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Starting March 8, United Airlines will offer daily flights from the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport to Denver International Airport, a major Colorado travel hub.

The Santa Rosa airport, which has coveted flights to Denver for about eight years, announced Monday an agreement with United. Local officials lauded the service as a key to helping companies thrive, attracting new businesses and opening a gateway for an influx of tourists.

“Denver has been our top focus for the last couple years,” Airport Manager Jon Stout said. “It’s been the most frequently requested.”

The direct, daily flights, which will have one midday departure and arrival, will be operated with a Bombardier CRJ 200 regional jet with a 50-passenger capacity, United Airlines Brand Manager Madhu Unnikrishnan said. He declined to say if United plans to further expand service in Sonoma County, citing company policy.

“With this new flight, customers in Sonoma County can connect directly to our mid-continent hub in Denver to hundreds of flights all over the Midwest, East Coast and to several international destinations. Now it’s easier for customers on the West Coast and Midwest to plan a vacation in the Wine County,” United Sales Manager Cassandra Redd told a small crowd at the airport Monday.

From Denver, travelers can connect to more than 145 destinations on United Airline’s worldwide network.

Denver placed sixth on a list of top 10 destinations from the Santa Rosa airport — data compiled from a survey of ticket purchases made by credit cards with billing addresses in the region, Stout said. The most recent survey ranks Los Angeles as No. 1, followed by New York; Guadalajara, Mexico; Chicago; Newark; Denver; Mexico City; Atlanta; Dallas and Boston. Denver connects to some of those cities, Stout said.

Flight prices in March range from $321 to $442, before taxes and fees, according to United Airlines’ website. Tickets can be booked at united.com.

Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, said the new service will have a “ripple effect,” boosting businesses and tourism, one of the county’s largest industries. It cuts off cumbersome journeys from San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco, he said.

“We’ll probably see some more jobs as local companies get more business as tourism is heightened. We’ll see more local companies selling more by being made more accessible,” he said. “It also makes us more attractive — if it’s not a company relocating, they might set up a satellite office.”

Keysight Technologies, the largest high-tech company in Sonoma County, estimates its employees will take between 500 and 1,000 flights annually to and from Denver, Santa Rosa Metro Chamber’s CEO Peter Rumble said.

Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism, said the service offers a new avenue for global tourism.

“Really I’m most excited about the international (connections), because they really do offer direct flights to our key markets and California’s key markets,” she said.

Vecchio said international visitors come from Mexico, the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan.

Matt and Rebecca Freeman of Occidental frequently fly from Santa Rosa for their legal practice, as well as vacations. Rebecca Freeman said the new service will alleviate a major headache visiting her cousins in Colorado.

“We used to drive to Oakland or San Francisco, but there’s the parking, the bridges and the traffic, especially if you’re coming home burned out, how nice to be here and not have to deal with that,” she said Monday, when the couple stopped by the airport for lunch.

The airport was denied a $650,000 Department of Transportation grant it sought in December for startup costs for the Denver flights, Stout said.

After conversations with United Airlines, the airport instead worked with tourism agencies to create a more than $360,000 incentive fund for marketing and fee waivers. For two years, at no cost to taxpayers, the airport will spend $95,000 to cover the cost of many fees for Denver flights — like landing and other use fees — while it pledges $40,000 to dedicated marketing locally, Stout said. Sonoma County Tourism will spend $210,000 and Visit Santa Rosa will spend $24,000 to market the flights in areas like Denver, he said.

No infrastructure changes were needed for the service, though the airport is planning a slate of future expansions, Stout said.

Meanwhile, United Airlines will reduce the frequency of its 17-minute Santa Rosa flights to San Francisco — the shortest in its system — in early October, Unnikrishnan said.

The airline will drop two flights, leaving a 6 a.m. departure and a 9:40 p.m. arrival, Stout said. The flights, which launched last June, are usually filled to about 70 percent of its 50-person capacity, he said.

“We change our network based on the demand,” Unnikrishnan said. “I’m sure some folks might be upset. We just match demand to the flights.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this story misspelled Santa Rosa Metro Chamber CEO Peter Rumble’s name.

You can reach Staff Writer Hannah Beausang at 707-521-5214 or hannah.beausang@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @hannahbeausang.

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