My choices had dwindled to US and WN. Both had coach seats available for a total roundtrip cost of just over $300. In fact, they both were charging EXACTLY the same fare. So then the choice came down to schedule... Southwest had only one flight remaining that had seats available, US had about 5. Wanting to get my first flight on Southwest I checked the itinerary... ORF-BWI-CLE. I checked the connection time in BWI: over four hours, pushing the total travel time to nearly 6 hours. It’s only a 10 hour drive from here to Cleveland!
I checked US Airways’ connection time in PHL: 55 minutes. I could connect in CLT but the connection would be longer and I would have had to ride a Dash-8. Never mind. Philly, here I come!
This flight would turn out to be very similar to my last US Airways itinerary: 3 express flights and 1 mainline 737. But in every case the planes were in better shape this time around. Well, at least the planes I ended up boarding... but I’ll get to that in the PHL-CLE part of this story.
Since this trip was such a rush-job, I didn’t take my camera with me so there will be no pictures this time around... but most of you probably know what the inside of a CRJ looks like anyway.
Wednesday, 12 July 2006
US Airways Express
US 3584 ORF-PHL
(Operated by Air Wisconsin)
Canadair CL-65 (CRJ-200) N450AW
Sched. departure: 5:35am
Sched. arrival: 6:38am
Pushback: 5:27am from gate A6
Wheels up: 5:35am from RWY 23
Wheels down: 6:16am on RWY 27R
Actual arrival: 6:31am at Gate F39
Load: about 40%, with at least 4 deadheading pilots and flight attendants.
Photo © Bruce Leibowitz
Looks like this bird used to fly for United Express. It’s currently in the new US Airways colors. Anyway, the plane was in good condition, and at least it wasn’t a DHC-8. My last US Airways experience was a Dash-8-athon, which is a big part of why I had avoided US for 2 years. At least a CRJ can use a jetway. But those windows...
Since I wasn’t checking any luggage for this quick out-and-back trip I slept late and left for the airport at about 4:30, getting there just before 5am. US Airways is in concourse A with Southwest, which has no early flights out of ORF (even though two 737s were parked overnight), so I knew that with one CRJ leaving for PHL and one leaving for CLT, there would be no line at security. I was right, security took about one minute, and I was off to my gate. Just as I walked up they announced boarding, “all rows, all seats”. Zone boarding is pointless when there’s 20 people on the plane, so rather than go through the whole zone thing they just say “everybody get on the plane now.” Boarding took just a few minutes and the door closed and we were on our way. Actual flight time was just 41 minutes, and the flight attendant announced that “due to the short flight time there will not be a beverage service on this flight.” She then proceeded to take drink orders and did a beverage service. I think she was planning on giving drinks to the deadheading pilots and F/As and along the way decided to serve everyone since there were only 20 of us.
We came in from the east and landed on 27R, and taxied the wrong concourse, doubled back, sat in the penalty box for about 5 minutes, then proceeded to F39 where we had to wait for the ground crew to finish parking 2 other CRJs. Despite all this we still arrived at the gate 7 minutes early. Having an hour before my connecting flight left, I headed up to the food court where Sbarro was serving muffins. Muffins??? I realize it’s 6:30 in the morning but some of us start our days when everyone else is sleeping, I’m ready for lunch by 6am! I want pizza! It turns out that they start cooking the pizza at 7am... I found this out after I finished my muffin.
US Airways Express
US 3993 PHL-CLE
(Operated by Air Wisconsin)
Canadair CL-65 (CRJ-200) N462AW
Sched. departure: 7:35am
Sched. arrival: 9:11am
First plane broken: about 7:45am
Replacement plane arrives: about 8:15am
Pushback: 8:51am from gate F29
Wheels up: 9:11am from RWY 27L
Wheels down: 10:18am on RWY 24R
Actual arrival: 10:22am at Gate A12
Photo © Michael F. McLaughlin
Another former UA CRJ. This is becoming a trend...
After my muffin I headed back to our original departure gate, F35. After a few minutes the gate agent announced a gate change to F29. The herd moved down 3 gates and listened to that gate agent send everyone waiting at F29 down to F7. And you do the hokey-pokey and you turn yourself around...
At about 7:15 a CRJ pulls up to F29 and disgorges about 30 pax. Then we wait to board... and wait, and wait, and wait. The gate attendant announces that the plane has gone mechanical. We watch as MX folks swarm the plane. A few minutes later, as we waited for a sign that the plane was fixed, we got the opposite: The jetway pulling away from the plane. Multiple groans were heard. Hydraulic failure was the reason given as the broken CRJ was towed to the hangar. We were told that our replacement plane was coming in from Nashville and would be landing in about half an hour. The gate agent did a good job keeping us informed. He sounded like he was ready for a riot but there were no complainers on this flight, just a lot of resigned sighs.
And just as promised, N462AW pulled up to the gate at about 8:15 and the BNA pax deplaned. We all waited for this one to go mechanical too, but it didn’t. They got the plane turned around pretty quickly and we all boarded, this time by zones since the flight was full. But just like the plane it replaced, N462AW wasn’t 100% fully functional, although this problem wasn’t worthy of grounding the aircraft. It was just a burned-out light in the lavatory. The flight attendant joked “If you have to go, leave the door cracked or aim very carefully!”
Taking off from runway 27L, I caught a glimpse of N748UP, the burned UPS DC-8 parked there.
Photo © Carlos Borda
Once we finally got airborne (at the exact time we should have been at the gate in Cleveland) the flight was uneventful. Soda and pretzels. No turbulence. Just a pleasant 67-minute flight with a book to keep myself entertained. We touched down at a rather deserted Hopkins International... our taxi time was only 4 minutes, and our CRJ was the only plane parked at concourse A at the time. About half of us on the flight got on the rental car shuttle, which took us off-airport to the rental facility.
