InFlight: Alaska Airlines Trifecta

There are a few giveaways to identify someone who has a what some might call an ‘unhealthy’ obsession with planes. Firstly, they write a travel blog to review flights and secondly, they look for flights with as many connections as possible because who would want to take a direct flight when you can connect through two other airports en-route right?  So you’ll find that this InFlight review is a different style and format to what you may be used to, as I turn my three flights from Calgary to San Francisco via Seattle and Portland into one Inflight trip report.

The Route: It’s quite easy to get a direct flight from Calgary to San Francisco, or even one with just one connection, but to save a few dollars (literally it was only a few) and get some more airtime I decided that my first flight with as a married man I would go for a trifecta of Alaska Airlines flights and hop our way down the west coast of the United States. To make it simple, I’ve condensed (even though the trip report is longer) the normal Inflight sections for the plane and the service as they apply for all three flights and have instead focussed on the airports and what you see out the window.

The Aircraft: Horizon air operate a fleet of 47 Bombardier Dash 8-400Q aircraft of which our flights utilized three frames including N437QX on the Calgary to Seattle leg, painted in a Boise State University Broncos livery and N435QX on the Portland to San Francisco leg, painted in a University of Washington Huskies livery. Unfortunately I missed the rego of our Seattle to Portland flight, and with a standard paint scheme, it wasn’t possible to track it afterwards.

These twin turboprop aircraft are popular for short thin routes, and personally I love them as at a maximum cruise of 25,000 feet you’re a bit closer the the ground and see more out the window. Also it’s awesome to watch the props spin around as you use up barely any runway at all to get airborne (although my husband isn’t so keen on them to put it lightly).

The Service and Seating: Given the relatively short nature of most of Horizon’s flights the meal service is somewhat limited. Also given all airlines (especially in the US) are madly trying to save a buck, the complimentary offering on this (and all of Horizon’s flights I’ve taken) was limited to a soft drink (not the whole can though, but top ups are offered) and two small biscuits (which by the end of the morning I was quite a fan of). If you are hungry you can purchase a snack pack for US$6, but we didn’t feel the need.

As with most turboprop flights there is no inflight entertainment or Wi-Fi available on board, but not long after take off they an announce that you can switch on your own electronic devices – in my case an iPad full of Big Bang Theory episodes did the trick.

The seating configuration is 2-2 with the window seats having slightly less legroom due to the curvature of the fuselage at floor level but on the aisle it’s easy to get bumped by the mini service carts so both seats are pretty even. Across the three flights we were seated in row 11 (middle), 18 (rear) and 5 (forward) so got a good perspective from all three sections of the plane.

Unfortunately seats 11A and 11B are missing a real window, but you can still see out by looking backwards or forwards using the windows from other rows. Being in the centre of the cabin has both advantages, as turbulence doesn’t seem to be as bad at the wing,  and disadvantages as the engines are very close which adds to the noise (although the Q’series Dash 8′s stand for Quiet which does make a difference to the noise levels). The noise is still present at the rear of the aircraft, but not as bad although you feel the bumps a little more but the window view is comparable to the forward section (minus the prop). The forward section is a little quieter but it’s marginal and not a make or break difference.

Seat guru lists the seat pitch at 31″ but given the 2-2 layout it doesn’t feel as cramped as 31″ feels on other jet aircraft. I found the cabin pretty comfortable, even on the first flight with half a plane full of excited, rowdy high school footballers.

The First Flight: AS2115
Route: Calgary, AB to Seattle,WA
Time: 6:30am
Seats: 11A and 11B
Gate: C33

Check In:  Our Alaska Airlines Trifecta (which should really be called the Horizon Air Trifecta given all the flights were on Alaska’s subsidiary) started at the rather ungodly hour of 3am with an airport shuttle bus from the Hilton Garden Inn, Calgary International Airport to the Alaska Airlines check in desks. I should know better by now, but for some reason I still always seem to follow the ‘get to the airport 3hrs before international departures’ advice provided by airlines only to end up finishing all the formalities in under 30mins then having 2.5hrs to kill at the gate. Today was no exception, other than not even the airline staff turn up this early, nor do the self service kiosks operate without staff around. Thus we sat and waited while most of the passengers for our flight out (a young American football team) beat the check in staff’s arrival.

