ONTARIO - Michael Baumgartner walked to his gate at LA/Ontario International Airport on Monday morning expecting to simply board a flight to Omaha.
Instead, the Lake Elsinore man found himself surrounded by balloons, catered food and a small sea of smiling people in suits.
His flight, it turned out, was the maiden voyage out of Ontario for ExpressJet Airlines, which over the next month is rolling out the largest single expansion of service in the airport's 84-year history.
"Hopefully this won't be as bad as the inaugural journey of the Titanic," Baumgartner, 45, joked as he prepared to board.
For now, the airline is offering 13 daily nonstop flights from Ontario to seven destinations.
By May 14, those numbers will grow to 29 daily nonstop flights to 14 destinations.
The new flights represent a 25 percent jump in the number of daily departures from ONT and a 63 percent increase in the number of nonstop destinations available from the airport, officials said.
"You'll be able to get to places that are just not served right now," airport Manager Jess Romo said.
The flights will move the airport closer to its long-term plans to serve 30 million passengers per year by 2025.
More than 7 million people traveled through ONT last year. ExpressJet should account for about 500,000 to 700,000 new passengers in its 12 months of service - an increase of 8 percent to 10 percent, Romo said.
So far, ExpressJet officials are encouraged by the level of interest travelers have shown in the service, said Jim Ream, the company's president and CEO.
"The response has been very positive," Ream said.
"Folks can absolutely see the convenience element of what we're trying to accomplish."
Jeff Orr, a Kansas City man who flies to Ontario twice a week on business, ducked through a crowd of clapping people after landing Monday morning on the airline's first incoming flight to Ontario.
He said the new direct flights will shave hours from his travels by cutting out his connector stops at other airports, he said.
"I love it," said Orr, 44. "Otherwise, I'd be getting here three hours later. I can get a lot more work done."
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