Huge celebration at DIA as United’s first non-stop to Tokyo takes off

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DENVER -- Passersby along Denver International Airport's Concourse B, likely used to airlines suddenly charging fees for checked bags and even sodas, had to wonder what in the heck was going on at Gate 32 Monday morning.

The answer: a lot.

A large crowd watched the Denver Taiko's furious performance of the Kagami-wari ritual, they nibbled on spring rolls and sushi and sipped udon out of tiny bowls inside an area cordoned off with cherry blossom trees.

Just before 11 a.m., a Shinto priest led the group in a traditional prayer before Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and other United Airlines and DIA officials marked the inaugural flight between Denver and Asia, United 139, Boeing 787 Dreamliner service to Tokyo which finally took off about 12:45 p.m.

"Today we celebrate a historic milestone for this region," Hancock said.

All the fanfare is probably fitting considering how long local economic development officials have worked to win a non-stop connection to Asia, never mind how critical the flight is in their view to Colorado's economic growth.

"Colorado is in a global war for jobs," said Tom Clark, executive director of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation, who started working on winning a Japan flight nearly 30 years ago and was among the first to board Monday's inaugural flight.

"For us to compete globally, we have to be connected, non-stop, to these global markets."

Hickenlooper, who gave credit to his predecessor, Hancock, for winning the flight, concurred with Clark that new trade with Asia will help grow the state's economy.

"That trade, it rapidly creates the way that we create wealth in this world," Hickenlooper said.  "This is something we've really worked for for a long time. And to really see -- now it's happening -- in the next 3-4 years, you're going to see hundreds of millions of dollars of economic development."

Hancock, who is leading the 70-person delegation to Tokyo this week, also views the new route as more than an economic opportunity.

"It will provide new avenues for tourism, education and cultural exchanges that will enrich both regions for years to come," he said.

Hancock, who is traveling with his 17-year-old son, Jordan, arranged to bring nine members of the Montbello High School drum line with him to Japan.

The group, which leaves on United's second inaugural flight on Tuesday, will perform for the U.S. Ambassador to Japan and for local students.

FOX31 Denver will be following the drum line to Tokyo and filing daily reports on the station's "Destination: Japan" Blog.

Monday's flight left DIA on time, after taxiing under a stream of water from the airport's fire tankers, a final salute before taking off.

Captain Jay Panarello, an Evergreen resident and 36-year United pilot, was at the controls, flying what will be the last route of his career for the first time.

"I've been with the company for 36 years, so I've been around the block a couple times," he told FOX31 Denver in the Dreamliner's cockpit before taking off. "I've flown every Boeing we've had since the 707.

"I'm 63 so I'll be retiring in two years. This is my last airplane and I'm going to go out in style. It's pretty cool."

Panarello is excited about the prospect of future generations of pilots following in his vapor stream, but he knows the flight will only endure if enough passengers buy a ticket.

"I've been here for 27 years as a local guy and we had more international service 25 years ago at the Stapleton airport than we do now at DIA," he said. "I hope that's starting to change."

The flight wouldn't be happening without the Dreamliner, which carries 219 passengers -- about 60 fewer than the 777, commonly used for international flights -- but can still fly longer distances than other planes of its size.

"It has the same fuel burn rate as the 737 but it's going 100 mph faster and carrying 100 more people. So it's pretty impressive," Panarello said. "It's the perfect plane for this route."

The inaugural flight was originally scheduled for March but had to be delayed due to problems with the plane's battery.

United had a second plane parked at the next gate over on Monday just in case there was a problem with the first plane.