MANATEE -- On Sunday afternoon, about 150 passengers will get off a plane bound from Chicago -- the first United Airlines landing at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport in nearly three decades.
The nation's largest commercial carrier will begin its long-awaited nonstop daily service from O'Hare International Airport in Chicago to SRQ on a 737 this weekend.
Officials see the new flight as the most crucial component in a plan to recapture the 360,000 seats lost when AirTran, the airport's second largest carrier, pulled out of the market in August.
"This is a significant carrier coming back into the market," SRQ President and CEO Rick Piccolo said. "Given their size and scope, we think it will have a positive impact on the airport."
The new United service will begin with just the one Chicago flight each day.
But officials estimate its annual economic impact can stretch to $61 million when also calculating average spending by each of its carried visitors.
It alone has the potential to bring 56,940 passengers through the SRQ terminal each year.
The new route to O'Hare also will give local flyers the ability to connect to 150 international and domestic destinations from the Chicago hub -- increasing exposure to the local market.
The flight will serve a pilot route of sorts, and United already has hinted at the possibility for future expansion. Talks are now under way between the airline and airport officials about adding flights to Newark, Houston and Cleveland.
Representatives from United Airlines did not return
phone calls and emails seeking comment Friday.
"A key component will be the success of this first flight," Piccolo said. "We think it will be successful, and we will go from there."
It couldn't have come at a better time.
In September, SRQ's first full month without AirTran, 65,167 total passengers flew through the airport, an 11 percent drop from the same time last year.
The inaugural flight also comes in time for the winter tourism season, which generally peaks from Thanksgiving to Easter.
Economic development leaders from both Manatee and Sarasota gathered Thursday night in Chicago for a reception to celebrate United's new presence.
Led by U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, officials also will host a ribbon-cutting Monday morning at SRQ to welcome in the startup service.
"It's a major boost to the two-county area," said Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Chicago is one of our top feeder markets in the U.S., and this transition from AirTran to United was vital."
Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman.