Janet says:

    I will add here, though, that while Mr. Brown’s story about the woman sitting in seat “A”, etc. was kind of funny, his picking on her size was NOT. Not at all.

  12. andre charlebois says:

    THIS PAST AUGUST 2012, I TRAVELED FROM WATERTOWN TO TRAVERSE CIYT MI. THE FLIGHT WAS ON TIME ,THE PLANE WAS FULL, MY CONNECTING FLIGHT IN CHICAGO WAS JUST TWO GATES APART, AMAZING. RETURN FLIGHT WENT MUCH THE SAME ,ON TIME AND AFEW GATES TO TRANSFER AT OHARE. A PLEASING TRAVEL AND NO 65 MILE TRIP TO GET HOME. WELL SATISFIED

  13. John H says:

    This costs millions a year in tax dollars to have in Watertown. I guess none of you mind your grand kids paying for this.

  14. Pat Reagen says:

    We flew to Denver last May out of Watertown. We were thrilled with the service, the wonderful customer relations and the availability of flying to Chicago so close. The price of the air ticket was very good. I just wish they would fly somewhere other than Chicago. Would love to be able to fly to Boston or even other NY cities. I am sure they would be able to sustain an even greater clientele with a move like that. Not all of us like flying in the small planes our of Ogdensburg.

  15. loveslondon says:

    I just have to ask….John H? From where are you getting your information? Millions a year in tax dollars? Please quote your source.

    I have flown in and out of Watertown 5 times this year. I have investigated and taken ‘advantage of’ other avenues to fly, yet just tonight changed my flights and reservations to again fly out of Watertown. Your final destination does determine your connections, but if you fly from Syracuse and your destination is London, you still fly to Chicago…and the flights (on the same size plane) are more expensive.

    I flew from Watertown Christmas night. The flight from Chicago was delayed, so therefore our return to Chicago was also delayed. The flight was full or almost full, and there were a lot of people who were concerned about making their connecting flight. One older woman struck me…she was flying to New Mexico. She had limited options if she missed her connecting flight. Her carry-on bag was too big for the overhead bins in the small plane, and she should have checked it…the staff in Watertown were cognizant of her dilemma, and encouraged her to ‘try’ to make it fit. The flight attendant, after seeing me try to assist this woman came right up to us…the woman nervously explained her plight, and the attendant immediately reached for the bag and said ‘Let me put it in my closet for you.’

    There were single mothers with multiple young children. There were active duty servicemen, retired couples and anxious young adults all waiting to board in Watertown. I watched them all coexist in the small waiting area; patient with the overactive children and sympathetic to those that worried they’d miss their flights. There was a sense of others in the room that is never experienced in other airports…we were all aware that the others were present.

    I have never experienced anything but professionalism and a real interest in job performance from the staff at the Watertown airport. I watched the young women and men haul baggage in 90 degree temperatures in the summer with smiles and respect for peoples’ belongings, and I witnessed the exact same care and efficiency when the temperatures dipped in the single digits. The security staff are respectful and courteous. There is always a Sheriff’s Deputy in attendance. The staff at the Watertown airport all seem to have multiple roles, yet no one appears to be disturbed or ‘above’ doing whatever is necessary for the customers’ comfort and keeping the flights as close to schedule as possible.

    I am terribly grateful and have personally benefitted from (and will continue to do so) the convenience of having commercial flights from Watertown. I mentioned earlier that I’d changed my reservations tonight, which is the truth. I’d originally made reservations to fly in and out of Montreal, but after having experienced that once, I immediately knew that it was most comfortable, more convenient and I am better served by flying in and out of Watertown. I know how lucky I am to have that as an option. Now…to just pray that the winter weather behaves itself on the dates that I fly…..

    Thank you, Watertown International Airport. I am grateful you are here.

  16. Jennifer says:

    i found the price about the same to fly to Raleigh from Watertown as to fly from Syracuse the times were pretty comparable as well. It was wonderful to drive the few minutes from my home free parking was awesome the staff was nothing but kind and professional. However I wish they would go somewhere other than ohare just because they seem to have so many weather delays there. I was there in October weather fine here and in Raleigh yet my flight was canceled in ohare because of thunderstorms and from what I hear this is very common no matter the time of year they have such turbulent weather in that part of the country and chicago has so many delays. But it is what is it is and over all i was happy with the experience and thanks to Watertown for providing the service

  17. Ken Hall says:

    John H. is absolutely correct as the American Eagle corporate welfare gratuity, from the public larder, per seat flown, occupied or empty, is approximately equal to the price of a ticket.

    Jonathan, per your contention about reverse thrust effects: “The landing in Watertown is a celebration of it. We went from approximately 360 miles an hour to about 40 in a space most North Country residents would consider “shovel-able.””

    What aircraft type were you flying within? The Space Shuttle has a dead stick approach speed of about 290 kt, 335 MPH, and a touchdown speed of about 195 kt, 225 mph. Virtually all commercial aircraft approach speed categories vary between <91 kt and 166 kt, most <200 kt, are military fighter/bomber jet powered aircraft such as the 1950's Century series F-104 with it's diminutive supersonic wings.

  18. Ken Hall says:

    Some explanation was dropped during the submission.

    “91 kt and 166 kt, most 166 kt approach speed, most <200 kt…"

  19. Ken Hall says:

    What is the problem here? This is the third time I have attempted to enter: with touchdown speeds about 25% lower. The only US aircraft with >166 kt

  20. Sherm says:

    Loved his blog. Excellent treatment of a good experience.
    Seems like his material should be compiled for a good book on humor/travel.
    Why not?

