TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW-TV) The first United Express flight from Topeka Regional Airport at Forbes Field to Chicago O'Hare touched down early Tuesday evening. The direct route to the Windy City arrived around 5 pm.
Weather conditions caused about a half-hour delay in taking off from Topeka. Instead of the 2:54 pm scheduled departure, the inaugural flight got off the ground just before 3:30 pm.
Among the 32 passengers on board was seven-year-old Samantha, who joined her father Dave Kapusta-Pofahl on the flight en route to visit family in Milwaukee. A veteran of the skies, Samantha says she hadn't liked the drive to the airport far away. She said she liked Tuesday's trip because it was a lot shorter.
Her father agrees. Dave says between the drive and paying daily parking feed, the cost and inconvenience adds up. He says he and his wife have a lot of family out of state, so they fly quite often. He says having air service from Topeka will make a big difference for them.
Cassandra and Mark Stevenson also checked in for the flight. They won a vacation as part of promotions Topeka Regional Airport held leading up to the flights. Both said they enjoyed the convenience and were having fun being part of the first flight for the service.
A lot of celebration surrounded the culmination of an effort that's taken two years to get off the ground. The United Express flights are Topeka's first commercial service since Allegiant ended flights to Las Vegas in the summer of 2007.
It was secured, in part, through nearly $2 million in state and federal grants. While those grants do secure a minimum revenue for United for the next two years, Jay Brame, United's sales manager for the Kansas and Kansas City region, says Topeka holds great potential. He says the area not only has a large pool of recreational travelers, there also is a significant corporate demand for the service.
Brame says United will offer double mileage points to its Mileage Plus members on Topeka flights during the first 30 days of service as a way to entice passengers to give the service a try.
Having air service at Topeka's doorstep also brings great potential for development. Doug Kinsinger, President/CEO of the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce, says even the twice-daily flights will have an estimated $10 million economic impact on the region. He says it puts Topeka on the map as far as giving companies access to the world at reasonable fares and in a convenient manner.
The flights operate on 50-passenger jets. The two daily flights leave Topeka at roughly 6 am and 3 pm. Return flights arrive at approximately 2:30 and 10 pm.
President of the Metropolitan Topeka Airport Authority Eric Johnson said the service offers a lot of advantages over what Topeka has seen recently.
"I think there's some misunderstanding that it's another destination service where it's from here to Chicago and that's it, and that's not the case. It's a connection to Chicago, a major hub, on United service, to anywhere that you'd want to go," Johnsons aid, describing the benefits of the new route.
Johnson said he just bought his ticket for that inaugural flight for $180 roundtrip, which he says, is cheaper than Kansas City International.
"Travel will be easier, no tolls, you don't have to deal with inclement weather or nighttime driving over the highway. Parking is very convenient here. It's $5 for as long as you're in the parking lot."
Johnson said this new deal is much different from past air service arrangements. MTAA has partnered with companies like Mohawk and U.S. Airways, but Johnson said it didn't produce the type of service they needed. Allegiant still partners with Topeka Regional, but it does not fly on a regular schedule and is publicly chartered.
"We've had others, shared flights," he said, "so if you left here you could go to Chicago, but you had to stop at another city. That doesn't work."
He pointed out that in the time it takes to get to KCI and get on a plane, a passenger flying United through Topeka Regional would already be in Chicago. The flight takes about an hour and a half.
Johnson said Topeka shares some of the risk in starting the new service and that success depends on changing habits.
We know that it's going to take time, we know that we have to get the word out, we know that we have to market this," Johnson said. "But I believe it will happen."
Johnson said that if the Chicago air service is a success, the next goal is to provide service to Denver.