72 Hours With Alaska: Going Home and Wrapping Up

72 Hours With, Alaska Airlines, Trip Reports

And so the adventure was over. After a night in Seattle, all I had to do was get back home. Unfortunately, I’m also back home from my vacation now. Look for new posts to start up again on Monday.

Preview: A Video Preview Of the Milk Run
Part 1: Introduction to the Milk Run and Getting to Anchorage
Part 2: Aviation in Anchorage
Part 3: The Northern Part of the Milk Run
Part 4: Juneau and Alaska Seaplanes
Part 5: The Southern Part of the Milk Run
Part 6: Going Home and Wrapping Up

[Disclosure: Alaska paid for this trip]

The next morning, I woke up earlier than needed, but it gave me time to catch up on the emails I had been ignoring for a couple of days. I checked in online and found the exit row window open for no charge, so I switched over to it. My friend dropped me off at the airport, and I found the Pre Check line nearly empty. Once through, I wandered down to the end of the C concourse and found a power outlet where I could recharge.

Our flight started boarding early, and it was painfully slow. After they called rows 20 and higher, people started gathering to anticipate the next rows. But the next call was for premium class in rows 6 to 10 (a different order than on my way north to Anchorage). Then, when the line was empty, people started inching forward. The agent made a final call for rows 20 and higher. There was an audible chuckle in the gate area as all of us in rows 11-19 kept guessing incorrectly.

June 17, 2017
Alaska 906 Lv Seattle 929a Arr Los Angeles 1234p
Seattle (SEA): Gate C18, Runway 16C, Depart 3m Early
Los Angeles (LAX): Gate 69A, Runway 24L, Arrive 30m Early
N247AK, Boeing 737-990ER, Eskimo with Green colors, ~95% Full
Seat 17A, Coach
Flight Time 2h4m

Once onboard, the airplane had all the usual bells and whistles with power, blue mood-lighting, gigantic bins, etc. It was nice, but I couldn’t help but miss the old Combi. Granted, none of those flights were over 1.5 hours….

We pushed back on time and made our way to the runway. This airplane was whisper quiet compared to the 737-400 as we climbed into the still morning air.

I’ve seen Mt Rainier many times, but the view we had between thin cloud layers was one of the more incredible I can remember.

For some reason, however, it still didn’t quite resonate the way it should have. I just kept thinking about the glaciers and jagged peaks of Alaska. I may have only been gone for a couple of days, but there was something about the experience that really stuck to me and continues to stick with me more than a month later.

The flight attendants came through with drinks, and I opted for a hot tea.

I flipped open my laptop and the words continued to pour out. I spent the entire 2 hour flight writing up my thoughts from the trip.

We had a tailwind and were going to be early… really early. I knew what that meant; we’d have to wait for a gate at LAX. I was in no hurry, so the anticipation didn’t bother me.

Soon our descent began and we came down over the western end of the San Fernando Valley. After an eastbound turn toward downtown LA, we wound around to the west and landed. Then, despite a brief flicker of hope that we would have a gate, we taxied to the far end of the airport to wait. Another airplane was indeed in our spot. Even with the 15 minute wait, we still arrived half an hour early. I grabbed my bags and walked off in something of a daze.

Often I find myself exhausted after a trip like this, but I felt the opposite this time around. I actually felt energized from having seen a small slice of life in Alaska. I couldn’t help but revel in the symbiotic relationship between the people of Alaska and aviation. Seeing Alaska Airlines’ roots and its important role in the 49th state was something remarkable.

Oh sure, people in Alaska complain about the airline. Fares are too high. The Combis are too ratty. The Milk Run makes too many stops. None of those complaints are surprising, and some may be valid. In the end, it’s not an easy place to fly, but it’s an essential place to fly. Someone will always have a complaint, but it’s hard to imagine how another airline could swoop in and do even a fraction of what Alaska Airlines has built over the years.

The Combi was a truly remarkable fit for many of these communities, especially the smaller ones that have trouble filling up airplanes with people. It’s going to be very interesting to see how Alaska handles this. Many of these communities are funded by the US government’s Essential Air Service program. That may be considered a waste of money down in the lower 48 (I would agree in most cases), but in Alaska, it’s not. It’s actually, well, essential.

That doesn’t mean a 120+ seat airplane is going to be the right one for the job, but for now, that is Alaska’s plan. Its dwindling fleet of 737-700s will be concentrated in Alaska as much as possible. Three of those will be freighters, but the rest will carry passengers. That means there will be a lot more in the way of creature comforts including First Class, wifi, and power outlets. But can these markets all support that kind of airplane? Probably not. Were I a betting man, I’d say we’ll see the Embraer 175s up there some day. After all, those have almost the exact same seat count as the Combis, just without all the cargo.

But enough speculation. For now, I’ll just continue to enjoy my memories of the Combi, and I’ll go forward with a newfound better understanding of the importance of aviation in Alaska.

Thanks, obviously, to Joe Sprague, EVP External Relations at Alaska for taking me on this adventure. And thank you to all the people I encountered along the way. I tried to mention as many of you in this series as I could.

Get Cranky in Your Inbox!

The airline industry moves fast. Sign up and get every Cranky post in your inbox for free.

