KEARNEY — Can Kearney Regional Airport support flights to both Denver and Chicago?

The answer to that question should be clear soon.

On Wednesday, the first United Express flight between Kearney and Chicago is scheduled, and advance ticket sales signal the new eastbound flights could be every bit as successful as Kearney’s westbound flights to Denver.

“We’re already at a 42 percent load factor,” Kearney City Manager Michael Morgan said about ticket sales for the first month of Kearney to Chicago service.

He said the load factor means that 42 percent of the 1,400 seats available in December — or 590 seats — for Kearney to Chicago already have been sold. United Express will use the same 50-seat jetliners to serve both Denver and Chicago routes.

The load factor is encouraging, Morgan said, because it’s higher than when United Express began Kearney to Denver flights in September 2018.

“For the first month of Denver flight service we were at 35 percent,” he said.

Kearney-to-Denver load factors steadily increased — up to 43 percent in October 2018, and, in November 2018, up to 46 percent, Morgan said.

It is rare for an airport like Kearney’s — with federally subsidized commuter service — to have flights to more than one destination, according to Morgan.

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Utah-based SkyWest Airlines, which operates the United Express flights, has been surprised by the success of the Kearney to Denver flights, and anticipates passenger counts could be similarly strong for the Kearney to Chicago flights, Station Manager Diane Packett said.

“Kearney actually has exceeded expectations on passenger counts,” Packett said.

She said SkyWest officials were hoping for 10,000 passengers per year so the Kearney airport would earn its $1 million incentive from the Federal Aviation Administration. Kearney has used the $1 million per year incentives to improve the airport to handle larger aircraft and to accommodate additional passenger volume in the terminal.

Kearney could have close to 20,000 enplanements in 2019.

Packett added four employees, bringing her Kearney staff to 20 to handle the Chicago flights. She said with more passengers to check in, it would be wise for travelers to arrive at least 90 minutes before the departure time.

She said last week’s snowstorms in Denver caused many delays and flight cancellations in Kearney. Adding the Chicago flights might open up options for travelers if either Chicago or Denver is socked in.

Today, the standard round-trip fares United Express quoted for Kearney to Chicago ranged from $217 to $543 for flights through Jan. 15.

Chicago flights will depart Kearney at 2:16 p.m and arrive at O’Hare at 4:18 p.m. Flights will depart O’Hare at 11:25 a.m. and arrive in Kearney at 1:46 p.m. The two flights to Denver will depart at 6:35 a.m. and 4:07 p.m. and arrive in Denver at 8:02 a.m. and 5:34 p.m.

The Chicago flights could aid business travelers by saving them travel time and expense, Morgan said.

Packett said, “Chicago might take some of the load off the Denver flights initially, but I have no doubt they’ll fill up and be as popular as the Denver flights.”

Kearney set the stage for flights to two major hubs by upgrading Kearney Regional Airport’s runway, its terminal for baggage and passenger handling, and firefighting and safety.

In a few more weeks, 36 additional free parking stalls will be ready at the terminal.

Since September 2018, when SkyWest Airlines began operating the United Express flights to Denver, passenger numbers have set records for each consecutive month.

Before 2019, the annual record was 13,042 enplanements, set in 2013.

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