Two weeks ago, I decided to make a spur of the moment trip to visit my parents in the Detroit area for Presidents%u2019 Day weekend. Because the trip was booked at the last weekend, NW wanted more than $700 to fly on nonstops. The cheapest fare I could find on Orbitz was $235, but the outbound routing was UA MSP-ORD, connecting to NW ORD-DTW with just a 45 minute layover. I didn%u2019t want to make an interline connection at ORD with such a short layover, so I decided to pay $25 more to fly NW MSP-MDW-DTW outbound, returning on AA DTW-ORD-MSP.
Northwest has reserved the front half of their aircraft for elite passengers, and the last two rows for unaccompanied children, for many years; the remaining seats are assigned on a first come / first serve basis to non-elite passengers. Until last year, NW made unassigned elite seats available to all travelers 24 hours before departure.
Now, however, NW makes only the unassigned seats reserved for children available 24 hours in advance. When non-elite passengers without seat assignments check in online, they can hope to get one of the unassigned seats reserved for children. Otherwise, nwa.com will arbitrarily assign a seat in the elite section, without regard to the passenger%u2019s preference for an aisle or window, unless the passenger is willing to pay $15 to $25 for an exit row seat. All remaining unassigned elite seats are only released to non-elites 40 minutes before departure, at the gate agent%u2019s discretion. When I made my reservations, I was able to get a window seat on the MDW-DTW flight, but MSP-MDW was so full I wasn%u2019t able to get a seat assignment. I checked in online 23 hours before departure, and was able to get a window seat previously reserved for unaccompanied children in the second last row. I knew the window would be partly obscured by the engine (I was on a DC-9), so I planned to ask for a better seat when I got to the gate.
NW 1284 was scheduled to leave MSP for MDW at 7:00 AM, requiring me to set my alarm for 4:30 AM. Traffic to MSP was very light this early on a Saturday morning; I arrived with enough time to spare that I was able to park at the Humphrey terminal, which is $2/day cheaper than the Lindbergh terminal. Lines through security at the checkpoint above the Humphrey / Lindbergh terminal shuttle bus stop, in the Concourse C / G connecting ramp were also short, and I was able to get to gate G15 by 5:45 AM. The gate agent was already on duty. I%u2019d planned to ask her if she thought she could get me a better seat assignment, but then I heard her tell the non-rev in line ahead of me that, although the flight had empty seats, the aircraft was weight-restricted due to weather in Chicago, and she would be asking for volunteers. When it was my turn, I told her I was booked to DTW via MDW, had only carry on luggage, and would be willing to be rerouted if it would help her out. She told me there were open seats on a 6:40 AM nonstop to DTW, but when I asked if there were any window seats open, she said the only open window seats were in the elite section of coach, so she couldn%u2019t assign them yet. 15 minutes later, I returned to the counter, and after waiting for a minute or so for the %u201C40 minute rule%u201D to expire, she rebooked me on NW 742 nonstop to DTW, with a window seat near the front of the coach cabin.
Saturday 17 Feb 2007
NW 742 left from gate F12, about a ten minute walk from gate G15. I arrived at the gate around 6:15 AM, and was very surprised to see that boarding hadn%u2019t even started, and there were only about 50 or 60 people in the gate area. A few minutes later, the gate agent announced %u201CThere are 140 people booked on this aircraft %u2013 where are they????%u201D, before beginning the boarding process. All of us boarded quickly; until 10 minutes before departure, I thought my flight would be almost empty. Then, all of a sudden, passengers began streaming on board; many were connecting from a flight from ANC that had arrived late. As the late arrivals were getting settled, one of the passengers across the aisle tried to close an overloaded overhead bin, and broke the bin door off its hinges. He tried to adjust the bin door, so it would look as if the bin wasn%u2019t damaged, but I was concerned one of the flight attendants would notice the damaged bin just before departure, requiring our flight to be delayed while maintenance repaired it. I hit my flight attendant call button, and pointed the damaged bin to one of the attendants. The attendant immediately called maintenance, and two mechanics were able to temporarily tape the bin door in place, after it had been emptied, while passengers were still boarding.
Waiting for pushback from F12. The A330 next to us had just arrived from HNL.
The late arrivals, plus delays in loading their baggage, caused the flight to push back 35 minutes late.
