On Thursday evening at 7pm sharp, Horizon flight 2400 touched down in Seattle after a 51 minute flight from Spokane. This was the last scheduled passenger-carrying Q400 flight on Horizon, and it marks the end of turboprops flying under a major airline brand in the US. Despite this major shift in fleet, the airline’s mission of serving the Pacific Northwest and following along the West Coast has not changed.
For many years, Horizon specialized in flying short hops around the Pacific Northwest. It was acquired by Alaska in 1986, but it still flew under its own brand until the last decade when it settled into a more traditional regional arrangement with its overlord.
Over the years, Horizon flew a motley crew of smaller turboprops, including the Metroliner (phased out in February 1998), the Dash 8-100 and -200 (gone in January 2009), and even for a brief time the Dorner 328 (flown February 1994 to October 1997). It did also fly a handful of Fokker 28s, peaking capacity on those around the turn of the millennium.
The Fokkers were an interesting lot, and they provided a look into Horizon’s future. They were much larger than the rest of the fleet in terms of capacity at the time, but they still focused on the same basic network design. The idea was to put them on higher demand short-haul routes but also longer, thinner routes from secondary markets like Boise that couldn’t support mainline jet capacity. Here’s the map at the F28’s peak in August 2000.
The F28 was replaced by the CRJ-700, and the jet network grew south while culling flights to the east.
Why did that happen? The Q400 arrived. The Q400 joined the fleet in January 2001. With more than 70 seats, this airplane gave good turboprop economics with a whole lot more capacity. This was perfect for those short east-west flights and even down into Northern California. That airplane enabled the jets to focus on longer hauls where the Q400 had its most significant disadvantage.
The CRJ-700s lasted into 2011 with Horizon when the airline decided to focus back in on a single Q400 fleet, but then SkyWest was brought in to fly some of those airplanes, at least on the longest hauls down to Southern California that couldn’t support a mainline jet and were too far for the Q400.
They were never a great fit. Alaska has those airplanes outfitted with an all-coach cabin, treating it like the Horizon turboprop experience. Could it have gone with a First Class? Sure, but then it would have had even fewer seats available to sell in coach. It was in 2015 when SkyWest started flying its first Embraer 175 for Alaska, and that’s when things clicked. The CRJ-700s were phased out by November 2017, the same year that Horizon started getting Embraer 175s of its own.
With a proper First Class onboard and still 6 more seats in total compared to the CRJ-700s, the Embraers started opening up new markets with their range. Sure they could still go north-south, but they could now really punch into midcon flying past the Rockies. With SkyWest, this was a vehicle that Alaska relied upon to build up its Seattle hub, especially as it fought Delta’s incursion. Horizon dabbled in midcon flying a bit early on, but it was more focused along the coast where it had always been.
Horizon Q400 Average Stage Length By Month
The successful introduction of the Embraer 175s into the Horizon fleet meant the Q400s started seeing their roaming grounds shrink to be much closer to home. Average stage length was up near 300 miles but it had dropped to under 250 when the pandemic hit. What happened after was more of an economic survival decision than anything else, but it was short-lived anyway. Then the decision to get rid of the Q400s entirely was another survival decision. With pilots so difficult to find, Horizon knew it would be better off with a single fleet so that it had fewer training events and less of an issue moving people between airplanes. The Q400 was never going to win the strategic battle vs the Embraer 175, and so, its time was up.
The aircraft that flew the final flight on Thursday had a pretty typical Q400 kind of day… Portland – Seattle – Portland – Seattle – Wenatchee – Seattle – Spokane – Seattle. Those routes all remain, but they will shift to the Embraer 175s. Capacity on the aircraft is similar, but the costs are certainly different. Despite this change, the airline’s route map still hasn’t changed all that much over the years.
Sure, there are a couple of flights into the middle but that’s more the domain of SkyWest. More noticeably, the airline has moved into the state of Alaska with a small presence. But other than that, it’s the same core network going up and down the coast along with flights heading east toward Montana.
Are there any losers? Oh sure, but those losers were mostly culled when the 37-seaters disappeared more than a decade ago. These are the same types of cities that have lost all around the US as small city air service continues to crumble. Twenty years ago, Horizon served Arcata/Eureka, Butte, Kamloops, Klamath Falls, North Bend, Pendleton, and Pocatello. Now there are no flights at all to those cities under the Alaska name. But more recently,the bleeding has stopped.
Considering just how much the fleet make-up has changed over the years, that’s a surprisingly small number of cities to have disappeared off the route map. At the same time, Horizon has added a lot more lines to the map, especially flying north-south. Now that will all be done on the Embraer 175… until the next fleet decision comes due.