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United, after years of declining revenue, hits the thrusters

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When United Airlines starts offering flights to and from Rochester International Airport in June, how will that benefit the average local passenger?

"This is a positive for the community as a whole. It offers more opportunities," said airport Executive Director John Reed.

On June 8, United will begin offering three daily flights to and from Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. That adds 150 new departing seats a day.

The new United flights add to the five daily flights to Chicago that Delta Airlines offers.

The Chicago flights have been running in the high 70 percent to 80 percent capacity in recent months. Reed said the addition of the United flights as giving more options to people arriving to and leaving Rochester.

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"This is going to be a good thing for us," he said. "Competition is not a bad thing."

Reed pointed out that about 1.8 million airplane tickets are sold in the region each year.

"We're not capturing anywhere near 1.8 million passengers a year," he said.

Rochester International Airport typically serves about 240,000 passengers from Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin each year. While the city of Rochester owns the airport, Mayo Clinic is contracted to manage it via its Rochester Airport Co.

The addition of a third airline — United — could bring new destinations to Rochester sometime in the future. Reed said he would like to see western cities, like Dallas and Denver, added to the local offerings.

"But it still has to be financially viable. You still have to have bodies," he said.

Monday's announcement of the new flights in Rochester was just one of several such United rollouts at airports across the country.

United, which lost the distinction of being the world's biggest carrier after shrinking for several years, plans to regain lost ground by adding more flights from key airports this summer.

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The airline wants to upgrade facilities at key airports and trim the use of smaller planes on important business routes.

If the expansion plans pan out, United could staunch slipping revenue numbers, which fell nearly 2 percent in the last five years, while revenue at industry leader Delta Air Lines Inc. rose 8 percent.

United has slipped in other ways, too. Only once in the last five years did United Continental Holdings Inc. top Delta's operating income. And it consistently ranks poorly in on-time flights and cancellations.

Delta and American Airlines Group Inc. have been adding flights, often on bigger planes, between major cities. Not United.

"We've been shrinking, and our competitors have been growing at our expense," says Scott Kirby, who jumped from president of American Airlines to the same job at United in August. "We're going back on offense."

Kirby thinks that new routes from hubs will win over, or win back, passengers. If traffic picks up, and as United takes delivery of new planes, it should eventually be able to phase out small planes on key business-travel routes, he said.

On Monday, United announced that this summer it will add four new destinations in smaller cities including Rochester, and Santa Rosa, Calif., add new connections to medium-sized towns, and add daily flights on 15 other routes that connect with big hubs. It will add seasonal flights between San Francisco and Munich.

United also wants to expand and upgrade facilities at key airports, including more gates at Chicago's O'Hare. The airline just opened a new club at Los Angeles International Airport, and Kirby told union pilots that United wants part or all of a future terminal there, where Delta and American have been making improvements.

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United to add three daily round-trip flights to Chicago

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