Last week I had my first Embraer regional jet flight – a quick business trip to the thriving metropolis of Knoxville, Tennessee. Since I was traveling for work, I had to make reservations through our corporate travel agent, and I wasn’t sure they’d put me on American (that’s my preferred airline; my company tends to book flights more often on United.) Fortunately, American’s fare to TYS was equal to Knoxville, so I purchased a roundtrip on American Eagle.
I’d flown the Canadair CRJ before (back in July 2003) and wasn’t horribly impressed. I’d heard better things about the ERJ, and was eager to try it out…
Tuesday, September 7, 2004
American Eagle Flight 4251
Chicago O’Hare (ORD) – Knoxville McGhee-Tyson (TYS)
Departs 1:12pm, arrives 3:40pm
Embraer RJ-140, seat 8C
Flying time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
American’s Terminal 3 at ORD is now under very heavy renovation – the ceiling replacement project is over and the ticket counters, walls and floors are now being completely replaced. The ticket lobby is being extended about thirty feet towards the landside (to add some much-needed circulation space during peak hours) and a swoopy-looking canopy over the departure roadways is being built. As a result, the ticket lobby is a maze of plywood construction walls, scaffolding and temporary walkways.
Things promise to be nice when they’re finished – already American has finished a new ticket counter at the far end of the lobby, near the Concourse G checkpoint. Everything has sort of odd-looking chrome and chain-link appearance… much sleeker and more high-tech than anything else at O’Hare. It’ll be interesting to see when it’s all finished.
My coworker and I passed through the checkpoint nearest to Concourse G (no wait at all) and made our way down to Gate G8. After a quick lunch at the Chili’s Too franchise, we returned to the departure lounge to find our flight already boarding.
American Eagle offers valet luggage check-in at the jetbridge, whereby passengers leave their bags at the aircraft door. They’re put in the luggage hold, unloaded at your destination, and returned to you in the jetbridge of your arrival city. It’s a nice setup, and it speeds up departure considerably – no families trying to stuff everything they own into the overhead bins.
The first thing I noticed when I entered the ERJ cabin was the size. It’s definitely got the ‘long thin pencil’ thing going for it – the ceiling feels extremely low. I’d never seen a 2-1 seating layout before either; it’s a little odd, but makes the aircraft feel sort of like a bizjet…
… although in the case of our aircraft, it would be the world’s filthiest, most unhygenic bizjet. There was a visible layer of grime on the seatbacks. The floor in front of our seats was covered in crumbs and dried lettuce leaves. When I lowered the tray table, I found dried sticky rings from about six cups of coffee. The side panels were scuffed and chipped, and the seatback pocket was almost completely torn from its mounting. I don’t think I’ve ever been aboard such a shabby-looking plane – and American Eagle’s ERJs are only a few years old!
At the gate, awaiting pushback clearance:
Our flight attendant was a man in his early 30s who seemed friendly enough. The safety demo on the ERJ is pre-recorded and played overhead, allowing the single flight attendant to run through the motions without stopping to explain. We pushed back about ten minutes late and taxied out past Concourse G:
Operations at O’Hare were just beginning to get heavy; the late-afternoon crush was still a few hours out, but there were a decent amount of flights heading out. Here’s a Northwest A320 pushing back from its gate on Concourse E:
United heavies lined up on Concourse C:
We followed a Continental 737-500 onto runway 9L:
As we lined up for departure, I could see one of United’s Star Alliance 767s headed for the threshold of 4L:
I was very impressed with the ERJ’s takeoff performance – it accelerates very quickly, much in the same manner as the 757. We passed the United terminal and lifted off just before crossing 14L-32R:
Climbing out with runway 4R-22L in the distance:
We made a 90-degree turn shortly after departure and flew south over the inner suburbs of Chicago on climbout. I was disappointed not to be on the other side of the aircraft – the view of the Chicago skyline was great. The view from our side wasn’t as scenic – and the sun glare was pretty intense.
