Thursday, June 29, 2006

Jetways are for Jets!

When I jumpseat on other airlines, it's usually to get across the country, so I go in 737's or bigger. It's pretty rare that I ride in an airliner that is smaller than the one I fly for work. When I do, I enjoy noting the similarities and differences between other operations and our own.

Earlier this week, I rode a Saab 340 between Minneapolis and Watertown, SD. It was my first time in the SF340, and it seems like a neat little plane. The airplane says "Northwest Airlink" on its side, but the actual airline is Mesaba. They do all of Northwest's Saab and Avro RJ85 express flying. Pinnacle Airlines also operates under the "Airlink" brand name; they fly only CRJ-200's.

At Minneapolis, both Mesaba and Pinnacle operate out of the A and B concourses. The setup is very different from what I'm used to. The concourse is set up to look like a "regular" (ie mainline) operation. You have regularly spaced gates, each with its own waiting area that looks like all the other waiting areas at the airport, except in miniature; each one only holds 20 or 30 people. The gate itself leads to a comically short jetway, from which you board your airplane, whether it's a Saab or a CRJ. The effect is one of progressive claustrophobia: you go from a bright, airy hall to a smallish boarding area to a small jetway to an even smaller aircraft interior.

Now, I never thought I'd have an opinion on anything so trivial as how to board an airplane. But seeing the way Mesaba does it made me appreciate the way my own airline has it set up, at least for our turboprops. At our bigger stations, our gates tend to share large, open waiting areas. After the gate, you walk outside to your airplane; if it's a ways out on the ramp, you'll walk most of the way in a glass-paneled covered walkway. When you get to the plane, you'll board using the aircraft's stairs or ramp. At some airports we do use jetways, but you'll usually find stairs at the end of the jetway bringing you to ramp level, where you board the airplane.

Now I know some readers are scratching their heads, wondering why I would think our method is better. You end up with massive packed boarding rooms giving off a third world vibe, and then you have to negotiate a bunch of stairs, and go out into the elements, and then climb more stairs into the airplane. So you're right, from a practical standpoint, Mesaba has it set up much more practically - particularly for Minnesota winter conditions. But I'm thinking from an aesthetic standpoint.

My problem with jetways is that they insulate the passengers from realizing that they're about to strap on a thin aluminim tube and go blasting through the outer reaches of the atmosphere. Consider how you travel: you go from standing in line at the gate to standing in line on the jetway, then you duck through a little door into a jet cabin where you shuffle to your assigned seat. Some hours later, you shuffle back out the door, up another jetway, and into another airport terminal. The only indication that you just flew thousands of miles is that Grandma is there to pick you up. And really, most passengers like it that way.

In a turboprop like the Saab, you know you're flying. There's wind noise and engine noise and propeller noise, there's lots of vibration, you feel every gust and eddy, you can feel every sharp control movement. On every takeoff, you know whether the plane is light or heavy from its performance or lack thereof. There's no use pretending that you're doing anything other than flying.

And if you're going flying, you might as well get in a good look at the machine. Approaching from ramp level gives you time to appreciate its symmetry from various angles, to marvel at the engineering that goes into even "little planes," to get to know the quirky personality that all turboprops seem to have. Down here on the ramp, you can shake the hand of the mechanic that last turned a wrench on your craft, and say good morning to the ramper who will load your bag. Then, you step onto the airstairs, take one last look down the shimmering fuselage, and pull yourself up into the beast. There's no doubt about it - you're going flying!

Basically what I'm saying is that what most passengers consider to be turboprops' faults, I consider glorious features that do their little bit to connect us to a time when airline flying wasn't so commonplace or sterile or comfortable or even safe. If people embraced turboprops this way, they might discover that they actually enjoy flying without the adventure sucked out of it.

Wow, I kinda went all nostalgic on ya'll there, didn't I? Ironic given that the Megawhacker really has more in common with jets than turboprops. I doubt I'd be waxing poetic if I had to do 8 legs a day on the Saab.


Anonymous said...

Have you ever seen Delta's regional jet terminal at CVG? It's impressive, like a minature airport.

Sam said...

No, I haven't. Out here on the west coast we're pretty isolated & ignorant of how the various regionals run their operations out east. Compared to companies like ASA, Comair, and Chautauqua/Republic, my airline is quite small - I'm sure I'd be in awe if I traveled through one of their hubs.

Jeff said...

I loved your nostalgic lookback.

Your comment about the ability to check out the plane as you board is something I really miss. It's why I love flying in and out of Bob Hope/Burbank (as a passenger - I'm a private pilot who hasn't flow in years).

At BUR, you get to use the airstairs for every flight, no matter what type of aircraft, so you can admire the plane. Plus, you have stairs at the front and rear door, so deplaning is much faster.

Todd said...

One time flying through Paris I climbed the exterior stairs to board a Delta 777 - what a great thing it was to see that airplane up close from the exterior. Agree with you on that idea!

The Comair terminal in Cincy is getting better - it had gotten pretty shabby, but it works well.

Sam said...

Oh! I did forget about Burbank, even though I used to work at that airport for Amflight & commuted out of there during my first months with my current company. I suspect that's one of the last places in the US where you regularly use airstairs to board aircraft like the MD80 and B737.

Traytable said...

Oh that's one of my favourite parts!! I've gotten some fab shots of a/c tails from ground level on say, a 737 that wouldn't have been possible via a jetway... Virgin Blue in particular use airstairs at a lot of their ports...

Anonymous said...

Ya I've been to frankfurt a couple times with my dad (767FO UAL) and they use air stairs for the remote stand. It's awesome getting off that all nighter and smelling that jet fuel!