Tana Kura of Cuyahoga Falls beamed as she embraced her 2-month-old granddaughter, Paige Armstrong, near the baggage claim area in Akron-Canton Airport.
Paige and her parents, Allison and Adam Armstrong of Denver, were on the maiden voyage of Frontier Airlines' direct flight from Denver on Wednesday afternoon. The fare was $99 each way, less than half the cost of flying into Cleveland Hopkins International Airport .
''It was the cheapest we found to come home,'' Allison Armstrong said as her mother continued to coddle Paige, whom she hadn't seen since she was born.
And with an infant in tow, the idea of a nonstop flight sealed the deal to fly on Frontier.
The new service between Frontier's Denver International Airport hub and Akron-Canton began Wednesday, opening this region to multiple destinations in the western United States. It also is the latest step in Akron-Canton's aggressive expansion. The airport is one of the fastest-growing in the country. Its passenger count has more than tripled in the last decade and is expected to reach 1.5 million this year.
Many families were reunited at the airport as the conveyor belts came to life and the luggage began to snake through the terminal.
Allison's father, Mike Kura, said it was much more convenient to drive to Akron-Canton than to Cleveland. He figured it saved him at least half an hour each way, and the traffic wasn't as intense.
Elsewhere at the airport, Marvin Burrows of Utah happily hugged sister Velma Enkemann of the Wayne County town of Shreve. Burrows and his wife, June, hopped the flight for Enkemann's 50th wedding anniversary party next week.
Like the Kuras, Enkemann was grateful she no longer has to drive to the Cleveland or Columbus airports to welcome fliers, especially with the rest of her family arriving in a few days.
And the Burrowses were grateful for the $99 one-way fare they received. ''It all helps when you are retired and on a fixed income,'' Marvin Burrows said.
The flight on the 45-day-old plane ranked high with Burrows. ''We were really excited, and they really treated us exceptionally well,'' he said.
The Airbus 319 craft had less than an hour reprieve before passengers, many of them from Northeast Ohio, began boarding for a return flight to Denver.
Bruce Glandt of Solon buckled in his son, Jack, 7, and daughter, Molly, 4. The family was going to visit grandparents in Wyoming.
Even though Glandt lives closer to Cleveland, the lower fare brought him to Akron-Canton. The seat-back TVs would also help keep his children occupied during the flight. If that wasn't enough, maybe they could play with the Jack the Rabbit stuffed animal that all the passengers were to receive.
Frontier is known for the animal photos that adorn the tails of its planes, including Jack the Rabbit, Foxy the Fox, and a quartet of penguins that complement the company's slogan: ''A Whole Different Animal.''
Outside on the ramp next to the runway, the excitement among airport and Frontier executives was palpable. They clapped and cheered when the plane touched down as if a celebrity or diplomat were on board instead of 132 average customers.
''This is such an amazing day for us,'' said Kristie Van Auken, the airport's director of marketing and communication. ''We are a real entryway into Northeast Ohio.''
Van Auken said Northeast Ohioans now have a real advantage with a leader in the industry at their local airport.
''Flights have been booking well,'' she said. ''People like nonstops, and they like big jets, and they want low fares.''
The Frontier service marks an end to an old problem atAkron-Canton. Airport officials have been trying to find a way to offer low fares to other western destinations. Carriers such as United Express offer service though Chicago, but Akron-Canton's largest airline, AirTran, does not offer low fares directly to Chicago or other destinations farther west.
Paul Tate, chief financialofficer and president of Frontier, said Wednesday that once the airline initiates a 6:40 a.m. flight to Denver on June 27, anyone flying out of Akron-Canton will be able to reach all points the airline serves in the western United States by 10 a.m. local time and all five of the airline's Mexican destinations by early afternoon.
This was Frontier's first landing in Ohio, but the airline is to begin service in Dayton on Aug. 31.
Airport Director Fred Krum said Akron-Canton is now one of more than a dozen destinations served by Frontier east of the Mississippi.
''They are literally going to change the way people go to the West,'' Krum said.