I posted an earlier MDW-BNA-RDU trip report back in June when I left for my summer job at Duke University... a few days ago I completed the return trip. I deliberately chose a long routing so I could see as many airports as possible. Yeah, I'm a nerd.
I arrived at RDU about two hours before departure time and found a very short line at the Southwest ticket counter. WN and AirTran occupy the "Terminal A Annex" (the former Terminal B, RDU's original building), which although shoddy looking is much roomier than the crowded main Terminal A building. I got through security in no time at all and whiled away the time until I could get one of Southwest's new paper boarding passes -- I ended up in Group A, and thus my window seat was assured.
Southwest Airlines Flight 1166
First Leg: Raleigh/Durham - Baltimore/Washington (BWI)
Departs RDU: 10:55am
Flying time: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Aircraft: Boeing 737-300
Boarding was quick and easy and I ended up in seat 17F, in the rear of the aircraft. The plane was obviously one of the older ones in Southwest's fleet; the seat fabrics and side paneling looked very worn. In fact, my tray table wouldn't properly latch, but fortunately it stayed upright without any support. Go figure.
Pushback was a few minutes behind schedule, and we made a quick taxi to the threshold of RDU's 7500-foot Runway 23 Left. The captain rotated the aircraft about three quarters of the way down the runway, and from the right side of the cabin I had a terrific view of the airliners parked at the very crowded Terminal A: Two Southwest 737s, a US Airways A319, a US Airways Express ERJ, a Delta 757 and 737, United Express CRJ, Skyway FRJ, Continental 737 and Northwest A320.
Climbout was over Morrisville, then we made a right turn and flew directly over the new Southpoint mall and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (easily distinguished by its X-shaped dormitory towers.) As we climbed over Falls Lake north of Durham, heat haze obscured the view and before long we were above the cloud level.
The flight itself was about three-quarters full and nondescript. The FAs offered drinks and peanuts and even came around a second time for refills. After only about twenty minutes at cruising altitude, the captain announced our position over the mouth of Chesapeake Bay and the beginning of our descent into BWI.
We broke out of the clouds over Annapolis - my first sight was of lots and lots of boats sailing in Chesapeake Bay. Our approach was from the southeast, over river estuaries lined with nice-looking houses and then a bunch of suburban neighborhoods. Finally we glided over the Marley Station mall and a tangle of freeways before touching down smoothly on BWI's Runway 33 Left. The captain rolled the 737 all the way to the end of the strip, then taxied back to Gate B1 at the terminal. (As an aside, the BWI terminal looks very sinister with its black steel paneling and tinted windows. Not very welcoming at all.)
After arriving at the gate, the FAs requested that passengers continuing on to CLE and MDW remain in their seats until a pax count was completed. I elected to stay on in my original seat for the next leg of the flight, broken tray table and all.
Second Leg: Baltimore/Washington (BWI) - Cleveland
Same aircraft, same seat
Flying time: probably only about 55 minutes
Within 15 minutes of our arrival at BWI, a new load of passengers came streaming aboard the 737 - one thing about Southwest, they're fast. About 20 passengers stayed on from Raleigh/Durham, the rest were new. The plane was 100% full - so full, in fact, that we were delayed 10 minutes as the overhead bins filled and the Group C passengers were forced to check their carry-on bags. Much grumbling and gnashing of teeth there.
We pushed back and taxied to the threshold of Runway 28. As we lifted off I had a decent view of the BWI terminal complex. I was surprised how dominant Southwest has become at the airport, and conversely how empty the former US Airways concourse appeared. One US aircraft and about 20 empty jetways. Climbout was steep, and as it was very humid and hot outside, the haze blocked the view very shortly after takeoff.
The crew announced flying time as one hour ten minutes, but the flight was very obviously shorter. As we flew west the haze dissipated and I could see rolling farmland and forests below. After the usual drink service had been cleared away, the captain angled the nose down and it was clear we were starting our descent into Cleveland.