After pushback, we were sent to the deicing pad near the 12L threshold, before taxiing all the way to the other end of the runway for departure on 30R. The late pushback, and the trip to the deicing pad, meant we would be taking off at the height of the 7:15 AM bank; we had to wait in line several more minutes before we were finally cleared for takeoff around 7:30 AM. As we turned onto 30R, I saw the United 737 I could have taken to ORD waiting near the runway for an ATC release. The UA flight was already 30 minutes late; if I%u2019d taken it, there%u2019s no way I would have made my connection at ORD!
After takeoff, we made the usual right turn towards downtown Minneapolis, before turning east, then southeast, towards DTW. It clouded up as we were over MSP%u2019s southern suburbs, and it remained cloudy all the way to DTW. Although there was no turbulence, the flight attendants waited to begin the inflight beverage service until halfway through the flight, then had to hurry to get it done before we landed. We broke out of the clouds about five miles from DTW%u2019s runway 22R. After landing, we had the usual ten minute taxi to the terminal; after pausing briefly to allow the A330 from AMS that had landed ahead of us to pull into A50, we pulled into A54 at 10:15 AM, a full 55 minutes late. Many passengers were very concerned about making their connections; several of them began running for connecting gates as soon as they deplaned.
As mentioned earlier, to get a good fare, I would be returning on AA DTW-ORD-MSP. I arrived at DTW about 1 ½ hours before departure. There was no line at AA%u2019s ticket counter, and the agent was able to get me checked in quickly.
This is probably going to be my last trip through DTW%u2019s L. C. Smith Terminal, before the new terminal opens next year, so I spent a few minutes walking around the terminal %u201Cone last time%u201D, before heading for gate B8.
Here are a few pictures of the ticketing lobby of the Smith terminal. They're taken from left (east / Concourse A side) to right (west / Concourse C side):
These ticket counters on the east wall of the Smith terminal were used by Pan Am and BOAC in the 1960's, Southern and Ozark in the 1970's, and Continental and Jet America in the 1980s. DTW was so short of ticket counters in the late 1980s that Southwest used a converted Mutual of Omaha booth in the middle of the terminal lobby until these counters became available in the mid 1990s:
United's ticket counter, which was used by Northwest from 1959 until the Northwest / Republic merger in 1986:
American's ticket counter. AA has used this counter since 1958; they are the only airline that has never changed ticket counter locations at DTW, although they have subleased some of it to Piedmont, Best, and other airlines from time to time:
USAirways' / America West's counter, which was used by Eastern until 1991, then taken over by CO after EA collapsed. CO vacated it in 2002 when they moved to the NW terminal:
Spirit's ticket counters have been used by TWA, Braniff International, New York Air, Trump, Presidential, and several other airlines.
Used by Delta from the 1960's until DL moved to the new NW terminal three years ago, this counter on the Smith Terminal's west wall is now used by AirTran and Frontier:
The mezzanine over the ticket counters. It's now all airport offices; the area on the right (which looks over the ramp) was where the AA Admiral's Club and DL Crown Room were, until the clubs were closed post 9/11. The area on the left (overlooking the ticket counters and shops) was at one time filled with couches; it was very popular as a sleeping area for passengers stranded overnight at the airport.
Tuesday 20 Feb 2007
For the first time in a while, AA has resumed 757 service on DTW-ORD. Although not as nice as the DC-10s that were used on this route well into the 1990s, it%u2019s still good to see AA flying something larger than a 737 or MD-80 on the route.
My AA 757 at gate B8. This gate was built by AA in the mid-1970s for 747s and DC-10s.
An AirTran 717 at B6. The NW terminal is visible across 9L / 27R.
A Frontier Airbus taxiies out past my 757:
Concourse A, viewed from the east side of Concourse B. The UA A320 is on the part of the concourse built in the 1950's; the WN 737 is at a "temporary" addition to Concourse A that was built a few years ago:
The famous quilt, made by AA's DTW employees in 1976 to comemmorate AA's 50th birthday. Each panel of the quilt is related to AA's history. Beautiful!
The inbound flight from ORD arrived about fifteen minutes late, so boarding did not begin until 4:25 PM, just fifteen minutes before our scheduled departure. The gate agents and flight attendants were very aware of the delay. Knowing that passengers looking for space in overhead bins can really slow the boarding process, they asked passengers to keep their coats on until all passengers were seated, and urged them to get out of the aisles as fast as possible. At one point, one of the flight attendants announced %u201Cthere are 37 passengers on the jetway waiting to board; they can%u2019t get on board until you clear the aisles!%u201D.
Despite the best efforts of AA%u2019s employees, we still pushed back fifteen minutes late, at 4:55 PM.
