Not since Al Capone arrived in town for a 1929 gangland convention has anyone from Chicago stirred so much excitement in Atlantic City.

From the moment their plane touched down Tuesday morning, the 19 passengers on board United Airlines Flight 4161 from Chicago were the focus of a grand, Atlantic City-themed celebration.

All of the hoopla marked the start of United’s new nonstop service to Atlantic City International Airport from its Chicago and Houston hubs. United becomes just the second scheduled airline to fly to Atlantic City, but more service is on the way.

Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian said an announcement is expected in May about another airline that will fly from four cities. He and officials from the airport’s operating agency, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, declined to disclose other details before the formal announcement.

Perhaps warming up for other airlines, airport officials staged an elaborate welcoming ceremony to greet United’s first flight from Chicago. Two fire trucks showered the jet with a ceremonial spray of water. Inside the terminal, the baggage-claim area was decorated with balloons, beach umbrellas, salt water taffy and even one of the Boardwalk’s iconic rolling chairs.

“It’s a lot of excitement,” exclaimed one United passenger, Kenyetta Green, of Chicago. “When the fire trucks came out to greet us, we weren’t sure what was going on.”

United’s arrival is considered a huge boost for Atlantic City’s underserved air market. It represents the first coup for the Port Authority since it took over operations at Atlantic City International last July. The giant agency, which runs six airports in New York and New Jersey, will use its clout in the aviation industry to attract more airlines.

“Bringing in a world-class airline like United is what we came here to do,” said Deb Gramiccioni, the Port Authority’s deputy executive director.

The new flights from Chicago and Houston are key for drawing more business travelers and over-night tourists to Atlantic City. Tourism officials and political leaders hope that air travelers will replace some of the daytripping gamblers who have been lost to rival casinos in surrounding states.

“Today’s passengers represent the optimism in the future of Atlantic City as a destination resort,” said state Assemblyman Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, whose legislative district includes the airport.

Guardian caught the first outbound flight to Chicago as part of a delegation of Atlantic City government and tourism officials that will meet with Windy City business representatives and the media over the next two days. The mayor said he will try to recruit more conventions and tourists by telling the people of Chicago that Atlantic City has a vibrant restaurant, entertainment and beach scene, in addition to the casinos.

“We’re hungry for your business” is the message Guardian said he will carry to Chicago.

A coalition of government agencies and the casino industry is planning a marketing campaign to promote United’s service. The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, the state agency that oversees the Atlantic City Tourism District, will contribute $1 million to the campaign. The Atlantic City Alliance, the marketing arm of the casinos, is kicking in an undisclosed amount. Another $120,000 is coming from the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which owns Atlantic City International.

Until United’s arrival, Atlantic City International had been served by only Spirit Airlines, a discount carrier that specializes in flying vacationers to Florida. Spirit is adding seasonal flights to Boston, Atlanta, Chicago and Detroit leading up to Atlantic City’s peak summer tourist rush. United’s new Chicago and Houston flights give passengers even more travel options by offering connections throughout the airline’s worldwide network.

“We have a fantastic route system unparalleled by any other airline,” said Don Wright, United’s vice president of airport operations.

Political leaders touted the airport’s potential for growth fueled by United. New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney said more air service will help create jobs and spur economic development.

U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, said the Port Authority’s recruitment of United should silence “a lot of skeptics” who questioned the state’s decision to turn over control of the airport to the agency.

Currently, the airport supplies only about 1 percent of Atlantic City’s nearly 27 million annual visitors. United’s new flights will help reposition the city to attract more overnight tourists arriving by air.

Although only 19 passengers arrived Tuesday on United’s 50-passenger jet for the first flight from Chicago, traffic is expected to build as the promotional efforts ramp up. Ron Marsico, a spokesman for the Port Authority, said the Chicago flights are booked for this weekend and Easter week.

The daily nonstop flight from Chicago departs O’Hare International Airport at 8:10 a.m., arriving at Atlantic City International at 11:07 a.m. Return flights will leave Atlantic City at 11:52 a.m. and arrive in Chicago at 1:08 p.m. From Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport, United’s flight to Atlantic City will depart at 7 p.m. daily, arriving at 11:10 p.m. The return flight will depart Atlantic City at 6 a.m. and arrive in Houston at 8:40 a.m.

On Tuesday, Kenyetta Green, accompanied by her aunt, Anita Green, was making her first trip to Atlantic City. The women planned a three-night getaway to celebrate the niece’s 38th birthday.

“We’ve come to explore the casinos, the restaurants, the entertainment and the clubs,” said Anita Green, a Chicago native who now lives in Gary, Ind.

Kenyetta Green noted that she was looking forward to seeing the ocean, beaches and Boardwalk.

“I had heard so many good things about Atlantic City,” she said. “I wanted to see them for myself.”

While much of the marketing and promotional efforts will concentrate on bringing tourists to town, the airport also hopes to lure more travelers to take outbound flights to Chicago and Houston.

Bill Rigby, of Birmingham, Ala., was a passenger on the first flight to Chicago on Tuesday. United’s new Chicago-Atlantic City service will be more convenient for his travel between Alabama and New Jersey, he said.

Rigby, general manager of the construction-management company SCMC, has been helping to rebuild Hurricane Sandy-damaged sections of Seaside Heights, Ocean County.

Previously, he would fly from Alabama to Chicago and then to Philadelphia before making the drive to Seaside Heights. The Chicago-Atlantic City flight offers an easier trip to Seaside Heights, he stated.

“I’ll be coming back this way,” Rigby said.

Contact Donald Wittkowski:

609-272-7258