About ten minutes after takeoff we had cleared the fringes of Chicago’s southern suburbs and were out over the plains of downstate Illinois:
Service on our flight consisted of a beverage and a bag of cheesy snack mix. The flight attendant made a second pass to refill drinks, which I thought was nice (amazing how low US airlines have sunk – we gush and rave over a beverage refill!
I don’t normally get too interested in airliner lavatories, but the ERJ’s single bathroom is located at the back of the aircraft, behind a funny sliding door right next to the last row of seats in the cabin. Sitting back there next to the whoosh of the door has to get pretty old. Inside, the noise from the two tail-mounted engines is pretty loud, but I can honestly say it’s the most spacious lavatory I’ve ever seen.
Our route took us southeast past Champaign-Urbana and across Indiana before crossing into Kentucky and beginning our descent into Knoxville. The captain came over the loudspeaker and annoucned that we were just north of the remnants of Hurricane Frances (which by then was a collection of semi-serious thunderstorms). Even so, the view outside the window as we crossed the line of storms was pretty impressive:
For about twenty minutes we bounced around in the clouds, the engine pitch increasing and decreasing as the captain simultaneously tried to descend and maintain a smooth ride:
Descending in clouds is always odd; you have no idea where you are and how far you are from touchdown. Eventually I spotted land again through breaks in the clouds:
We finally broke out of the clouds in a light rain shower somewhere to the southwest of Knoxville. Tennessee was very green and very pastoral looking – note the lower clouds, fog and mist hugging the mountains off in the distance:
Our approach was very fast and very steep – here we are on short final:
And arriving onto Knoxville’s runway 5R:
The airport wasn’t busy at all – out of a dozen gates, only one was occupied, by a fellow American Eagle ERJ pushing back for (I assume) Dallas/Fort Worth:
We deplaned into the TYS terminal – which I’ll write a little more about later – and made our way down to baggage claim to get our bags. We spent the next four days being lashed by rain and wind from ex-Hurricane Frances, although what little I did see of Knoxville was very green and scenic.
Friday, September 10, 2004
Knoxville McGhee-Tyson Airport
My coworker had left the previous evening, so I was on my own for the trip back up to Chicago. Although it was sunny and clear when I left downtown Knoxville, the airport – which is on the other side of some craggy hills at a higher elevation – was covered in fog.
Knoxville completely rebuilt its terminal complex a few years ago, heavily renovating the landside building and replacing the two finger concourses with a single Y-shaped pier. It’s one of the nicest small airports I’ve ever seen, with lots of glass and natural stone to mirror the Great Smoky Mountains. The main concourse even features a multi-level waterfall and a statue of a black bear (I guess there lots of them in the mountains):
Once through security, the airside lobby has some shops and restaurants, as well as old-style rocking chairs overlooking what little activity there is on the field:
Branching off the airside lobby are the two gate wings, one housing American, United and Delta and the other serving Continental, Northwest, US Airways and Independence Air:
Except for a handful of Delta MD80s to and from Atlanta, traffic at Knoxville is all regional jets and prop-driven aircraft:
American Eagle Flight 4150
Knoxville McGhee-Tyson (TYS) – Chicago O’Hare (ORD)
Departs TYS 10:30am, arrives ORD 11:40am
Embraer ERJ-140, seat 5A
Flying time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Here’s our ERJ resting at the gate before turning around for the trip to Chicago:
Boarding started on time, and as I was in Group 1 I was actually the first person on board the aircraft. This aircraft was MUCH cleaner (perhaps it was newer) and since there were only about 25 passengers on board, the ground crew was disconnecting the jetbridge after just ten minutes or so.
I was sitting in one of the single seats this time around and I’m not sure how I felt about it. On the one hand, it’s nice to have access to both the aisle and a window; however, the aisle on the ERJ is set slightly below the level of the seats, so your feet sort of hang into the aisle.