Heading for the runway:
The hangar on the left is ex-United; the other hangar is ex-North Central. North Central's hangar was originally painted blue; you can still see some of the old blue paint on the left side of the hangar:
After pushback, we had a relatively short taxi to 22L, and only had to wait for one other aircraft until it was our turn.
We're next in line!
Turning onto 22L, next to the old International Terminal, now used for charters:
The new terminal, under construction:
Because we had a very light fuel load, we were airborne before 9L/27R, and climbed steeply toward our cruising altitude.
Climbing out over the NW terminal:
DTW-ORD is a very short flight, and the flight attendants had to move quickly to complete the beverage service. We began our descent over Lake Michigan, near the Michigan shoreline.
Lake Michigan is partly frozen over:
Our descent intensified as we neared Chicago; there were thin clouds over downtown, which the city%u2019s skyscrapers appeared to be poking through.
We would be landing on 9R, so we passed north of the airport on our downwind leg, before turning around west of Schaumburg.
After landing, we had only a brief taxi to gate H12. Unfortunately, we were not able to make up any time enroute; we were at the gate at 5:10 PM, 15 minutes late.
Taxiing past the G Concourse on the way to our gate:
At gate H12:
Tuesday 20 Feb 2007
My flight to MSP was due to leave at 5:35 PM, so after deplaning, I walked very briskly to gate K15.
I was pleasantly surprised to find space in the bin directly over my seat for my bags, even though I was one of the last passengers to board. I was bringing 4 years worth of back issues of Airline Business, as well as 40 or 50 issues of Flight International, home from my parents%u2019 house, and I was concerned I%u2019d have to gate check my %u201Ctreasures%u201D if there was no bin space left. We were delayed a few minutes for other connecting passengers, and for other aircraft in the K / L Concourse alley behind us to clear, before it was our turn to push back. After pushback, we had only a brief taxi to 32L, and only had to wait for one or two other aircraft before it was our turn.
Pushback at sunset!
After takeoff, we headed west to Dubuque, before turning northwest to follow the Mississippi River to MSP. We entered the Twin Cities near Lakeville, following Minnesota 77 north across the Minnesota River. Just west of the Mall of America, we turned left for a very long downwind leg; we followed I-494 west, then north, to Minnetonka, before turning eastward for the airport. Our landing gear was lowered over St. Louis Park, as we turned southeast to intercept the centerline of 12R, then we followed the familiar final approach path over Lake Harriet and south Minneapolis. After landing, we creeped our way to gate E15, finally pulling in a minute or two ahead of the scheduled 7:10 PM.
My experiences on this trip reaffirmed my exasperation with Northwest%u2019s new seat assignment policy. Northwest%u2019s desire to increase revenue by charging non-elite passengers for exit row seats is understandable, but I don%u2019t think many passengers would be willing to pay for them, especially on short flights. The old policy of releasing seats reserved for elite travelers 24 hours before departure did a nice job of ensuring that elite passengers were able to have the access to the best seats on the aircraft that they are entitled to, while still allowing non-elite passengers checking in online to get good seat assignments on full flights. The new %u201C40 minute rule%u201D means passengers unhappy with their seat assignments have to request new seats from the gate agents just before departure, and makes it harder to reaccommodate passengers changing flights. The only thing I think this rule accomplishes is to increase gate agent workload when the gate agents are already at their busiest trying to clear standbys, board the flight, and try to get the flight out on time.
My flights on American were better than my Northwest flights. Both the AA DTW-ORD flight and the NW MSP-DTW flights were delayed due to no fault of the flight attendants and gate agents (late connecting passengers for the NW flight, and late arrival of the inbound aircraft for the AA flight), but the AA employees seemed to be much more proactive about trying to get passengers seated quickly than the NW employees did. I particularly appreciated AA%u2019s staff%u2019s urging passengers to keep winter coats on; reducing the number of coats in the overhead bins ensured more space was available for baggage. I%u2019m sure my DTW-ORD flight would have left at least 10 minutes later had the AA employees not tried as hard as they did.
Finally, my emotions at passing through DTW%u2019s L. C. Smith Terminal for (probably) the last time were similar to how I felt when I went to my last game at Tiger Stadium a few years ago. Yes, the Smith Terminal is run down, and the terminal that%u2019s going to replace it will be beautiful. However, many of my happiest memories from childhood are associated with the Smith Terminal. I%u2019m sad to think that the place where I boarded my first 747, and where Dad said %u201CYES%u201D so many times when I asked him %u201CCan we stay to watch just one more takeoff?%u201D will be gone forever before too long.
The sun sets on DTW's L. C. Smith Terminal: