LOVELAND — Kim and Julie Starr drove to the airport from their Fort Collins home early Thursday morning, parked the truck, checked their bags at the United ticket counter, got to their gate and waited for their flight to Cleveland, all in less than half an hour.
The Starrs were the first passengers on United Airlines’ new “wingless flights” that hit the road at 7:30 Thursday morning from the Northern Colorado Regional Airport in Loveland.
United is partnering with ground transportation company Landline to provide “flights” from Loveland to Denver International Airport.
The only difference: The first leg of the trip is on a 50-seat bus that’s been retrofitted with 35 seats for passenger comfort, full-size tray tables, WiFi, cup holders and links to United’s entertainment channels.
Once the Starrs got to DIA, all they had to do was go through security. Their bags were automatically transferred from the bus to their aircraft.
United passengers can book flights from Northern Colorado to any of United’s 160-plus destinations through United.com or any online travel site by typing in Fort Collins, or FNL, the airport code for Northern Colorado Regional. It will pull up all of United’s destinations.
On your travel date, you’ll drive to Loveland, park your car for free (for the first six months; it’ll be $5 per night after that), check in for your flight, check your bags at the ticket counter inside the terminal, and board a Landline bus for the drive to DIA.
Once you arrive at DIA, you’ll still have to go through security, at least for now.
The Starrs booked their flight in February, as soon as United announced the new service from Loveland. It cost $80 more than flying from Denver. “That’s less than what we would have spent parking in the garage,” Julie Starr said.
“We always fly United,” Kim Starr said. “But we usually drive to Denver and park in the garage. Zero dollars per day to park in Loveland looks pretty good.”
Kim planned to pull out his computer and get some work done while on the trip from Loveland to Denver.
The convenience of driving just 20 minutes, parking their vehicle steps from the terminal and boarding their flight without the additional hassle of Interstate 25 traffic “sounds awesome,” Kim Starr said.
But since they were the first and only passengers on the first flight, he said “check back with us later” to see how it went. The couple will be home Monday, and when they arrive in Denver, they will go to gate A78 to board the bus back to Loveland. Their bags will be automatically transferred from their flight home.
United’s training manager Kelly Holder, who was in Loveland for the first flight, said seven passengers were expected on Thursday. “It’s not too bad for the first day,” she said. The passenger count was expected to go up as United marketed the service and people became more familiar with wingless flights.
For now, passengers traveling from Loveland to DIA will still have to go through security. Landline and United are working with the Transportation Security Administration to figure out a way to screen and secure a busload of passengers in Loveland as if they had gone through checkpoints at DIA.
That would mean Landline would drive into secure airport space and drop passengers at their gates, bypassing security.
“That would be awesome,” Kim Starr said.
BJ Youngerman, United’s director for marketing and community innovation, said they hope to have that feature in place by the end of the year.
During a ceremonial ribbon cutting Thursday morning, Fort Collins Mayor Wade Troxell called Northern Colorado Regional Airport “Concourse E” of DIA. The airport is owned by the cities of Loveland and Fort Collins.
Troxell, who serves as chairman of the airport commission, said he was 8 years old when he attended the airport’s 1965 dedication. “All I remember is it was hot and dusty. It’s still kind of dusty,” he said. But it is undergoing “an amazing transformation” with the wingless flights and a new terminal expected within the next two to three years.
Loveland Mayor pro-tem Don Overcash said the airport will be a catalyst that energizes economic development in Larimer County.
Northern Colorado Regional Airport Director Manager Jason Licon has been working to bring the wingless flight concept to Loveland for nearly a decade.
Although United is the only airline currently embracing the concept, Licon said it was possible other airlines might see the merits. “It will show there’s a strong demand in Northern Colorado,” he said. “Why not leave the anxiety” of I-25 traffic and queuing up to check bags behind?
The trip from Loveland to Denver counts toward airline miles, a bonus in addition to the convenience, Julie Starr said. “We wouldn’t get those if we drove to Denver ourselves,” she said.
And the bonus points can be used to book flights from Loveland, Youngerman said.
If the bus is delayed by traffic or another problem and you miss your connection in Denver, you will be rebooked on the next flight.
Buses will run to DIA four times a day between 7:30 a.m. and 5:15 p.m. and are timed for United’s connections in Denver.
Airport benefits based on passenger numbers
The U.S. Department of Transportation allocates federal dollars based on emplanements — the number of people boarding planes at the airport. Every passenger getting on that Landline bus counts as an emplanement in Northern Colorado, which can translate into millions of dollars in new revenue and federal subsidies.
The airport has been without regularly scheduled commercial service since 2017, when Elite Airways suspended flights after just a couple years.
Allegiant Airlines had promised to bring back commercial flights to Las Vegas in 2019, but plans never materialized when the FAA delayed testing of the airport’s remote air traffic control tower followed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Licon hopes the wingless flights will show the demand for passenger service in Northern Colorado and persuade other airlines to begin services at FNL.
‘Wingless flight’ daily travel times
Departure from Loveland and arrival at DIA:
- 7:30 a.m. to 8:45 a.m.
- 9:10 a.m. to 10:25 a.m.
- 11:20 a.m. to 12:35 p.m.
- 5:15 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Departure from DIA and arrival in Loveland:
- 9:45 a.m. to 11 a.m.
- 1:25 p.m. to 2:40 p.m.
- 6 p.m. to 7:15 p.m.
- 7:25 p.m. to 8:45 p.m.
Costs to travel to DIA
If you drive:
- Tolls on E-470 (Broomfield to DIA): $9.30 ($5.90 with Express Toll)
- Parking at DIA economy lot: $16/day (roughly $8-$10 daily at off-airport parking lots)
- Total for three-day trip, one way: roughly $30 to $57.30, plus gas
If you take an airport shuttle:
- Shuttle from Fort Collins to DIA: About $45 each way
- Total for three-day trip, one way: $45
Source: Coloradoan research and flydenver.com
Pat Ferrier is a senior reporter covering business, health care and growth issues in Northern Colorado. Contact her at email@example.com. Please support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a subscription today.