We flew in from the southeast over the suburbs, then made a gradual turn around downtown Cleveland to line up with the runway. I was kicking myself for not sitting on the left side of the aircraft; I could tell from the oohs and ahhs that the view of downtown was great. All I could see was Lake Erie, which was far less spectacular. Final approach was over the rooftops of some less-than-stellar-looking neighborhoods and down onto Hopkins Field's runway 23 Left.
CLE was looking pretty deserted as we taxied in, although after we docked at our gate at the end of the B Concourse a bank of Continental flights began arriving and the C and D Concourses started to fill up. Again, we stayed on the ground for about twenty minutes as the aircraft was serviced and refueled.
Third Leg: Cleveland - Chicago Midway
Same aircraft, same seat
Flying time: 1 hour, 10 minutes
This flight was only about half full; I had an entire row of seats to myself. Pushback was shortly after boarding (behind schedule though, thanks to the delay leaving Baltimore) and we headed around the north end of the terminal complex. I saw an American MD80 and American Eagle ERJ parked on the A Concourse, and we passed a US Airways 737-500 on pushback. Curiously enough, there was also a new ATA 737-800 parked at the end of the A Concourse – can anyone tell me why this aircraft would have been at CLE?
We taxied to the takeoff runway along the east-west runway 10-28, which looks as though it has been closed, at least temporarily. Takeoff was from Runway 23 Right, and as we rotated I could see the construction progress on CLE’s new parallel runway. It’s being built between the existing runways and the NASA complex, and doesn’t appear to be very long (I’d guess only about 7,000 feet.)
We climbed out over the western suburbs, then turned northwest to follow the Lake Erie shoreline towards Chicago. Sporadic clouds blocked the view for most of the trip, although at one point I was lucky to spot Kelley’s Island and the entire Cedar Point peninsula through the mist. The drinks/peanuts service began in earnest as we crossed the bottom half of Michigan (no view of DTW and the new terminal for me, a disappointment) and the clouds began to break up as we neared Lake Michigan.
The captain pointed out the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek and South Bend/Elkhart areas as he announced our descent into Chicago; before long the Lake Michigan shoreline and Indiana Toll Road were clearly visible from my right-side window. Before long the steel mills of Gary appeared and we headed out diagonally over the lake, where I could see a few barges, one large tanker ship and a LOT of whitecaps. Another windy day in Chicago…
We made landfall again over South Chicago and descended rapidly over the Pill Hill/Chatham and Auburn-Gresham areas. Flaps were extended, spoilers came up, and the rumbling sound of descent filled the cabin. I had a beautiful view of the downtown skyline in the distance, and as it came closer I realized that we would be landing on Midway’s Runway 22 Left, instead of the usual 31C arrival.
The 22L approach did not disappoint… the 737 came down fast and steep, fighting what felt like pretty strong winds (although it was a sunny, warm day). Right after we passed the old stockyards area and the CTA Orange Line became visible, we swung into a sharp descending left turn over the Archer Heights area. I was on the ‘high’ side of the turn and could see only sky out the window, but we evened out we were on very short finals over lots and lots of rooftops. Finally the 737 roared in over the car rental lots along Cicero Avenue, and we touched down on 22 Left. The spoilers came up and we rolled down about three quarters of the runway before turning off.
MDW was decently busy for mid-afternoon, with the usual come and go of Southwest and ATA 737s. I spotted an AirTran 717 parked over by the Aero Service hangar, as well as the usual slew of Chicago Express Saabs. We docked in at Gate F23 on the old F Concourse (now essentially the only part of the former terminal remaining) and I began the long, long walk through the old and new concourses to baggage claim.
All told, a good day flying with Southwest. The flights were short enough that the lack of meal service didn’t bother me (I wouldn’t have gotten any food had I flown one of the Big Six, anyhow) and the crew were much friendlier and much younger than you’d find on a typical Cartel flight. I’ve found that if I am wanting to fly more than a 300-mile distance on Southwest, it’s better to break up the trip with a stop somewhere.
I’ll be heading from Dallas to Los Angeles on a DAL-AUS-LBB-LAS-LAX-ELP-HOU-DAL routing at the end of August (that’s a lot of stops, even for me, but the Wright Amendment does complicate things) so look for a very detailed trip report from me then.