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United Airlines coming to Duluth; will passengers follow?

United Express CRJ-200 jets will carry passengers between Duluth and Chicago when United Airlines begins flying to Duluth in December. The flights will be provided by SkyWest Airlines, a regional airline affiliate operating under the United Express banner. Submitted by United Airlines

United Airlines made it official Tuesday: The carrier will launch twice-daily direct service between Duluth and Chicago on Dec. 17.

Word of the new service leaked Sunday as United began to market tickets for the Duluth-Chicago flights online.

The flights will be provided by SkyWest Airlines, a regional airline affiliate operating under the United Express banner. The aircraft used to shuttle travelers between Chicago and Duluth will be 50-seat CRJ-200 jets.

United will bring new competition to a market dominated by Delta Airlines, the only carrier providing daily scheduled service to Duluth.

"It will help ensure that we will have competitive airfares across the board," said Brian Ryks, executive director of the Duluth Airport Authority.

Delta provides service to the Twin Cities and Detroit. Duluth's only other carrier, Allegiant Air, operates two flights weekly to Las Vegas and recently announced plans to launch similar service to Orlando, Fla.

U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Chisholm, hailed United's announcement, especially in light of the recent groundbreaking for a $65 million air terminal in Duluth.

"United's investment in Duluth is adding momentum to that effort, and these additional flights will give travelers more ways to come to the Twin Ports for business and tourism," Oberstar said in a prepared statement.

From United's hub in Chicago, travelers will be able to link nonstop to dozens of U.S. cities, as well as destinations in Europe, Asia, South America, Mexico and the Caribbean.

The airport authority still is awaiting word on the status of a $600,000 federal grant it is seeking from the Small Communities Air Service Development Program. Ryks expects to learn whether the grant request was successful by December, at the earliest. He contends that a strong case can be made for assisting United as it launches service to Duluth.

"As we know, a carrier coming into a market that's already entrenched by an incumbent carrier that has fiercely defended its market in the past needs support from the community in order to survive," Ryks said.

American Eagle also received aid from the Small Communities Air Service Development Program when it introduced service between Duluth and Chicago in 2004, but the airline pulled out of the market later that year in the face of a fare battle with Northwest Airlines, now doing business as Delta.

Midwest also briefly served Duluth with daily service to Milwaukee in 2007 but also ceased operations, citing inadequate business.

Ryks intends to leave little to chance this time.

"The next 90 days are going to be extremely critical," he said. "We need to get the word out about United and talk to the business community about the importance of having another competitive carrier in this market. I think business travel will be the key."

"It's pretty exciting," said Don Monaco, a Chicago businessman and owner of Monaco Air Duluth, the fixed base operator for Duluth International Airport. "Being able to avoid making a connection in another city is worth a lot, especially for those of us who are really concerned about time."

If Duluth demonstrates adequate support for United's new service, Ryks said the carrier could boost the frequency of its Chicago round-trip flights to three per day.

"The other carrot is that if Chicago works, I'm confident we will eventually also set nonstop service to Denver, which is their other hub."