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POPULAR AIRLINE RETURNS TO AREA

USA 3000 will fly out of St. Petersburg-Clearwater again.

Loyal customers didn't just complain when USA 3000 Airlines prepared to pull out of St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport in August. Some 7,000 signed petitions pleading with owners of the discount carrier to come back.

Guess what? They listened.

USA 3000 announced plans Thursday to resume flights from the small Pinellas airport to Chicago a week before Christmas.

Skyrocketing jet fuel prices drove the airline to cut the local service as part of a wider retreat from Florida. With prices falling now, the airline decided to resume one route.

"With so many loyal passengers flying to and from Tampa Bay on our flights, we're glad to be back," said acting chief operating officer Jack Eastman.

At a time when poor service and high prices made airlines as popular as oil companies, USA 3000 remained a favorite with Tampa Bay area travelers.

In July 2007, Brenda Huffman of Clearwater took a short bus trip to St. Petersburg-Clearwater International, and the flight to Detroit took off right on time. Her fare: $99 round trip. "I thought I was in heaven," she says, admitting she's unlikely to see a ticket that cheap again.

Huffman and other fans wondered Thursday when USA 3000 might resume routes to Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. Airline officials were noncommittal. "It's a fine balance between the cost of fuel, the price of tickets and the availability of aircraft," said marketing manager Chesley Turner.

The airline's departure left a big hole in business at the airport. USA 3000 was the second-largest carrier with 150,000 passengers annually.

The airport should end this year with more than 700,000 passengers, just below its 2007 total of 747,000, said airport director Noah Lagos. He met last month with executives of USA 3000, who said no other destination made a public appeal for the airline to return.

The airline will make one round-trip flight daily Monday through Friday and on Sunday, starting Dec. 18. USA 3000 is offering introductory fares as low as $94.99 one way on its Web site usa3000.com.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

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