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With entry into Santa Rosa airport’s burgeoning market, United Airlines has launched a strategy to draw more North Bay travelers to one of its largest hubs, San Francisco International Airport (airport code SFO).

After a 16-year absence, the airlines returned to the Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport (STS) June 8, offering three daily flights that will allow local travelers to avoid the hassle and expense of getting to SFO, where they can connect to destinations worldwide.

The Santa Rosa flight could attract passengers from Sonoma as well as other northern California counties like Mendocino, Lake, and Napa, said Tim Zahner, interim CEO, Sonoma Tourism.

United currently serves many small markets in California that fly into SFO including Monterey, Redding, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and few others.

“This has worked in other markets and it had worked well for United in the past,” said Jon Stout, STS airport manager. “United had served STS–SFO for many years before their departure in 2001.”

United has approximately 300 daily departures to nearly 100 destinations from San Francisco, more than any other carrier in the Bay Area, the company states.

More than 30,000 United Airlines customers pass through San Francisco’s airport every day.

“This new daily service will connect customers from all over the world to California’s wine country through San Francisco,” said Anthony Toth, United’s managing director of sales. “The three daily flights will operate like a shuttle between the two cities, providing business and leisure travelers with convenient flight options throughout the West Coast and beyond.”

At 39 minutes, the flights are the shortest offered by United. They are scheduled to arrive into Sonoma County Airport at 1:35 p.m., 4:45 p.m. and 11:20 p.m. and depart daily at 6:10 a.m., 2:05 p.m. and 5:15 p.m. from Santa Rosa on a Bombardier CRJ-200 — a 50-seat jet aircraft.

“It’s all about connections, not the local market,” said Chris McGinnis, founder of the San Francisco based TravelSkills.com blog. “You’ll find similar scenarios with other airlines. For example, you can fly Delta between its Atlanta hub and Macon, GA — only 90 minutes away by car. But very few people buy ATL-Macon round-trips. I don’t expect there will be many people buying Santa Rosa-SFO round-trips.”

It’s also about competition.

“United probably saw how many customers they were losing when they were connecting in Seattle or LAX from Alaska’s non-stops to those cities, and decided to get in the market. Same thing with American’s flight from Santa Rosa to its Phoenix hub.”

In February, American began flying from Sonoma County to Phoenix, and starting in July, will add a second daily flight to its Arizona hub.

The airport had been in talks on and off with United for at least 10 years, Stout said.

The airline’s debut comes amid a flurry of recent activity causing growing pains at the airport.

The airport is projecting having to accommodate about 450,000 passengers in 2017 compared to 339,000 in 2016.

In the past 12 months, American Airlines, Allegiant Air, and Sun Country Airlines have committed to service between the north Santa Rosa airport and Phoenix, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

United’s entry into Santa Rosa is part of a larger expansion for the airlines. In February it announced additional service to 31 destinations across the U.S. and Europe, starting this summer.

It is also adding additional 47 daily round trips in 15 existing markets.

Service going further east has always been a goal for the airport, and if there is enough interest in flying to and from Sonoma County, it’s possible United might decide to start service directly to its hub in Denver, which has also been a long sought destination for local airport officials here.

“It’s going to be an interesting test, which could help us get United to go to Denver. Somebody’s got to show there’s traffic that wants to go east,” Stout told the Journal earlier this year.

The new service will also increase traffic coming in to Sonoma’s wine country.

“I think anytime we have more connections and flights into Sonoma County Airport, we have an opportunity to get more visitors here,” said Zahner, interim CEO, Sonoma County Tourism. “With the addition of United Airlines, Sonoma County is poised to see more visitors from more destinations; this will complement the work of our sales and marketing team, especially as we encourage groups and meetings to come mid-week and in our slower season.”

The first United flights in and out of Sonoma also carried business travelers grateful for the service.

Jesus Medina is a chef who came from Chicago via San Francisco to work at the Sheraton Sonoma County hotel in Petaluma. Asked how he would have gotten here otherwise, he said, “I have no idea.”

Two communications contractors with American Airlines were catching the departing flight to San Francisco to board a connecting flight to Oregon.

“If not for this flight, we would have been driving,” said Aaron Madrone. “This will be much faster.”

Cynthia Sweeney covers health care, hospitality, residential real estate, education, employment and business insurance. Reach her at Cynthia.Sweeney@busjrnl.com or call 707-521-4259.