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Chattanooga Airport users can fly United Airlines nonstop to Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport. / Staff file photo

This story was updated at 10 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, with more information.

New nonstop flights which started Thursday between Chattanooga and Houston, and the return of Chicago service, are seen by a Lovell Field official as gradually helping fuel a recovery in traffic.

"This is an encouraging step forward," said Terry Hart, Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport's chief executive. "We deeply appreciate our airline partners for their roles in reviving consumer confidence and creating new travel opportunities for our passengers."

Chattanooga Airport traffic was hit hard by the coronavirus, which sent passenger boardings plunging 95% in April over a year ago. While some travelers have returned, concerns about flying coupled with fewer seats on airline aircraft are still hindering the recovery. July's boardings were 69.4% below the same month in 2019, according to the airport.

The one round-trip per day between Chattanooga and Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport on United Airlines regional partner SkyWest was viewed Thursday as helping an employee of an Ooltewah company who lives in that Texas city.

"It would make it easy for him," said Rob Brile, who works for battery company Enersys, about the fellow employee who flies between Houston and Chattanooga every few weeks.

The Houston airport also is a gateway to hundreds of domestic and international destinations, including Denver and San Francisco, said Hart.

The daily incoming flight from Houston arrives in Chattanooga at 5:18 p.m. The departure time to Houston is 5:48 p.m., according to Lovell Field.

In addition, United has resumed two daily Chicago nonstops to Chattanooga which had been suspended earlier this year due to the coronavirus.

Hart said the return of United's service to Chicago O'Hare International Airport is welcome because that city is one of the most popular destinations for both Chattanooga business and leisure travelers.

The added service in Chattanooga comes as American Airlines and United Airlines started furloughing a combined 32,000 workers amid an expiration of federal aid. The carriers said they'd reverse course if Congress and President Trump reach a deal for a new stimulus package that includes more airline payroll support.

Greg Atkin, SkyWest's managing director of market development, said Chattanooga passengers can fly with confidence. He cited a layered safety approach that includes enhanced cleaning, mandatory face coverings and customer self-assessments with check-in.

People flying in and out of Chattanooga on Thursday expressed different levels of concern.

Sam Smith of New York City said he had "some concern, not a ton." His wife, Lauren, said they flew Delta Air Lines, calling the carrier "pretty safe" because it didn't fill the middle seat in the plane.

Kandis Ferdinand, also of New York, said she has some concerns about flying, but she travels on Delta and JetBlue which "use good safety precautions."

Kevin Pena of Miami, who is visiting a friend in Chattanooga, said he has no worries about flying. He said he feels safe due to precautions such as the use of hand sanitizer and face masks.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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