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December 12, 2005

Small Aircraft, Small Airports

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

It's possible to view air travel in a Harry Potter-esque way. Instead of the Wizards and the Muggles, the parallel universe is that of larger airports populated by jet aircraft of major airlines and smaller airports served by turboprop aircraft of regional airlines.

In my case, all but two of the 375 commercial flights I've made have been to larger airports, and all but six of those flights have been on standard-sized jet airliners. (Yes, I maintain an air travel database.)

Many times, waiting for a flight, I find myself staring idly out a terminal window watching the activity. And I sometimes notice the small-fry. At Seattle's airport these are planes flown by Horizon, a subsidiary of Alaska Airlines. Horizon has 19 Bombardier CRJ-700 aircraft (a twin-jet regional airliner carrying 70 passengers), 28 Bombardier Q200s (a turboprop that carries 37 passengers) and 18 Bombardier Q400s (a turboprop like the Q200 that has a stretched fuselage like the CJR-700 with passenger capacity of 74).

Horizon Bombardier (formerly de Havilland) Q200 at Portland, Oregon airport.

CRJ 700.jpg
Bombardier CRJ-700.

All of Horizon's planes have cabins with a single aisle and two narrow seats on either side. The aircraft sit close to the ground and boarding is done via a door with integral stairs that opens vertically. No jetway needed: you walk out to the plane and climb the steps on the inside of the opened door.

Viewed from the terminal are passengers walking to or from these small airliners unlike the comparative hordes queueing in the jetways to board the usual 737s, 747s and 777s.
And the smaller aircraft are different when they take off, especially the turboprop-powered ones. Although they cruise at slower speeds than pure-jet liners, turboprops are faster off the mark in short drag-races. They become airborne in less distance and climb faster, at least for the first few thousand feet.

Then there are the places they fly to. Instead of Chicago, New York, London, and San Francisco, Horizon's planes head for Wenatchee, Pasco and Yakima. The passengers even seem a bit different. Actually, they probably are different from those flying to major airports. Flights between major airports seem to carry a larger proportion of business travelers -- or passengers in business dress, anyway. Folks flying to small cities seem to favor casual clothing almost exclusively.

Small cities and small aircraft don't mean small fares. Regional airlines often charge surprisingly high fares for short flights where they have no airline competition. The "competition" for short-haul airlines is the automobile; a too-high fare will lead potential customers to say "Hell!: for that kind of money I'd rather drive!"

Last weekend, after decades of flying big jets, I finally entered that parallel world of regional air travel. Due to a family matter, The Fiancée and I had occasion to round-trip between Seattle and Yakima.

Yakima is over in dry, cold (at this time of year) eastern Washington. It's 103 air-miles from Seattle and the cost of our tickets was about the same as it would be for round-trips to San Jose, just under 700 air-miles from Seattle.

We flew almost-full 37-passenger Q200s each way. Fortunately we were in the air only about 35 minutes, which made the cramped seating endurable.

Yakima's airport has a respectable 7,600-foot main runway -- enough to accomodate smaller standard jets such as 737s and more than enough for small turboprop liners. Horizon seems to be the only scheduled airline flying from Yakima, with six arrivals and departures per day, a maximum of 222 seats to be filled if only Q200s are used. In terms of passenger boardings Yakima ranked 254th last year whereas Seattle was number 16.

Yakima Airport.jpg
Yakima airport terminal.

The Yakima terminal was upgraded in 1999 and could handle a lot more traffic than it currently does. But the contrast to Seattle is stark. Seattle, like most major airports, has jetways extending from the second story where the passenger waiting areas are; the ground level is reserved for aircraft servicing related spaces. Yakima's terminal is built low to the ground, just like the airliners that fly there. Most of the building is one story high. There is a ticketing area, a snack bar (closed evenings and weekends), a couple rental car desks (fees are high, by the way) and a small baggage pickup room. There is also a waiting area at the gates plus a small security checkpoint.

All-in-all it was a different, fun experience. After all those years wondering about those few passengers flying small planes to little cities, this time it was me. Perhaps the best part was that the small scale of everything made the trip less impersonal than the Spam-in-a-can drill of my usual flying.



posted by Donald at December 12, 2005


Decades ago I had occasion to fly in smaller airplanes around the NW, usually Horizon. There was one flight that came down from Vancouver, B.C., at twilight, flying along the coast which was clearly Ursula LeGuin country. In fact, once Ursula LeGuin and her husband were on the flight a couple of seats ahead. Flying over the Anacortes refinery where orange flares waved in the blue dusk was always deeply stirring. Often there were rain squalls spattering on the windshield.

