I recently had the great pleasure to fly on the inaugural SAN-MCO flight as part of a small group invited by Alaska Airlines to visit central Florida for 3 quick days – which actually seemed more like 2! The flights were fine, the people were wonderful, the activities were fun and interesting, and the accommodations and meals were top drawer. But perhaps a few more details might be appreciated by you readers?
Warning: as is my style, this report will be short on photos and long on rhetoric.
AS is currently in an exciting growth mode in San Diego and is now flying nonstop to 10 destinations from Lindbergh Field! The latest is Orlando, which up until October 10 was the largest un-served domestic market from SAN. (And ironically, according to my research, SAN was the largest un-served domestic market out of MCO.) Seems like kind of a natural, no? The route had one previous (poor) attempt at service by AirTran back in June 2007 (thru the following March) which I can only describe as “a joke.”
So AS announced in late May that beginning 10-11-12 (even the selected start-date is cool!) they would start flying nonstop 5x weekly – x23 e/b and x34 w/b – between Lindbergh Field and Orlando Intl. I have to say that the times of the flights are not optimal but I can understand why they are what they are. The new service is taking advantage of free a/c time by using one of SAN’s RON 738s with a 10:35pm departure, arriving in Florida at 6:30am; the plane turns at MCO and heads back to SAN at 8:05am, scheduled to arrive back in SoCal at 10:40am. (With SAN’s 11:30pm curfew, I think we can count on flight 762 not being real late very often!)
For a brand new, somewhat experimental route such as this, I can see AS being cautious with frequency and a/c utilization, even though the PDEW in this market for the last several years has averaged a very consistent and healthy 210 or so. MCO is, however, a notoriously low yielding market but hopefully there will be some (expected) business travel to help the numbers. My hope, which is shared by some AS employees with whom I spoke, is that the flight will do well (even with these times) and get changed to daily/daytime service pretty soon. Then I have no doubt that the service will do very well.
October 11, 2012 (Thursday)
Flight 762, departs SAN 10:35pm, gate 16 – on time departure
a/c: 738 (ETOPS -- the arrival a/c used is flt 862 from HNL which arrives ~9:20)
Seat 24A Economy Class (flight was 100% full)
The first thing that I noticed was how crowded T1’s West Rotunda (concourse) was at 9:30-10:30 on a Thursday night. There are 8 gates there and enough were in use to make it pretty packed, including all the concessions there. Part of the scene was of course the new flight that I was about to board but there were some UA red-eyes boarding and departing and lots of AS and UA arrivals happening as well.
Since this was an inaugural flight, there were refreshments and some decorations at gate 16 and 3 speakers spoke briefly just prior to boarding: Doug Clark, THE man in SAN for AS (SAN Sales Manager), Ben Munson, AS’s Director of Network Planning, and Hampton Brown, Director of Air Service Development at SAN. The red ribbon was cut and 157 pax boarded. Beyond the usual priority boarding for Mileage Plan members, etc., I noted that AS boarded pax with no baggage to go in the overhead bins before those of us with carry-ons for the bins.
On board there was a nice gift bag on every seat which contained several Inaugural items including an official flight certificate. To celebrate the new service, an adult drink was free for those awake enough to order one. Due to the time, the inflight service was subdued but still included the usual beverage services – 3x that I’m aware of -- offerings from the Northern Bites menu, and rental of Digi-Players. Wi-Fi (Gogo Inflight) was also available.
Being a red-eye, inflight announcements were few. The expected flight time was announced by the cockpit to be 4:04 (as compared to the published 4:55 gate-gate time!) so we either had a nice tailwind, or schedule planning needs to trim their times on this route a bit – probably both. We were off runway 27 at 22:44 PDT.
My inflight entertainment for me, when I was awake, was a nice lightning storm below and to the north of our route, somewhere, I would guess, over New Mexico and Texas. I want to mention that although I (in a window seat and not awake too often) had little interaction with any of the flight attendants, others in our group commented that they were friendly, accommodating, and efficient. I can say that any and all AS employees that I encountered at SAN were also helpful, friendly and seemed very upbeat about the new route to Florida.
We landed at MCO before dawn at about 05:44 EDT, beating the estimate by a few minutes and making the flight actually south of 4 hours! Thankfully gate 10 was available 45 minutes early in Airside 1 and we pulled right in and deplaned. The terminal was pretty much empty and there was no sign of the inaugural festivities planned for the first MCO-SAN flight due to take our 738 back to California in 2 hours or so. (We passed Jeff Etherington, Alaska’s Regional General Manager of Sales & Community Marketing, who was racing to gate 10, perhaps to supervise those festivities.)
Our group was met at baggage claim, ushered onto a bus, and taken to our hotel for 2 nights, the beautiful Reunion Resort.
THE LAND ADVENTURES
I know there are restrictions on this forum about advertising and promotion. I do not intend to do any of that, but as they are certainly part of my report, I do want to mention the places we visited and I will say right here that all were outstanding, well-run tourism adventures that I plan on going back to next time I’m in the Orlando area. We did none of the usual places that we all associate with the area – Disney, Universal, Sea World, etc. – but 3 smaller, in-nature, out-of-town attractions that were fun, exciting, and very different from the usual. I sincerely hope that I do not overstep any of the rules of the forum.
