GARY — Allegiant Flight 651 lifted off the Gary/Chicago International Airport runway a few minutes late, but who’s complaining after three years without passenger service at all.
The sold-out flight of 150 passengers left the runway at 3:51 p.m., instead of its 3:20 p.m. departure time after a few carry-on bags were taken out of the overcrowded cabin portion of the plane and stowed in the baggage area. It cruised east down the runway then banked south on a non-stop trip to Orlando/Sanford Fla. International Airport.
Earlier, city, airport, and tourism officials celebrated Allegiant’s arrival in Gary and pledged to move the airport forward as it struggles with the challenge of runway expansion.
Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson hailed the day as “only the beginning” of commercial service at the airport. “We’re committed to making Allegiant’s experience smooth,” she said.
Eric Fletcher, airline operations manager, said Allegiant Air, a subsidiary of the Allegiant Travel Co., was growing rapidly. The airline flies to 77 cities and will fly from Gary to Sanford/Orlando twice a week, on Thursdays and Sundays.
“We are confident local residents will embrace the new service,” he said.
Fletcher said Allegiant, based in Las Vegas, specializes in flights from under-served markets to vacation destinations. All its flights are non-stop and the company offers bundled packages that include hotels, rental cars, and attraction tickets.
Unlike the start-up airlines that provided previous passenger service in Gary for short periods, Allegiant comes in with a strong track record, including 36 straight profitable quarters. Allegiant is no stranger to the airport, operating charter flights for the past few years.
Speros A. Batistatos, president and CEO of the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority said he met with Allegiant officials Wednesday to talk about assisting it in putting together travel packages for travelers who want to stay in Chicago, Indianapolis or Northwest Indiana.
“It’s a benefit in that it keeps the airline flying,” said Batistatos.
Kathy and Larry Piszro, of Lowell, stood in line to check their bags and talked of previous flights.
“We did SkyValue and Pan Am,” said Larry Piszro. “We wanted to be on the first flight. Hopefully, it will take,” he said of Allegiant’s future. “We hope to do it again.”