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United Airlines begins Denver-Sonoma County service, launching new eastbound connection

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The long wait in Sonoma County for commercial airline service to points east of California finally came to an end Friday.

United Airlines launched service Friday to Denver, a route sought for nearly a decade by Sonoma County residents, tourists and business travelers desiring flights to a major international hub with convenient connections to destinations across the country and around the world.

“It’s a big day,” said Sonoma County Airport Manager Jon Stout, who oversaw negotiations over nine years to obtain a nonstop, eastbound route. “It’s been a huge ask for a long time. Now, let’s celebrate that it’s here.”

Friday’s inbound 50-seat Bombardier CRJ 200 regional jet from Denver was at capacity when it touched down at Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport shortly before 12:30 p.m. Passengers were met on the tarmac under sunny skies by a Wine Country welcome committee that included airport and Sonoma County Tourism staff and a member of U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson’s office.

Demand for tickets on the new route is strong, which could eventually lead to larger planes and more trips to and from the Mile High City, officials said. At this point, United has scheduled one daily round trip between Denver and Santa Rosa.

“We’re hoping that in six months we’re going to bring in an Airbus 319,” Cassandra Redd, a regional sales manager for United, said of the potential for the 150-seat aircraft. “We just want to see that the demand is there. It looks encouraging.”

Chris Black, 56, was second down the retractable stairs with a roller bag and a printed blue ribbon with a “#1” pinned above his right shirt pocket. The owner of Falling Rock Tap House in downtown Denver said he quickly booked the flight out to visit friends at Russian River Brewing shortly after United announced the new route in August. He was set to make lunch at the new Windsor brewpub his first stop during his weekend visit.

“They’ve been promising this flight for years,” said Black. “I’m super excited. This is so much nicer for coming up here north of the Bay and to not have to deal with traffic in San Francisco or Oakland or any of that.”

While the flight was still in the air, outbound travelers sat eagerly awaiting the opportunity for bragging rights on the first trip to Denver. The tented waiting area approached its 160-seat capacity as passengers prepared to board a noon-hour American Airlines nonstop flight to Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport.

Santa Rosa resident Aubrey Ballinger, 32, said the new route to Denver couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. The graphics manager at Oliver’s Market was already planning to visit Colorado this weekend to attend a baby shower for a friend, and appreciated the added convenience for air travel to Denver International Airport.

“I usually have to drive down to the city and take a direct flight out there,” she said. “It’s nice being able to leave the house 15 minutes before I need to get here rather than having to add in an extra hour-plus travel time. It takes 30 seconds to get through security, which is awesome. And I can Uber from my house, easy peasy.”

United — the world’s third-largest airline — is banking on others seeing the same advantages, even if passengers must pay more to fly out of Sonoma County than other Bay Area airports. Before taxes and bag fees, a round trip out of Santa Rosa with advanced reservation costs as low as $331 while nonstop flights from San Francisco International to Denver can go for between $170 and $200.

A previous study by the Sonoma County Airport showed that each new route creates direct and indirect benefits of 70 new jobs, as well as an annual infusion of $23 million into the local economy. The added connectivity to Denver and other cities across the globe from there also creates efficiencies for large employers like Keysight Technologies and Jackson Family Wines, among others, allowing their workers to bypass the commute to the airports in Oakland or San Francisco.

“You can be in Denver in a couple hours and do a project, which shaves two hours off (travel) and be there for a day rather than two days,” said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. “It just makes us more competitive for companies and helps them be more successful. And that’s not just the big guys, but the little guys, too.”

Bill Silver, CEO of Santa Rosa-based marijuana business CannaCraft, said he sees the immediate benefits of travel to Denver — another state that has legalized recreational use of cannabis. He said travel there should help raise the profile for the company, which currently employs more than 200 people, in addition to helping build a national sales force as it works toward being in as many as 10 more states by the end of 2019.

“This year, we’re pursuing national expansion and the opportunity to use Denver as a hub from here is tremendous,” said Silver. “We can fly right out of Santa Rosa and access any other region of the country, and abroad, too.”

In May, American Airlines will introduce direct seasonal flights from Sonoma County to Los Angeles, and then to Dallas-Fort Worth a month later. Along with existing year-round travel from Alaska Airlines to five West Coast destinations and Sun Country Airlines’ summer and fall routes to Las Vegas and Minneapolis-St. Paul, on top of United’s daily flight to San Francisco, Friday marked a milestone for the evolution of air travel in Sonoma County.

“Getting east has been the hard part,” Stout said of attempts to land flights to Denver dating to at least 2011. “Now this really opens it up. This year’s gonna be busy.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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