The person who sat next to the pilot was supposed to be a responsible and capable person -- they got a quick lesson in how to operate the fire extinquisher under their seat. But once the pilot asked a chatty little older woman to sit there. When we arrived, he thanked her. He said he'd put in too many hours and was afraid of dozing off, but he'd known she'd talk the whole way and keep him awake and she did.

But what I used to really love back in the Sixties was driving down to the Great Falls airport to ship out crated bronze sculptures (my husband was a Western sculptor). It was very informal, almost like a car dealer or something. I'd drive around to the back, walk into the hangar to find someone to help me unload, gossip a bit while we did the paperwork. Nothing like today.

Once I drove our little van back north in the wee smalls and happened to see one of the big nuclear Minuteman missiles being loaded into its silo. It was white, slender, gleaming in the big lights. I paused too long and a jeep started out to the highway (no gun turret like the humvees) but I took off. He didn't pursue.

It was an innocent time.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on December 12, 2005 11:49 PM

I love the small airports the same way I love small cities. I get dizzied by big airports. I like I'm lost in some huge, never-ending computerspace. But small city small airports seem like plain ol' buildings rather than twinkly flow charts. I can find my way around them no sweat. I ever miss the old routine of walking out to the plane across the tarmac. All in all, much more enjoyable and easier on the nerves for me than flying via JFK, for instance.

I don't love flying in small prop planes though. I wonder if there are people who really prefer them to the big mega-jets. Maybe so: oddly enough, there are people who like flying in Piper Cubs, so maybe there are people who like passenger props too...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 13, 2005 12:07 AM

I had some throroughly memorable winter flights over the North Atlantic in iced-up turboprops when my sister lived in Shetland. In the best one we boarded the plane with salt spray blowing over the apron from the sea 200 yards away, weren't allowed to sit in the back six rows because of the weight of ice that was inevitably going to build up on the tail during the flight, and landed in six inches of fresh snow at Aberdeen because we didn't have the fuel to go anywhere else. Landing in show looks pretty spectulary from inside the plane, for the hlaf a second or so before the windows go white; it must look even better from outside.

Then there was the time I flew into London City airport, which is a little landing strip in the docks right in the middle of town, in a little Dornier turbprop. Flying up the Thames estuary and over London docks in a Dornier has a certain, ah, resonance - Achtung, Spitfeuer!

Posted by: Alan Little on December 13, 2005 3:23 AM


Cool post. You're actually missing one more parallel world of aviation: small private planes. I posted on it over on my blog.

Posted by: Dave munger on December 13, 2005 6:54 AM

An interesting post. It reminded me of my flight to Egilsstadir, which I suppose must be the regional hub of East Iceland. I do like small friendly airports with one building and a bus parked right outside.

Posted by: Graham Asher on December 13, 2005 8:08 AM

I would second MB's observation about smaller airports: I've gone to a lot of trouble in recent years to fly out of Burbank airport (one story, walks across the tarmac) as opposed to LAX (huge and often unbelievably congested).

As for flying on commercial carrier prop planes, I've done it five or six times. One trip was out of Nashville going to Greenville S.C., a fairly long hop but apparently one without the volume necessary to make a jet cost-effective. I also took one prop airliner flight with the family to get to the Bahamas on vacation out of Miami. I'll admit I was a trifle skeptical about flying over ocean with my kids in that plane. The same reaction was worse when I took my family river rafting on the Green River; I bundled my kids and wife into two ancient, tiny Piper Cub-esque planes which then laboriously took off across the Rockies, with me thinking: what have I done?!

I also went, sans kids, on a flight with a friend who was a fairly advanced flight student out of Van Nuys airport (completely non-commercial, I think). That again was a very small, although new plane. It was also an unbelievably windy day: I'm not sure what the instructor who accompanied us was thinking. The plane spent a good deal of the time rising and falling (several hundred feet at a crack) like a high speed elevator, in a fashion that left my friend gasping for control. My reaction, of course, given that I had absolutely nothing to contribute, was to relax in the back seat and ultimately to fall asleep. Before nodding off, however, we flew over some hills near my home and I suddenly understood the process of plate tectonics and how mountains get made: it was all perfectly visible when flying over the countryside. The ability to understand aspects of your world that you fail to spot from the ground is a remarkable aspect of small plane flight.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 13, 2005 9:53 AM

If you wonder how some airlines can afford to provide service at small airports with few passengers, the answer quite frequently is that they can't, not on their own at least. Some small-town air services are subsidized under the federal government's Essential Air Services program.
As far as I know, Horizon's service to Yakima is not subsidized; apparently the maximum 222 seats per day is enough to make the service financially viable.

