United Airlines will launch nonstop flights to Atlantic City International Airport from Chicago and Houston on April 1, giving a big-name carrier to a market craving more airline service.

A delegation of New Jersey officials led by Gov. Chris Christie touted the flights as crucial for boosting the Atlantic City economy by bringing in more conventions and overnight visitors.

“The fact is that we’re going to have what we’ve always said the airport needs in terms of service — a major carrier going to major hubs. It’s terrific,” said state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic. “It’s absolutely essential if Atlantic City is going a step further to become a major convention destination and major tourist destination.”

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Christie, who established the state-run Atlantic City Tourism District as part of a five-year initiative to revive the resort town, also said the new flights would be a catalyst for growth.

“It speaks volumes that a company like United Airlines recognizes the full and future potential of Atlantic City International Airport,” the governor said in a statement Thursday announcing the flights. “The decision to bring air service to the seaside resort opens Atlantic City and Atlantic City International to the world while expanding travel service opportunities for the people of the South Jersey region.”

Chicago and Houston are United’s largest hub airports. The airline’s new flights will enable one-stop connecting service between Atlantic City and points throughout the Midwest and western United States, Canada, Asia and Latin America.

“I thank Gov. Christie for fostering a business-friendly climate that has enabled New Jersey to remain a critical hub for global aviation,” United Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Smisek said. “United’s new Atlantic City service will drive business, tourism and economic development throughout the southern part of the state.”

The service will start modestly on small, 50-seat Embraer ERJ-145 aircraft operated by United Express carrier ExpressJet. Lawmakers expressed hope that United will expand its service in the future.

“It’s a building process. It’s the first step of a building process,” Whelan said.

From Chicago O’Hare, United’s flight to Atlantic City will depart at 8:10 a.m. daily, arriving at 11:17 a.m. The return flight will depart Atlantic City at 11:52 a.m. and arrive in Chicago at 1:10 p.m.

From Houston, United’s flight to Atlantic City will depart at 7 p.m. daily, arriving at 11:20 p.m. The return flight will depart Atlantic City at 6 a.m. and arrive in Houston at 8:49 a.m.

Passengers flying Thursday out of Atlantic City on Spirit Airlines welcomed the prospect of expanded service. They said United’s flights might save them a future trip to the Philadelphia or New York airports if they wanted to head west.

“I’m a Cubs fan, so a flight to Chicago is definitely good news,” said Otto Loor, 24, a Philadelphian who was flying to Fort Myers, Fla. “It’s pretty good flying out of Atlantic City compared to the airports in Philadelphia or New York. I come here for cheaper tickets.”

Miriam Boemi, 51, of Naples, Fla., predicted United’s service would create economic benefits for the South Jersey region, in addition to giving passengers more travel options.

“A direct route from Houston and Chicago, why not?” Boemi said while waiting for a Spirit flight to Fort Myers. “It would help the economy. It would give people more jobs.”

New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney noted the United flights are the result of a new partnership between the South Jersey Transportation Authority, the airport owner, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which took over as Atlantic City International’s operator in July.

“Having an airline like United in Atlantic City is a tremendous opportunity for the entire South Jersey region,” Sweeney said. “This will not only provide an economic boost for Atlantic City and the region, it will also help alleviate congested air space in the Philadelphia and New York areas.”

Ever since the port authority took charge as the airport operator, the bi-state transportation giant was expected to use its clout in the airline industry to attract new service to Atlantic City. The agency also oversees the Kennedy, LaGuardia and Stewart airports in New York and the Newark and Teterboro airports in New Jersey. United was known to be a top priority for Atlantic City because of its global reach.

Atlantic City International has struggled this year, suffering a 25 percent drop in scheduled airline passengers blamed on the lingering effects of Hurricane Sandy. Figures compiled by the South Jersey Transportation Authority show the airport has handled 767,385 scheduled airline passengers through September, compared with slightly more than 1 million for the same period in 2012.

The airport currently is served by only one scheduled airline, Spirit, which flies to the Florida cities of Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Orlando, Tampa and West Palm Beach and the golfing mecca of Myrtle Beach, S.C.

U.S. Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, R-2nd, stressed that Atlantic City will serve as a bridge to United’s routes across the country, giving local passengers far more travel choices than what they have now.

“Starting in 2014, United Airlines will capitalize on what Atlantic City International has to offer, while giving South Jersey consumers and businesses greater access to the nation’s vast aviation network,” said LoBiondo, chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee. “For our tourism-based economy, connecting additional regions of the country to South Jersey is critical and will bring additional economic opportunities and the potential for new jobs.”

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