Travelers at the Joplin Regional Airport on Thursday were surprised to see gift bags, cake and balloons waiting on them to celebrate Joplin's new flight service to Chicago.
They didn't know they were the first passengers on the new flights until they were there.
"I'm really excited about it but it was accidental I got this flight," said Karla Keizer of Joplin of the Chicago service.
She and her two grandsons, Landon Hurt, 13, of Pittsburg, Kansas, and Garrett Keizer, 10, of Joplin, were on their way to visit Karla Keizer's daughter in the Windy City. "So we're excited," she said.
Another group of passengers, Micky Painter and his wife and two daughters from Pittsburg, were among the first passengers to disembark the day's first flight into Joplin. They were returning from a vacation in London, England, and Painter said the Chicago to Joplin flight was the best leg of the trip.
"We love flying out of Joplin rather than Kansas City or Tulsa," Painter said. "It's so much easier for us to drive over here" than to spend time on the highway getting to another airport.
"It's been something that the community has worked hard and long on, and we're just very proud and excited for the tremendous support we have received the city of Joplin and the Joplin airport, and the whole community," said Eric Montgomery, regional manager for American Airlines.
That first plane from Chicago carried 33 passengers into Joplin, lacking 11 for a full passenger load on the jets that American Airlines will use for the year-round, twice-a-day flights.
Steve Stockam, airport manager, said the first plane to land received a water cannon salute, a tradition in which two firetrucks spray an arc of water over a plane to honor military veterans, foreign dignitaries and new airline service.
The first plane out of Joplin on Thursday carried a full load of 44, Stockam said.
In order to start the flights, American Airlines asked for a revenue-guarantee agreement with the city, which Stockam previously said is standard in the industry. The airline asked the city to provide a guarantee that it could pay up to $600,000 toward the cost of providing the flights the first year.
Money would be paid to subsidize the cost of the flights only in months where ticket revenue and other costs paid by customers did not meet the airline's revenue needs. Ticket fares will be different based on the passenger's final destination, which includes international locations or connections at other cities.
The city will guarantee $400,000 with half of that coming from the fund balance for the Joplin Convention and Visitors Bureau and the other half from the city's transportation sales tax. The other $200,000 would come from the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
Toby Teeter, chamber president, said the business community was agreeable to put money on the table in the form of a revenue guarantee because of the desire to have the Chicago flight service.
"This is huge," he said. "You get to flow through Dallas and through Chicago to the entire world, and what this means in Chicago is that it opens the Northeast corridor up and down the Eastern Seaboard, Canada and Europe. So now when you are doing your searches online and you're doing business travel, suddenly Joplin is now the least expensive option and now you're going North and East," easier and faster than going through Dallas, Teeter said.
Patrick Tuttle, director of Joplin's Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that the combination of Dallas and Chicago flights gives access now from Joplin to worldwide destinations.
"It's not a matter of just getting to Dallas or Chicago," Tuttle said. "We have portals to get world travelers in and out of Joplin and adding Chicago is a more of a gateway to Asia and the West."
It also will give Route 66 travelers a way to tour the Mother Road in sections, coming to Joplin and then flying back to Chicago in one leg and doing another section another time, he said. "Probably the biggest impact will be the business travel," creating easier access to the Eastern U.S. and Canada, Tuttle said.
It's taken about six years to get the Chicago service that so many Joplin residents wanted, the airport manager said.
"It's a great relief" to finally have the Chicago flights, Stockam said. "We worked so hard for so long trying to get this done, and it finally happened. Obviously we have signed a contract for a year, and we have to prove to American that the service is going to work. So we will monitor and continue our marketing programs and do everything we can to support the service. But just the opportunity to finally get it going is tremendous."
Stockam and the city and Teeter and the chamber will have already planned a social media and advertising campaign. A webpage, www.flyjoplin.com, is part of that marketing effort, Teeter said.
"We've got a lot of additional work to do," Stockam said. "This is just the beginning."