Last year, I reported that my airline had ordered 13 new Megawhackers to replace some of our existing Miniwhacker fleet, mainly because the FAA's increased average passenger weights were making the Miniwhacker less economically feasible. The new airplanes were originally supposed to start showing up in the third quarter of 2006, but as these things often go, we didn't start getting them until this January. We're now taking delivery of several airplanes per month, and we've started taking some Miniwhackers offline and sending them to their new airline, Commutair.
This has resulted in some pretty substantial changes for our pilot group. The company opened a new Megawhacker base in Seattle last year; since then the Portland base has shrunk slightly and I've seen myself go backward on the "triangle," or seniority list for PDX-based Megawhacker FOs. At the same time, the company shrunk the Seattle Miniwhacker base until they finally announced that it would be closing for good by this summer. There aren't too many newhires or upgrades, but the training department is still very busy turning Miniwhacker pilots into Megawhacker drivers. The two airplanes are quite closely related and share a type certificate, so that cuts down on training time a bit.
The new airplanes have one major change that we'll be eventually incorporating into the rest of the fleet: they have 76 seats instead of 74. To get the extra two seats in, they moved the left rear galley up to the front right side of the airplane, where they made space by cutting the forward cargo hold in half. The flight attendants hate the new configuration with a passion, since restocking by Food & Beverage (FAB) interferes with passenger boarding. It also gives the airplanes a very nose forward center of gravity...we are always moving passengers back when the airplane isn't completely full. As usual, nobody asked the front line employees first.
The Megawhacker has been plagued by reliability issues since it was first delivered, and its disappointing to see that they're cropping up again in this most recent batch. These airplanes were supposed to have a series of fixes incorporated into them, but new problems keep surfacing. A maintenance supervisor I spoke with said that he's seen a lot of evidence of quality control issues at the manufacturer - simple things like missing rivets and incorrectly installed wiring harnesses.
Other than that, its nice to be flying brand new airplanes. Our "old" Megawhackers aren't that old, mind you - the first was delivered in 2001 - but working airplanes take a lot of wear and tear, and it shows. When preflighting a new airplane I'm always impressed by how different it looks without chipped and faded paint, grease stains down the belly, or dings in the fuselage from prop ice. The clean landing gear wells are especially impressive - they're the first thing to get filthy on any airplane. Inside the cockpit, all the usual wear areas are spotless, and every control and switch has an extra little tightness in it. The airplane even smells new for the first week or two.
It appears that we'll be smelling lots of new Megawhackers over the next few years. Yesterday morning the company announced that we've ordered 15 additional Megawhackers (with options for 20 more). They'll be coming late 2008-early 2009, at which time we expect to retire the 12 remaining Miniwhackers. This means that when I upgrade, it'll be into the left seat of a Megawhacker. I kinda wish I had the chance to fly a Mini, but the $76-$81/hr captain's pay will be a nice raise.