United bringing ‘wingless flights’ to Northern Colorado Regional Airport

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A Landline employee takes a boarding pass from a passenger. Landline and United Airlines are partnering to provide wingless flights from Northern Colorado Municipal Airport in Loveland.

Imagine being able to check in for a domestic or international flight and check your bags right from a ticket counter at Northern Colorado Regional Airport in Loveland.

That’s about to happen.

United Airlines on Friday announced a partnership with ground transportation company Landline to provide “wingless flights” from the Fort Collins-Loveland airport beginning April 1. 

Here’s how it works: You board your “flight” — it’s a bus — in Loveland and change “planes” in Denver, connecting to any one of United’s destinations. 

Beginning Feb. 26, you can book a flight through United.com or any travel site by typing in Fort Collins — or its airport code FNL — and all of United’s destinations will come up, just as if you were booking directly from Denver. Your options will indicate one leg of the trip is via Landline.

Related:Fort Collins-Loveland airport, with 20-year growth plan and infusion of money, wants input

On your travel date, you’ll drive to Northern Colorado Regional Airport in 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 75-minute drive to DIA. 

Once you arrive at DIA, you’ll still have to go through security, at least for now. But Landline is working with the Transportation Security Administration to figure out a way to screen and secure a busload of passengers as if they had gone through checkpoints at DIA.

Getting TSA approval is a long and complicated process, but ensuring passenger safety is a “reasonable ask,” said Ankit Gupta, United’s vice president of domestic network planning. 

If Landline and United can get it worked out, the bus would drive into secure airport space and drop passengers at their gates.  

A United Airlines employee loads bags from a Landline bus that will be transferred to a United flight.

It’s been a long time coming

“Wingless flights” are a relatively new concept, but it’s been an eight-year effort to make it a reality in Northern Colorado.

The flights “provide the same level of service as if you were to get on an aircraft,” Airport Manager Jason Licon said. “We’re all used to driving to Denver, taking the toll road, parking the car, getting on a shuttle, taking the shuttle to the terminal, checking bags, and then going downstairs to get in the queue for security screening and taking the train to the gate.” 

This partnership bypasses most of that, he said. “You can start relaxing immediately when you get on the bus. Your anxiety level will go down, and it’s a way better experience for the traveling public at a price point that’s competitive with driving, if not cheaper,” Licon said. 

Landline co-founder and CEO David Sunde said “flying” from Loveland will cost between $40 and $50 more than flying out of Denver.

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.

Sunde’s company has similar partnerships with Sun Country Airlines and seven airports in Minnesota. A fleet of 35-seat buses will be based in Fort Collins, where Landline is setting up an operational hub on Link Lane. 

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, Sunde said. Coming back to Fort Collins, passengers will board the bus at concourse A. 

“It’s exciting for the region to have connectivity to a global air carrier for the first time in 20-plus years,” he said.

More:Blue Angels to fly high in Northern Colorado in October

Landline needs buses to be about 30% full to be successful, while an airline needs 95%, Sunde said. “Hopefully the service will grow and take traffic and cars off I-25 and be a more efficient and sustainable way to have access to the national transportation system.” 

The airport and Northern Colorado will also benefit “by really providing the public with the ability to utilize the airport (FNL) directly,” Licon said. 

The regional airport has been without commercial service since 2017.

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, Licon said.

That can translate into millions of dollars in new revenue and federal subsidies, Licon said.

More:Northern Colorado airport receives $17M grant. That’s nearly 10 times its annual budget

Northern Colorado Regional Airport would charge a per-passenger fee and what is considered a “landing fee” per department bus that would go back to the airport, Licon said. It would also keep the parking revenue. 

Licon estimates the additional costs of “flying” from Loveland would still be less than taking a shuttle from Fort Collins or driving, paying tolls on E-470 and paying parking fees at the airport or at off-airport parking.

Gupta said Denver has grown to be one of United’s largest hubs — bigger than Chicago during the pandemic — as the Denver metro area and Northern Colorado have grown. “Our customers tell us that national parks and ski destinations are important to them,” he said. “We are proud to partner with Landline to offer a unique, seamless way to help them get there.”

Licon believes the concept came to fruition now because of the Northern Colorado culture. “The cities of Fort Collins and Loveland have really promoted innovation as something they’ve really embraced,” he said. “Finally technology has caught up and we’ve found the right partnership and the right people to make this happen.”

The wingless flights come at a time the airport is planning a new terminal and finishing up its remote air tower. The airport is owned jointly by the cities of Fort Collins and Loveland.

“Exciting things are happening at Northern Colorado Regional Airport,” said Fort Collins Mayor Wade Troxell, who serves as chairman of the Airport Commission.  

“In addition to planning for a new terminal and unveiling a remote air tower, the wingless flight program promises to connect DIA air travelers going through security to gate check-in at NoCO Regional Airport,” Troxell said. 

Loveland Mayor Pro-tem Don Overcash said on the heels of a turbulent year for the airline industry “we are incredibly encouraged by this level by United Airlines into Loveland and the Northern Colorado region. “We are confident that this revolutionary service will only further demonstrate the high demand for air service in Northern Colorado and reinforce the urgent need to restore passenger air service at the Northern Colorado Regional Airport.”

What about actual flights out of Loveland?

Wingless flights does not replace the airport’s desire to bring back commercial flights such as Allegiant. Licon hopes the United partnership will “be a catalyst for us to really provide the proof of the demand (for airline service) in Colorado. “This is really being operated as if it were a flight and we’ll be able to do a lot of neat and innovative things with the concept.”

The airport has struggled to find and retain commercial air service since low-cost carrier Allegiant pulled out in 2012, citing the lack of an air traffic control tower.

Elite Airways began flying from Northern Colorado to Rockford, Illinois, in August 2015, but suspended flights each winter. It failed to resume flights in 2017.

Allegiant announced in 2019 it would bring flights back that October under the airport’s new virtual tower but pulled the plug when the FAA delayed testing of the tower, a decision over which the airport had no control.

The airline announced last year it would delay its return to Northern Colorado due to revenue losses due to the pandemic. 

More:Allegiant’s return to Northern Colorado still in doubt amid delays on virtual tower testing

‘Wingless flight’ daily travel times

Departure from Loveland; arrival at DIA

7:30 a.m.; 8:45 a.m.

9:10 a.m.; 10:25 a.m.

11:20 a.m.; 12:35 p.m.

5:15 p.m.; 6:30 p.m.

Departure from DIA; arrival in Loveland

9:45 a.m.; 11 a.m.

1:25 p.m.; 2:40 p.m.

6 p.m.; 7:15 p.m.

7:25 p.m.; 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) 

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

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 patferrier@coloradoan.com. Please support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a subscription today.