  21. Ellen Rocco says:

    Our news team can probably provide exact figures, but I do know that air service from “remote rural” locations like the north country is generally subsidized by federal dollars to keep the per ticket cost affordable…or, relatively affordable. Cape Air, which operates the service to Albany and Boston (full disclosure: Cape Air is a program underwriter on NCPR), has a reasonable ticket price but it is partially subsidized. My guess–I don’t know this for a fact–is that the Watertown to Chicago service receives some kind of rural transportation subsidy as well.

    What about a federal investment in expanded rural passenger trains and bus services?

  22. Lucy Martin says:

    Well you can dance around who’s to blame: the airlines like to pack us in and we passengers like to pack it on.

    But the issue of people who are quite a bit larger than the seat is pretty darned real.

    A few years ago I was on a 100% full flight from Chicago to LA.

    One of the very last passengers to board was a gentleman of considerable size and yes, sitting together was our cosmic destiny.

    He was dignified and did his best to be polite. I endeavored to reciprocate. But I literally had his (well-padded) elbow in my ribs for the whole blessed flight. There was no where else he could put it, with me already up against the window wall.

    Neither of us wanted that degree of contact. But sometimes – in the greater scheme of things – certain problems are small and fleeting.

    Should it fall to Mr. Massive to pay for a double seat? Must the airlines keep some magical number of super-size seats at ready reserve?

    It’s a problem. And it’s not going away any time soon.

  23. Claudia says:

    I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to choose between a plethora of small airports in the North Country rather than drive the 2 1/2+ hours to Syracuse (which has previously served me well).
    The free parking is huge for me (I was away for just over 3 continuous weeks last summer…would have cost me almost as much as my ticket if I had flown out of Syracuse).
    My first ‘small’ plane flight was delightful. I LOVED flying over the Adirondacks. Pure joy to fly home into Massena and only have a 1/2 hour drive home rather than the much longer drive from Syracuse. The atmosphere in the airport was most congenial. (Reminded me of an airport I flew out of from Dillingham, Alaska a few years ago which shared the same sense of conviviality.)
    As far as pilots go, if I become nervous due to some ‘turbulence’, I just repeat the following mantra until I’m calmer: “The pilot wants to live just as much as I do. The pilot wants to live as much as I do.”
    On one particular flight from Albany to Massena, the pilot invited me to sit in the co-pilot’s seat. I was a bit reluctant (I do have a fear of hights) but figured: What the hell!” Good decision. One can see twice as much from the ‘front seat’ as from the usual passenger seats. Lovely experience.
    I have met and visited with a number of interesting people over the years whilst flying. I love that moment when a co-passenger decides to look away from her/his book/laptop/etc. and smiles and says hello or some such other noncommital comment. Seems more often than not, we find a common thread in our lives.
    Last summer I was stranded for a whole day in the Albany airport as United had contract disagreements…ended being put up in a very nice hotel and given chits for dinner. I was a bit stressed as I was flying out of NYC to Belgium to meet family and they were waiting for me. Ended up with United giving me a voucher for $150 for the inconvenience. During this airport time, a man decided that I could be his mother (or else he is just an extremely good human) and took it upon himself to look out for me, carry my carryon as we were shuffled around from one location in the airport to another, check on the status of flights, etc.
    So, to wrap my airport meanderings up, I am grateful for Ogdensburg, Massena and Watertown airports, the convenience and the service they provide. Most of all, I am grateful every time the plane lands safely.

  24. Sammy Vee says:

    I think that being able to fly in and out of Watertown is a wonderful luxury that any traveler should take advantage of. 2 hours to Chicago and then…the world awaits!

  25. Fred McGraw says:

    loveslondon couldn’t have put it any better!
    I would drive to Syracuse 12-14 times / year to fly for business. Now it is 4-6. Our Company is in San Francisco and this flight is FANTASTIC! I am flying to Las Vegas from Watertown in late January, this will be my 7th flight from Watertown. I have had the same experiences as “loveslondon”! If you have the chance to fly out of Watertown
    i would hope you have the same experiences I have had, and I know you will be back.

  26. Melissa says:

    I have had wonderful luck at getting incredible prices out of Watertown. We flew to Chicago to Miami for 356.00. Then we just purchased tickets to Las Vegas for 284.00. I have to tell you patiences is a virtue. Look compare go back best days to fly out are Tuesdays thru Thursdays.

  27. Lorrie Mcfarland says:

    I’m heading out on the Chicago am flight on 1/18/13 ….how long before the flight do I really need to be there? Big airports are hours prior
    ..Watertown….1 hour OK?!

  28. Claudia says:

    Yes, Lorri. Call the airport to be sure. You will talk to a human who is there…not a recording of someone in another state or country.

  29. Nakesha Passey says:

    Cactus KatePlease explain to me how a society can function healthily when only the interests of those in good situations are catered to?

  30. Ken Hall says:

    In the nearly 2 weeks since this article, extolling the benefits of flying inexpensively out of Watertown NY was posted, with the exception of John H., Nakesha Passey and myself almost to a person commenters have endorsed the idea that it is a wonderful thing for the locally privileged to be able to do so. Although this particular sampling of homo sapiens concerns about costs versus benefits for the customers of any particular business is less than scientific, I find it a microcosmic illustration of the “me me” attitudes fostered by the so called “mixed economic, capitalism plus government, market system” much ballyhooed in the US. So long as the privileged benefit by their concept of “just reward” they are oblivious to the millions, nay hundreds of millions, of their “fellow” countrymen who are not sufficiently privileged to benefit (fly), yet whose tax dollars are funneled into the coffers of corporations, via government subsidies (corporate welfare); thereby,further privileging the privileged.