Horizon Retires the Q400 But Its Mission Remains the Same

Alaska Airlines, Horizon

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.

T-100Data via Cirium

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.

Horizon Fokker F28 August 2000 Route map generated by the Great Circle Mapper – copyright © Karl L.Swartz.

The F28 was replaced by the CRJ-700, and the jet network grew south while culling flights to the east.

Horizon CR7 August 2008 Route map generated by the Great Circle Mapper – copyright © Karl L. Swartz.

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

Data via Cirium

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.

Maps via Cirium

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.

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21 comments on “Horizon Retires the Q400 But Its Mission Remains the Same

  1. I’m confused by this paragraph:

    Why did that happen? The Q400 arrived. The Q400 joined the fleet in January 2021. 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.

    Didn’t the Q400 arrive before January 2021? I thought it had been there for more than 2 years. The whole paragraph seems off?

    1. Looks like it was probably a fat finger, as it appears that Horizon first flew Q400s in January 2001, not January 2021, which would be in line with the stacked area graph further up in the post.

      And yes, I almost made the same mistake myself when writing this comment… Have to really force myself to think/write “2001” (or similar) instead of the more instinctive “2021” these days.

  2. I briefly worked at QX in the mid-’90s. The Metro III & F28 were not fun to work, Neither was the D328. But the Dash 8? That was a breeze. Reliable too. 20+ years later, I would see those same airframes out here in the Midwest flying for CommutAir.

    In a lot of ways, the end of the Dash is the “end” for QX. Yes, it was subsumed into AS a while ago, but it still retained some of its own character. No longer.

    1. Did the 328s fuel panel always stop working for you too? They used to fly in my local airport under the UJC banner and the fuel panel more often than not would flash “Help Me”

  3. Any chance that turboprops make a comeback at any of the regionals as a way to work around scope clause limits?

    All the legacies are flying their max number of 70- and 76-seat jets, but my understanding is that they could add e.g. Q400s and ATR 72s to go beyond that limit if they wanted.

    1. Alex – Definitely not now since piots are the issue, not scope clause limits. But airlines have tried in the past and didn’t like them enough to keep them around. I think those days are over. We might see props at the smaller end if pilot rules allow. These are when we get into the electric aircraft world.

    2. Serious question to tag onto yours…

      Has there been much in the way of significant innovation or efficiency gains in turboprop planes/engines since the last version of the Q400 came out?

      As an avgeek and pax, I always had a softspot for the Q400, but I realize I may be in the minority. I do wish there were more new-build options for regional pax planes with < 80 seats. With the pressures on crew & fuel costs. however, I realize that the numbers may not make sense (at least in the US/Europe) for planes like that.

    3. Turboprops are still flying as codeshares and partnerships to smaller cities, but at airlines like Cape Air or Silver Airways rather than directly with major airline-owned partners. This sort of arrangement seems to work ok for the smallest destinations that are the first to lose service due to either a pilot shortage or flight limits due to scope clauses.

      1. Great point, makes sense. I do see the Cape Air and Silver Airways planes at airports, just don’t think of them much, as I don’t have a reason to fly their routes. Shame, as I’d love to fly them, both to experience their airlines and services and to visit many of their destinations. :-)

        The few times I’ve checked their fares out of curiosity, the fares seemed a little higher than I expected, but I guess that’s the price/seat-mile needed to make the numbers work for smaller planes, and I’m glad that airlines like that offer some additional options. It’s also worth pointing out that many of Cape Air & Silver’s routes are to more upscale island/vacation destinations, so many of their pax may not be super price-sensitive, and other (less convenient) options may be limited.

  4. Yeah, the service reduction going from the 37 seat Q200s to the 76 seat Q400s was dramatic. I regularly flew to Wenatchee at that time; they cut it from four flights a day, which allowed sensible connections to most of Alaska’s network, to three or two flights a day. Capacity stays the same (or increased when they had three), but utility was much worse.

    Now I live near(ish) Kelowna, and it’s even worse since they switched from the Q400 to the E75 late last year as the Q400 fleet shrunk. Flights are down from 2-3 per day to 5 per week in March (and the one flight is timed so that a large fraction of my itineraries require an overnight in Seattle in one direction or the other). I really fear that the economics of the E75 will make flights that were viable on the Q400 unviable. Obviously EAT-SEA and YLW-SEA aren’t enormous money-makers, but there is no alternative at all for EAT and no American alternative for YLW.

  5. “Horizon Retires the Q400 But Its Mission Remains the Same.”

    Translation, being lost while being under Alaska’s thumb. /s

  6. I fondly remember flying on Horizon from PDX to MFR in the mid-80’s when they were a United regional partner.
    We were asked to “rate” the landing on a scale of 1 to 10 as we exited the aircraft. The FA told us that the pilot with the best rating (for the day/month/year, I don’t remember) would receive a bonus. That landing was nice!

    1. Interesting. I always just assumed that pilots want to do a super smooth landing for ego/reputation/pride reasons (to show their skill and competence). Never thought airlines would incentivize pilots beyond that, but maybe it was more a way to get the passengers to think about how smooth the landing was, and to leave the flight with a good memory of the flight.

      That said, the most impressive landings to me as an avgeek aren’t the smoothest landings, but rather the landings done at/near legal maximum crosswind components, where the pilots have to crab into the wind until just before they flare for the touchdown. I’m sure those landings are stressful for the pilots, but when crosswind landings are done well they are absolute gems and a pleasure to watch.

  7. I am in the minority, but I’ll really miss the Q400 at Horizon. Was a rocket on takeoff, the window seat views were great, and that reassurance that you had arrived when the pilots feathered the props during shutdown. I also logged a lot of time on the old Dash-8 100/200 back in the day (with a good amount of time on the Metro and F28 too).

    I had hoped to catch one more Q400 flight before QX retired them, but they were pulled out of Boise early in the process. Plane spotting is a lot duller here now with 737/A320/E75 covering almost every flight (occasionally a CRJ 200/700 makes an appearance).

  8. Horizon also operated the F-27. I flew on a Horizon F-27 from PDX to RDM. That was after I flew Western Airlines from LAX to PDX.

  9. The E-jets are good planes and give AS a lot of flexibility. To continue to grow, they should either open a Midwest hub (STL?)predominantly with E-jets going east and west with 737s in the mix where traffic supports them. This would include off-peak flights from their big markets, but also places like GEG, EUG, MFR, SMF, FAT, etc. In the alternative, AS should buy the A-220 as their next plane for longer point-to-point flying from its big markets , but easily able to handle mid-cons as well.

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