MANATEE -- Tony Arakkal still had his mind on the weekend trip to Siesta Key and the beach's sugar-like sand Monday as he sat near gate B12, awaiting the flight home.
But unlike the JetBlue service that took him here, the Illinois native now could make the 1,260-mile trek northwest on just one nonstop Boeing 737.
Arakkal was among a few dozen visitors, locals and business travelers boarding the second daily flight between Sarasota Bradenton International Airport and O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.
"I'm glad I got this flight today," Arakkal said. "The island was beautiful, but the trip down was pretty cumbersome."
The new Chicago route marks the first return of United Airlines since the nation's largest carrier exited the market in 1994 and its affiliate, Continental, left about four years ago.
The 156-seat plane also becomes a crucial component in a plan to plug the passenger leak that started in August when the airport's second-largest carrier pulled out of the market.
Officials gathered Monday afternoon for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to welcome in the new service -- a marriage the airport hopes will translate into more flights west in the future.
"Without a doubt United sees growth in the future," SRQ President and CEO Rick Piccolo said. "But right now, we just want this first flight to do well."
The new United service began Sunday with nonstop service to O'Hare that will continue year-round.
The flight alone has the potential to bring 56,940 passengers through the SRQ terminal each year.
Officials estimate its total economic impact can inflate to $61 million annually when also calculating average spending by each of its carried visitors.
Elected officials Monday touted the importance of additional flights, such as the one added by United, as a means to stimulate the economy. The airport and 50 companies that do business there now employ about 2,000 local workers.
The new route to O'Hare also gives local flyers the ability to connect to 150 international and domestic destinations from United's Chicago hub -- increasing exposure to the local market.
The airport and its new carrier have begun talks about adding flights to Newark, Houston and Cleveland -- as long as the Chicago service meets projections.
SRQ is actively seeking more west
ern flight options with a $500,000 federal grant and $500,000 local match to help improve air service.
The efforts stemmed largely from the August departure of AirTran, which will strip $1.2 million and 360,000 passengers from the airport a year -- nearly a third of its 2011 total, records show.
The inaugural United flight comes in time for the winter tourism season, which generally runs from Thanksgiving to Easter.
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.
"This will serve all of the folks from Chicago coming down to visit the beautiful beaches of Bradenton and Sarasota," said Laura Herde, South Florida district sales manager for United. "It will be a great addition, and we look forward to hopefully adding more in the future."
Michigan resident Larry Crandall was catching the flight home Monday after helping move his aunt and uncle down to Sarasota for the winter. He plans to use the same service when he flies back to get them next spring.
"I have never been out here before, but it's a nice airport," he said. "The schedule is very convenient. I'll be home by 7 p.m."
Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095.