Posted by: Peter on December 13, 2005 10:25 AM

Michael: I regularly fly out of Ithaca on B-Q200's. I also bounced off to Asia three times this calendar year alone, so I know both ends of the thing: time-travel in a spaceship halfway around the planet in a crowd of people who generally don't know what they're doing; and puddle-jumping out of the Finger Lakes down to New York or Philly on my way to points more distant. I'm also a private pilot, which goes to your "Piper Cub" thing (although I trained in a Citabria). And that's why I positively enjoy the little airplanes. They're a lot more like flying and a lot less like a bus.

I keep current aerial charts and trusty E-6B (manual) flight computer with me when I fly out of here, and practice pilotage along the way.

The little airplanes are a good time.

Posted by: Billy Beck on December 13, 2005 12:34 PM

I concur with MB: small airports are great; prop jobs, not so much. (My father, an Air Force mechanic during Korea, always referred to propeller aircraft as "prop jobs.")

Prop planes are noisy and feel unsafe, particularly when the passengers are reseated to balance the weight of the aircraft. (One more heavyset guy in the back row, and we'd be dead!)

Small airports, however, are a joy. I fly into one when I visit family, usually on a small jet. They're less hectic, what with the ease of getting to your gate. People look less stressed. The person behind the bar or snack counter is friendly, not a zombied-out counter clerk. And small airports tend to look as if they belong in the region, as opposed to being another faceless edifice of concrete, steel and plastic. Walking from the plane to the terminal past palm trees or other local fauna is much nicer than going through the typical drab plastic tunnel. You get there thinking, "I've gotten to my destination."

When you arrive at a major airport, you think, "Shit, where do I go now?" It looks no different than any other major airport, and you are essentially still in transit until you get to your outgoing transportation and get off the airport property.

When I land, I want to be at my destination, not in some godawful aeronautical limbo.

Posted by: Ned on December 13, 2005 2:10 PM

3 friends and I once made an Alaska Airlines flight from the Bend, OR airport despite arriving at the airport AFTER the scheduled flight time.

They saw us pulling into the parking lot and held the flight for 10 minutes while they checked our bags and ran us through security (and this was after 9/11). We left the rented minivan in the parking lot and someone from the car rental agency went out and processed it for us.

Try that at LAX.

Posted by: grandcosmo on December 13, 2005 11:07 PM

Mary -- Gee, that flight where the pilot shared the cockpit with a passenger must have been back before Alaska acquired Horizon; the smallest plane in Horizon's fleet these days is the Q200 I flew.

Michael -- Agreed about tiny planes. My very first flight was in one of those things when I was maybe ten years old. My dad had a guy take us up (I was in my dad's lap in the seat behind the pilot) and circle around Everett, WA, then repeated it for my sister. Needless to say, my mom was extremely nervous. Never been in something that small since, and that suits me just fine.

Alan -- Good God! I don't think I'd ever take chances like that.

Dave -- As I just mentioned, small planes can be nerves-provoking to some of us. But yes, they represent yet another parallel world.

Friedrich -- You actually dozed off while that plane was hitting air pockets? If it were me, I'd have been getting a good case of religion.

Peter -- Actually, I suppose it would be up to 444 seats-per-day in Yakima if one counts both inbound and outbound passengers, which I forgot to do in the post.

Ned -- I make a distinction between turboprops and prop planes with reciprocating engines; the latter are far more complicated mechanically and therefore are more prone to problems. The Q200 (at 37 seats in Horizon's configuration) can carry almost twice as many passengers than the classic DC-3, which topped out at 21. So it's not that small.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 13, 2005 11:20 PM

Amusingly, just the sort of small planes the CIA may or may not have been using to fly or not fly terrorists or non-terrorists around the world!

Posted by: Toby on December 14, 2005 12:42 AM

This year I've been a passenger in two commuter jets, an Embraer 170 and an Embraer 135. Seating was 2-2 and 2-1, respectively: no middle seat. The 135 was a little claustrophobia-inducing, and I wouldn't like to take one for a long flight -- but their range probably limits them to flights of two hours. At the same time, it was a nice change from double-aisle heavies (B-747s, A340s, etc.) which can feel like overcrowded airborne waiting rooms.

The best thing about commuter jets is their relatively low cruising altitude on many routes. The 135 I was on leveled off at 21,000 feet, an altitude at which you can look down and see many features of the landscape in clear weather.

Posted by: Rick Darby on December 14, 2005 12:09 PM

Reminds me of a comedy routine once I heard. Set up of the joke is: "Has anyone flown American Eagle" Punch line is they don't have flight numbers, but odds; as in "I'm on the 3:1 to Santa Fe" :)

Nice post. And while I don't mind small planes per se, at 6'5" sitting on the tarmac at LGA in a commuter jet can be torture.

Posted by: Robin on December 15, 2005 2:57 PM

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