Suburban travelers will find a new option to get out West come March 3 when United Express starts daily flights to Denver out of Rockford.
Rockford officials hailed the United announcement for underscoring the recent growth of passenger airline service at the predominately cargo-carrying, two-runway airport. Within the next few weeks, the airport's new name - Chicago/Rockford International Airport - will become official.
Citing the airport's free parking and short security lines, local politicians and airport officials have begun marketing Rockford as a viable alternative to O'Hare and Midway. United will become the fifth airline to offer passenger service at the airport.
"Everyone has been telling us for years and years that United would never come to Rockford," said Mike Dunn, chairman of the Greater Rockford Airport Authority.
United has been impressed by the budding vacation service out of Rockford during the past few years, said United spokesman Jeff Green. The airport also put up $2.5 million, with about $1 million in federal funds, to cover any United losses from the move within the first year.
United Express, which uses 50-passenger jets, will offer two daily flights on weekdays and one daily flight on weekends to its Denver hub, which offers connections to more than 100 cities in the West, Mexico and Canada. Ticket prices will be comparable to O'Hare United flights, officials said.
While Green acknowledged the Rockford flights may cut into United travel out of Chicago, many customers will be new, coming from Illinois-Iowa border towns and southern Wisconsin. More than 2.5 million people live within an hour's drive of the airport.
United is not changing any flights at O'Hare or Midway, Green said.
Rockford is about an hour drive from outer edge suburbs, such as Elgin, Crystal Lake and St. Charles.
Fliers out of Rockford currently can connect to East Coast cities via Northwest Airlines through its Detroit hub. The airport also provides service to destinations such as Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Cancun through Hooters Air, Allegiant Air, FunJet and Apple Vacations.
The airlines all came on board within the last three years, after the airport's lone passenger service - Northwest prop-jets to Detroit - pulled out in 2000.
"We want to be the little sister or little brother to O'Hare," Dunn said. "We have always believed we are the guy out here that no one pays attention to."
Dunn said the airport - which now serves about 200,000 passengers a year as well as a cargo business of about 30 flights a day - plans to lure European charter flights in coming years.
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Milwaukee and South Bend, Ind., are similar distances from the city, but neither of the public airports in those cities has seen a need to add Chicago to their name.
United's last flight from Midway will be on Sept. 5.
American Airlines said yesterday that it will stop flying out of T.F. Green Airport in Warwick as of April 2 in order to shift service to the busier Dallas market.