Thursday, 13 July 2006
US Airways Express
US 3984 CLE-PHL
(Operated by Air Wisconsin)
Canadair CL-65 (CRJ-200) N410AW
Sched. departure: 11:40am
Sched. arrival: 1:00pm
Pushback: 11:34am from gate A12
Wheels up: 11:45am from RWY 6R
Wheels down: 1:10pm on RWY 26
Actual arrival: 1:15pm at Gate F7
Load: about 40%
Photo © Joseph J. Wagner
Just 2 years ago this CRJ was also flying for UA, and was repainted in the old US livery just before the America West merger. I guess it’ll keep the blue paint a while.
We boarded quickly as there were just 20 people on the flight, despite the fact that the website indicated only 3 seats available when I selected my seat. Were there actually 30 cancellations? Or does the website only allow certain rows for online check-in?
Once the door was closed, the flight attendant informed us that we could continue to use our cell phones because we were in a ground stop due to storms in Philly. We would be pushing back and taxiing part of the way to the runway but we would be sitting there for about 40 minutes. She started to explain the procedure for missed connections, then said “but your connecting flight will probably be delayed too” so we shouldn’t worry about missing our connections. Two minutes later she got back on the intercom and announced “Well apparently they changed their minds, we’re going to leave now so I need you to turn off your cell phones.” Turns out we should have stayed on the ground in Cleveland for a few minutes because as we passed Harrisburg, the pilot announced that we would be circling for about 20-30 minutes while the thunderstorm moved out of PHL. 20 minutes later the flight attendant told us to put our iPods away for landing, and we touched down at 1:10, just a few minutes late. Nobody was going to miss their connections this time.
I boarded a very crowded shuttle bus and we traveled about 30 feet before stopping close to a departing Dash-8. We had to wait nearly 5 minutes for the DHC to clear out before we could continue the trip over to concourse C.
US Airways (mainline)
US 485 PHL-ORF
Boeing 737-300 N512AU
Sched. departure: 1:55pm
Sched. arrival: 3:02pm
Pushback: 1:56pm from gate B1
Wheels up: 2:08pm from RWY 27L
Wheels down: 2:40pm on RWY 23
Actual arrival: 2:43pm at Gate A6
Load: about 80%
Photo © Tim Perkins
This was another case of the website telling me the flight was full, there were only 3 middle seats left on the whole plane when I checked in and selected my seats. But when we took off, there were several completely empty rows. I was going to switch to an empty row but by the time we pushed back I had struck up a conversation with my seat mate, and the flight is only 30 minutes. I had a pleasant conversation with a lady from Connecticut who was flying to Norfolk to visit a friend and attend a wedding in the Outer Banks.
While walking to my gate I noticed the Piedmont heritage jet pulling in to gate B5. I finally got to see it in person!!! They did a good job with that one, I hope I can manage to snag a flight on it someday. By the time I got to my gate they were already boarding but I had no idea which zone was boarding. The lady standing next to me glanced at my boarding pass and said “they’ve already called zone 3, you can go ahead and board.” Thanking her, I worked my way through all the zone 6&7 pax and headed for the jetway.
The scheduled time for this flight is VERY padded... wheels up to wheels down is 32 minutes but they allot 1:07 for the flight. I can see padding the taxi time in PHL, but in Norfolk wheels-down to gate arrival is 5 minutes on a bad day. Then again, PHL congestion is legendary... maybe they need 35 minutes to taxi some days.
When I booked the flight, I tried to find an Airbus but we don’t get them in ORF... US uses the 737 for all mainline flights to PHL and CLT, and we get a bunch of CRJ/DHC for the Express flights to the hubs, DCA and LGA. All of Northwest’s mainline flights from ORF use the DC-9 fleet, and UA mainline does not serve ORF, only Express. I was flashing back to my last US Airways 737-300 flight on none other than the (thankfully) now-retired N350US, “Rivets the 737”. But N512AU was in much better shape. The old-livery blue paint was peeling off the fuselage (as is common with that paint job) but the inside was very clean, well-maintained and comfortable. It certainly feels older than the 73G and 738 I flew last year, overhead bin design has come a long way since the 1980s. I had a bulkhead seat but it wasn’t a problem, unlike the CRJ-200 my small duffel bag fits in the overhead on a 733. This was a graceful middle-aged aircraft, I’m glad US is still flying them even though we only get a handful of US mainline flights a day into ORF, the rest are Express flights.
So my impression of post-merger US Airways? Nothing has changed in the East-coast shorthaul operation. Everything feels “stuffy” and corporate, just like US Airways has always been. PHL is still a convoluted mess. They still fly the wretched Dash-8 everywhere although they’ve started upgrading some DHC flights to the CRJ. I was lucky enough to have all my Express segments operated by AWAC, an operation that seems to have their act together. If they plan on keeping the 737 fleet they really need some paint, either touch up the old livery or strip them and give them the new colors. But as I mentioned, the 737 interior was in great shape. The sales pitch for the US Airways MasterCard on the mainline flight sounded a bit desperate, the senior FA went on and on for several minutes about all the benefits, and went around the cabin handing people credit applications. It reminded me of my retail days when I was expected to beg people to sign up for our credit card, and got reprimanded if I didn’t meet some pipe-dream quota that nobody ever met. At least my Air Wisconsin flights were sales-pitch-free.
I was really hoping that the merger would bring more mainline service to Norfolk, but it seems that they have replaced some retired 737s with more and more CRJ service. Mainline has only four 737 flights a day to ORF: 2 to PHL and 2 to CLT. The rest are a swarm of CRJ, Dash-8, and Saab. All the LGA flights are on Express. No wonder everyone’s flocking to Newport News to ride a 717 to LGA.