In case you’re not keeping track, it’s now October 12, 2012. We arrived at the hotel about 7am – the sun was finally rising – and had an hour or so to wake up, change from our flying duds to riding-ATV clothes, and maybe gulp down a cup of coffee. We had about an hour bus ride to our first adventure, Revolution Off Road, located near Clermont Florida, west of Orlando. We enjoyed riding ATVs as a sample of some of the activities offered here and saw an amazing demonstration of a Water Jet Pack device on the lake. (Kind of Waterworld meets The Rocketeer.)
After a few hours there, it was back on the bus and our first official meal of the trip, a box lunch, which tasted real good! Another long ride took us southeast of Orlando, near Holopaw, to Florida EcoSafaris. This great place offers ziplines, horseback rides, all-terrain bus tours of natural Florida flora and fauna, and more, all found on this huge Conservation Area. Again we only sampled 3 of the zipline options amid native central Florida lsndscape.
By late afternoon, we were back on the you-know-what and headed back to our hotel which is located south of Walt Disney World, on the southwest side of Orlando. By the time we got back (Kissimmee traffic and all) we had less than an hour to get all the dust and pine needles off before touring the hotel property and having a lovely dinner. Then sleep -- finally!
The next morning was supposed to start at 5am for a sunrise hot air balloon ride but it was cancelled due to high winds. So after breakfast we left (at the heavenly hour of 9:30) for our remaining destination, Wild Florida. Okay, so it was another hour or so on our bus but by now our butts knew the seats very well.
This place is south of Orlando on Lake Cypress, near Kenansville. Here we had a very enjoyable air boat ride on the lake (looking for but not actually seeing ‘gators), then a nice lunch, and a tour through their private wildlife park, small but containing most of the must-see local fauna of the area (including plenty of ‘gators!) A personal highlight of my time at Wild Florida was Kramer, an Umbrella Cockatoo, who seemed to develop a very deep and meaningful liking to me! Mind you, I liked Kramer too, so it was very sad for both of us when it was time for me to leave. (Kisses to you Kramer!) It was a very enjoyable several hours which ended when we, of course, again climbed up the steps of the bus.
Back at the hotel, we actually had a couple of hours for refreshments or a nap plus a shower, before our Saturday night visit to a nice hotel, the Lake Buena Vista Resort Village. We then had a fun dinner at Frankie Farrell’s Irish Pub in Orlando. Then back to our hotel for our final night in Orlando (and some more much-needed rest!)
Sunday morning, October 14, we left the hotel in the dark at a bit after 6 and headed for MCO. At the land-side terminal, A, I bid a fond final farewell to the bus that I gotten to know oh so well, and we headed indoors to the AS ticket counter.
THE TRIP HOME
We arrived at MCO at about 7am, checked in with AS and headed for security. At Orlando, there are 2 huge TSA checkpoints and our assignment was to get through the one for gates 1 thru 59 and on the plane in about an hour (our on-time departure was at 8:05.) Approaching the checkpoint reminds me of entering Penn Station in NY on a Friday afternoon. Thank goodness it was not nearly as bad as it looked (a lot of the TSA agents were unusually pleasant and were smiling!) and it all went quite smoothly.
Long story short, after TSA and the train ride to Airside 1 we got to the gate (10) as flight 763 was boarding. I assume our a/c was another ETOPS -800 but I cannot confirm that. I was seated (quickly) in Economy, seat 9A. (Note to AS travelers – this seat is one of those that doesn’t really have a window; you have, as my real estate agent would probably call it, a “partial outside view” by goose-necking a peek out of row 8A’s window!)
Flight 763 was very full but I don’t know if it was sold out or not. The boarding process went smoothly and we pushed back right at 8:05, taxied a bit to runway 36R and were off the blocks at 8:21. Inflight service was fine (another friendly cabin crew) with drinks, food (I got the $6 Bagel B’fast Sandwich off the Northern Bites Menu) and a Digi-Player – renting for $8 – because I had an unexplained need to watch Prometheus.
And guess what? We arrived at gate 16 in SAN at 10:16, 24 minutes early! (Out of curiosity, I have checked flifo a few times and early arrivals of both of these new flights seem to be the norm. But then that sure beats recurring late arrivals!)
It was a very nice trip and being on an important inaugural flight, out of my home town, AND on a favorite airline of mine was a real hat-trick for me. Let’s face it, for an airline geek, it’s one of those things that’s certainly toward the top of the list.
I enjoyed everything about the flights on Alaska, and continue to feel that they provide a higher level of service than many U.S. airlines today. I also like the direction that AS seems to be going now – smart, conservative, profitable, and with steady and careful growth. And, needless to say, I’m certainly behind their efforts in SAN and hope to see more inaugural flights on more new routes out of Lindbergh Field soon.