Jacks or Better Opens AirTran Flights to Las Vegas from Akron

AirTran Airways and Akron-Canton Airport celebrated the debut of nonstop service to Las Vegas with a casinolike party today.

Competitve banter fills the air as the cards are dealt in a hand of Texas hold-'em.

The dealer flips an ace, a queen and another ace.

The players bet until the final card is turned. Rick Brinkman, 50, and Marc Chapman show respectable hands. Brinkman's wife, Yvonne, 48, however, shows a full house, aces and queens.

Too bad the Canton resident wasn't playing for real money. Because they weren't in a real casino. And they weren't in Las Vegas -- yet.

AirTran Airways and Akron-Canton Airport celebrated the debut of nonstop service to Las Vegas with a casinolike party today. AirTran will offer the nonstop flight five days a week (no service on Tuesdays and Wednesdays).

For the inaugural sold-out flight, airport employees became poker dealers and party hosts while passengers waited at the gate, beginning at 5:30 a.m.

Magician Tim Angeloni of Louisville performed his tricks for children. Meanwhile, parents shook rust off their poker skills. As excited as children were about Angeloni's act, the magician was just as impressed at what AirTran's flight to Las Vegas has to offer.

''It's an amazing price,'' Angeloni said.

The $99 one-way fare is a sale that will last throughout the month. After that, the price will jump to $119.

Once AirTran announced its flight to Las Vegas, Continental Airlines lowered its Cleveland-to-Las Vegas fares to match. The same thing happened when AirTran began flying from Akron-Canton to Denver in June.

Continental's round-trip ticket to Las Vegas from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport is about $218. The same ticket will be about $20 more from Akron-Canton with AirTran.

Perhaps the most excited person at the gate in Akron-Canton was airport director Fred Krum.

Las Vegas is one of the top three destinations for Northeast Ohio residents, along with Chicago and New York, Krum said.

''In 20 years, I've been asked about Vegas 10,000 times,'' he said.

Krum said he is confident Akron-Canton will be able to sustain the flights to Las Vegas. The advance ticket bookings look good, he said.

The Las Vegas flight is expected to add about 100,000 annual customers for Akron-Canton, taking the passenger total to about 1.5 million per year. The new route also secures Akron-Canton's place as one of AirTran's top 10 locations, Krum said, behind larger airports such as Atlanta, Baltimore, Tampa and Orlando.

But Krum doesn't want to stop there. Phoenix, Dallas, Fort Myers, Fla., Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., are all destinations on his wish list. Krum said one of those flights could be in place by the end of the year.

''We're working like heck to get them,'' he said.

Jim Caldwell, a regional sales manager for AirTran, said passengers come to Akron-Canton from the Columbus, Pittsburgh and Cleveland areas.

If research continues to indicate market growth, AirTran may add more flights from Akron-Canton, Caldwell said.

Dave Houston, 48, of Hudson, has been to Las Vegas three times. Each time, he flew from Cleveland. The price played ''a good part'' in his switch to Akron-Canton, he said. Location also matters.

''It's really convenient coming here from Hudson,'' Houston said.

Before today, passengers were able to fly to Atlanta, then Las Vegas from Akron-Canton. However, the layover kept customers away.

The direct flight allowed Chapman, 26, and his friend, David Swart, 43, to try something new. Normally, they would go and stay for a few days. This time, however, the two Canton residents said they will fly to Las Vegas for only eight hours of gambling, then fly back the same day.

A one-day trip would not have been possible if they had a layover, Swart said.

''I love having directs out of here,'' he said. ''(There is) less chance for delays.''

And since he's staying in Las Vegas for only a day, delays are one thing Swart can't afford.

''We gotta win quick,'' Swart said, referring to having only eight hours to spend gaming. ''But that gives us less time to lose, too.''

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