Here’s one of Independence Air’s CRJs, freshly arrived from Washington Dulles:
Pushing back from the gate – a nice view of the TYS concourse:
As we taxied out to the runway threshold, the captain announced we’d received a ground hold in Knoxville due to traffic congestion at O’Hare (that surprised me; usually O’Hare doesn’t really start to back up until after lunchtime.) Since TYS is such a sleepy airport, we were able to sit and hold at the 5R threshold for about twenty minutes until we received departure clearance:
Eventually we turned onto 5R, the engines surged forward, and we began our takeoff roll, passing the Tennessee Air National Guard base on the south side of the field:
Lifting off, with the large Continental Express regional jet maintenance base in the southwest corner of the field:
We climbed out back in the direction of downtown Knoxville; the clouds cleared as we flew northeast, passing over Lake Loudoun and the Tennessee River:
Over the west side of Knoxville, with Interstate 40 slicing across the photo:
The captain came back overhead to outline our route of flight – northwest over the mountains in the direction of Lake Cumberland, then across Kentucky past Louisville and over Indiana to join the Chicago arrival circuit. Our flight attendant, a 50-ish woman, wheeled out the drinks cart, although on this flight we didn’t receive anything to eat.
Over the western reaches of the Great Smoky Mountains north of Knoxville:
I thumbed through the American Way magazine as we crossed into Kentucky. The last time I flew American Eagle (back in the summer of 1997) they had their own inflight magazine; does anyone know how long ago they switched over to the mainline magazine?
About a half-hour after takeoff the city of Louisville passed off to our port side; unfortunately, we were a little too far east for any pictures to come out decently. I could see Standiford Field and the massive UPS shipping hub, but my picture didn’t come out nearly as well:
We crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky and before long Indianapolis slid by us; this time we were even further east. Here’s the best I could do:
Out over the plains of northern Indiana, the engines eased back and we began our descent into Chicago:
Arriving into Chicago
Conditions were awesome as we approached Chicago – some of the best I’ve ever seen. Even better, the captain annoucned we’d be arriving from the east, meaning most of our letdown and approach would be over the city itself, instead of the dull suburbs west of the airport. I took quite a few pictures of Chicago-area landmarks, so feel free to skip forward if you aren’t interested.
The start of the metropolitan area… lovely Gary, Indiana:
We turned west over Gary and followed Interstate 80/90 towards the city. I was glad to be sitting on the left side of the plane; the starboard-side passengers had a view of nothing but water for most of the approach.
Lake Calumet and the Illinois International Port. At one point in the early 1990s this was heavily favored as the site of Chicago’s third major airport, but environmental contamination issues and Illinois politics eventually killed the project:
We turned north again, tracing the curve of the Lake Michigan shoreline and passing directly above Washington Park and the University of Chicago:
Comiskey Park (more recently renamed US Cellular Field), home of the Chicago White Sox:
Passing almost directly above downtown Chicago with the Sears Tower (now the highest building in the US) at lower right:
We made the long, tight turn onto final approach over the lake just beyond Lake Shore Drive and Montrose Harbor:
The Chicago lakefront – a little hazy, but still pretty good looking:
The famous Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, with the CTA Red Line running across the photo:
Over the tightly-packed neighborhoods on the north side of Chicago:
The landing gear was lowered as we flew past the Harlem-Irving Plaza shopping mall in Harwood Heights:
Short final over bungalow neighborhoods in Harwood Heights and the Tri-State Tollway:
… and finally a low pass over runway 4R-22L before touching down smartly on runway 27L:
Turning off the runway, we were treated a great view of the ORD terminal complex:
Taxiing in to Gate G14, we passed a United Express ERJ-145 in the new color scheme:
All told I wasn’t totally bowled over by the ERJ. It was fairly comfortable for a short-stage flight, although I can’t imagine sitting on there for more than two hours. The first plane was disgusting, but I think that was more of an anomaly than the norm. I’ll be flying the ERJ again next month, as the second stage of an ORD-RDU-BOS-ORD routing. Stay tuned until then….