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.
This story originally appeared on PressDemocrat.com, also part of the Sonoma Media Investments news network.