20 comments on “72 Hours With Alaska: Going Home and Wrapping Up

  1. I felt like I took the trip with you Crank. Having visited Alaska a couple of times I too got that sense that everyone there looks out for each other and you can see why after witnessing the climate and the logistics involved. Thanks for the ride.

  2. Did they consider converting the -700s to Combis to basically continue what they are doing now, just with newer aircraft?

    Or is it too short/small? (110ft vs 119ft for the -400)?

    1. Oliver – I’m guessing it was more about the business strategy shift than anything. Length isn’t an issue since the last version of the Combi was the 737-200. But I imagine the mod would have been a nightmare. I know the mod to make the 737-700 a freighter was already slow and expensive.

      Of course, the old -200s were way better anyway. They could move between various seating configs unlike the -400 which was fixed at 72 with the 4 igloos.

  3. Thanks for the great series, Cranky!

    Re E175s in Alaska: those wouldn’t be operated by Alaska (mainline), so how hard is it for Alaska to transfer their years of expertise, including the RNP approaches, to use in Alaska? Delta tried to have SkyWest CRJ-700s and -900s fly to JNU in the winter and crashed and burned (fortunately not literally). Perhaps Alaska mainline would be more willing to share the expertise with wholly-owned Horizon, who now operates some E175s, than with SkyWest? And would the Q400 be able to handle the SE Alaska routes?

    1. I believe DL shared their own RNPs with SkyWest but it still comes down to lots of years of experience to be able to fly places like JNU even with all the technology that is available today.

      I would bet that JNU is an airport that even DL pilots have to get specifically certified to fly; there are a number of airports worldwide where that is true.

      I’m not sure that any regional airline can retain pilots long enough to justify the intense training that is necessary to operate into very difficult airports. Horizon is suffering thru a major staffing shortage which is resulting in reduced schedules right now which probably means their pilots are leaving to go to other carriers and possibly to AS mainline. If AS ultimately has to raise Horizon salaries considerably, the economics of the entire regional jet program for AS are challenged.

      On a similar note, I am wondering if the C series will be used by DL to fly to places like JNU – too small for other mainline DL aircraft but technologically sophisticated enough to do anything that any other commercial jetliner can do.

      I agree this has been a fun series to read.

    2. Alaska developed proprietary RNP approaches that other airlines don’t have access to. That’s one big reason Delta flights divert and cancel far more than Alaska flights do. It’s all about who has the lowest minimums! If Alaska is getting in, no one is getting in. Horizon no doubt have access to that for their E175s, but I don’t believe the SkyWest CRJs have the requisite hardware installed for RNP (that being dual FMS).

      1. I believe DL developed their own RNP after trying and failing to get AS’ RNP.
        According to the DOT, DL the same number of flights to/from JNU that it scheduled in the 2nd and 3rd quarters of 2016.

        This is a side discussion to the story about CF’s experience with AS but it does show that what AS is doing is not impossible to duplicate. AS has the scale to make a lot of things like the combis and the intra-Alaska mainline flights possible that no one else has duplicated but getting in and out of JNU is not one of them.

    3. Alex – Presumably that would be the big hurdle to having a regional do it, but Horizon is already getting Q400 experience in the state (granted, not on challenging routes like these), but you would think that Horizon might be uniquely suited to handle this.

  4. Would you consider adding links to each of the previous parts so someone could start at the preview and click so the way through to the end?

    1. Eric – Yes of course. I had planned to do that, but I had to wait until all the posts went live. If you go back, you’ll see them all populated out.

  5. Thanks for taking the time to share your trip and allow your readers to vicariously “go with you” to Alaska. That is the one state I have never been to or through and I would like to go there someday though I don’t expect to anytime soon.

    If AS does use the E-175 on its Milk Run at least the seating will be 2-2 instead of 3-3 which is a bit more comfortable in my opinion.

  6. Why do you predict the Embraer 175 over the Q-400 for the milk run?

    I have heard rumors that the Q-400 is not delivering the way it should for Alaska out of Anchorage. Have you heard anything about that?

    1. Kevin – I don’t know about the Q and how it’s doing in Alaska, but I would be surprised if that ended up being the right airplane. Alaska wants a more mainline experience with First Class, Premium, etc. And the jet is still a better experience. Not sure how well or easy it would be to equip the Qs to do some of the harder flying up there.

      1. If they do, it will be interesting to see how they handle pilot training. There is nothing wrong with Horizon pilots, but the pay for the 737 should, in theory, make it easy to keep experienced pilots on that run, and for Southeast, experience really does matter. With Horizon already having staffing issues, I would think that adding Southeast might be complicated.

        I was flying out of Juneau once, and had the caption come over the loudspeaker to say something like: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are taking off over the mountains today, which can be somewhat disconcerting. Folks who have done this before, please calmly explain to your neighbors that this is perfectly normal.”

  7. Have you gotten the chance to fly the 747-Combi yet? Definitely an interesting experience sitting in Economy class in the bubble and only seeing about half the aircraft when you board, this was on Korean from ICN-TSN.

    1. MostlyAir – No sadly I haven’t. I think my best shot would be KLM from LA, but I have no current plans for that.

  8. Born and raised in Wyoming. Mountains were commonplace. Then I visited Alaska. I will never be the same. In 10 days I drove, saw, laughed and sighed. This can’t be real, I said over and over again. Thanks for sharing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Cranky Flier