Of the hundreds of flights that departed Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on Saturday, it's hard to imagine any having as impressive a welcome as those bound for Grand Junction on an inaugural nonstop flight.
After about two hours and 50 minutes in the air, the United SkyWest 76-seat regional jet landed at the former Walker Field at 11:48 a.m. to a backdrop often seen by people peering out their porthole windows this time of year — cobalt blue skies, high-desert hills and sweeping views.
This particular jet-full was treated to the extra bit of taxiing through ceremonial opposing water cannons, one of which was fighting a stiff wind on Saturday.
As they deplaned, passengers seemed perplexed by the extra attention — the water-cannon treatment, the scattered media, the free Chicago-style hot dogs they were handed at the gate as they got off — en route to their final, likely fun, destination.
Like Cole Phillips, a young student headed to Hanksville, Utah, for a dig by the Rockford, Illinois-based Burpee Museum of Natural History.
He and his dad, Chet — from the LaSalle-Peru area of Illinois about an hour and a half south of Chicago — were just looking for flights to get them to east-central Utah, and found the Grand Junction flight online,
"I was just looking for a direct flight," Chet Phillips said, smiling at his hot dog bonus, "and thought, 'Oh cool,'" when he found the Chicago to Grand Junction nonstop seats to purchase.
The less than three-hour flight time to Grand Junction — easily a two- to three-hour time savings, as opposed to going through Denver and arriving on two hops — should make the once-a-week out-and-back flight attractive to travelers, in both directions.
Airport spokesman Joe Burtard said United began the new nonstop flight with no seat or capacity guarantees attached, and the initial booking numbers — 98 percent capacity inbound, and 72 percent outbound, at last check — have "already outperformed our expectations."
Details of the flight were in the works before Grand Junction residents decided to double their lodging tax — from 3 to 6 percent — in November last year. That means more new flights could be in the offing, as the newly created Grand Junction Regional Air Service Alliance is expected to be able to subsidize new flights to and from the airport with funds from the new tax.