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Errol and Sharon Mecherikoff wanted to be aboard American Airlines’ inaugural flight from Sonoma County to Phoenix on Thursday for a simple reason: The Santa Rosa couple love maiden voyages.

“It’s a party at both ends,” said Errol Mecherikoff, a retired general contractor, inside the waiting lounge at Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.

The bustling room was festooned with red, white and blue balloons reflecting American’s corporate colors. At the center stood a long serving table piled high with complimentary helpings of pulled pork sandwiches, french fries and cupcakes.

The festive scene has become a familiar one at Sonoma County’s airport, which continues to expand and last year saw a record 339,000 passengers.

Thursday, a sleek Bombardier CRJ-700 jet descended from a blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds for a smooth landing on the runway, heralding the on-time arrival of the world’s largest airline. The once-daily nonstop flights are operated by Skywest Airlines as American Eagle.

American is not the first major carrier offering daily service out of the Sonoma County airport, where Alaska Airlines already offers between seven and 10 daily flights, depending on the season.

But a big dog like American arguably brings new cache to an airport that features Snoopy in aviator gear for its logo. The daily flights to Phoenix-Sky Harbor International Airport also mark the first direct connections from Sonoma County to a major hub east of California. The Phoenix airport schedules more than 300 daily flights to 75 destinations, including Mexico and Canada.

“With two flights you can get almost anywhere in the world,” said Nicole Bradin with Sonoma County Tourism.

Twin sisters Alana Tillman and Alena Ragueneau of Santa Rosa booked a weekend getaway to Phoenix to celebrate their birthdays and for Alena to get a little work in. She is a claims adjuster for First American Financial Corporation in Santa Rosa.

Alana, a disabled artist who paints with her mouth, praised American employees for contacting her after she booked the ticket to make sure her needs were taken care of on the flight.

“That’s never happened before,” she said of the personalized customer service.

Many passengers extolled the convenience of flying out of Sonoma County versus driving or taking public transportation to airports in farther-flung locales. Don Prial, who greeted his wife’s cousin in an outdoor waiting area just past the restricted tarmac, said the airport offers an experience “like flying used to be.”

There’s a premium to pay for that experience. American’s flights to Phoenix range from $237 round-trip on weekdays to $775 for a Thursday to Sunday turn-around, according to the airline’s website. That’s for coach seating and doesn’t include a $25 fee for each checked bag.

Flying to Phoenix from Oakland aboard Southwest Airlines, by comparison, ranges from $196 round-trip on weekdays, to $401 for a Thursday to Sunday trip, with no baggage fees tacked on.

Thursday’s flights aboard American’s 70-seat Bombardier were booked solid, however. The price difference didn’t deter Cathy Gunderman of Pensacola, Florida, from paying more than $800 for a flight home Thursday, with stops in Phoenix and Dallas.

Her son, who has taken a temporary job in Santa Rosa, drove her to the airport. Gunderman said the ticket was more than double what she would have paid to fly home out of San Francisco. But that trip would have included a long drive in commute-hour traffic to reach the airport.

“I was just thrilled this airport was so close,” she said.

The Sonoma County airport has embarked on a $20 million project that will more than double the size of the terminal and the number of parking spaces at the west end of Airport Boulevard. In the meantime, a tent-style temporary space accommodates security screening and passenger waiting.

The airport spent about $500,000 to install a modular building adjacent to the main terminal to accommodate American’s ticketing and baggage service. The airline hired 16 employees to manage the operation.

Allegiant Airlines offers a weekly nonstop flight from Sonoma County to Las Vegas. Airport officials also are continuing to talk with United about that airline possibly starting new service.

That would be welcomed by the Mecherikoffs.

“We’re so excited about our little airport,” Sharon Mecherikoff said. “I can just hardly wait to hear where we’re going next.”

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 707-521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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