Given the majority of the 76 seats on the early morning flight were to be occupied by the football team as soon as we saw the check in staff arrive we started forming the queue to beat the rush. It was probably fair to say that at 4am the sight of 40 or so high school guys on a football trip wasn’t something either us, or the check in staff were looking forward to this morning. Unfortunately the self service kiosks didn’t like our Australian passports so we had to be checked in manually by the agent – with no bags the process was pretty painless and avoided the $20 per bag checked bag fee now in place.

After check in we proceeded to the US Customs pre-clearance queue, which also wasn’t open yet. For those not familiar with how US Customs works out of many Canadian airports, the process is quite simple. For flights departing to the USA, US Customs and Border Protection have staff and facilities in the Canadian airports to process your entry into the US before you board your flight. Thus on arrival you land into a domestic terminal where you don’t need to clear Customs and thus can leave the airport and get on with your day much faster (why you’d want to leave an airport is beyond me but that’s another story). It’s quite an effective system that saves heaps of time on arrival.

The US Customs officer was kind and allowed my husband and I to be processed at the same counter (unlike the unfriendly agent we had later on the trip in Toronto) and within a few minutes we were ready for security screening. At this point, probably given the low numbers of people passing through, everyone seemed to be ‘randomly selected’ for further screening. The options: chemical swab on your hands, pat down by a male officer in private or a full body scan (or as the agent described it to my husband, “the machine”). Given I had been married less than 48 hours and the male officer options weren’t that appealing, I opted for the hand swab and was soon putting my shoes, phone, belt etc. back where they below (got to love airport security).

Calgary International Departures Gates: When US pre clearance operations are in progress a Section of the terminal is sort of quarantined from the rest of the terminal via large glass doors and walls (presumably if there are no US flights this area opens up again). There are a few convenience outlets (including a Tim Horton’s) within this area however looking through the glass you can see many more options that are just out of reach. The terminal provides pretty good views onto the Tarmac from the gate, but a looping TV, which the sound randomly came on with loud ads, was pretty annoying.

Boarding: Boarding was scheduled for 5:50am which I thought was quite a long time to board 76 passengers given our scheduled departure was 6:30, although given the large group it was probably good we started boarding on time. Given the smaller overhead lockers on the Dash 8′s, Horizon offer an Ala cart trolley on the Tarmac where you put your larger carry on bags which are later stored in the cargo hold and are ready for collection from the Tarmac on arrival. The small trolley didn’t know what hit it when the football team arrived, I think the baggage handlers earned their wage today and I couldn’t help but wonder about weight and balance as all those bags were loaded into the rear hold (watching too much air crash investigations I know) . When using the Ala cart service, make sure you get anything you need for the flight out before you load your bags up – as there is no way to get to them inflight. The beauty about waiting for your bag at the nose of the aircraft after the flight is that you have some time and a good excuse to take some nice close up photos from the tarmac.

InFlight: I actually forgot to take note of which direction we took off towards but, after departing 5 minutes before schedule, it wasn’t long before we were high above the towering rocky mountains and heading straight for Seattle. The view on this flight is amazing as tight valleys wind around huge mountains, some of which are covered with snow/glaciers that form the rivers that carve and flow into lakes that sparkle in the morning sunrise. As we got closer to Seattle the impressively tall Mt Rainier came into view which, with the orange glow of the morning sun reflecting off its snow and ice covered surrounds was an amazing sight as it towered over everything around it. To top it off the morning provided smooth flying conditions and probably a slight tailwind as we arrived into a sunny Seattle 10 minutes early.

The Second Flight: AS2473
Route: Seattle, WA to Portland, OR
Time: 9:00
Seats: 18A and 18B
Gate: C2C

Terminal: As we were checked all the way to San Francisco with boarding passes in hand all we had to do in Seattle was wait for our next connecting flight. Terminal C has an interesting set up with Gate 2 hosting most of Horizon’s Dash 8 departures across sub gates (e.g. Gate C2-C,D,E etc.). The small seating area for each sub gate doesn’t come near to catering for the 76 passengers each gate could hold but it does ok. Further up the concourse are the mainline gates although both the mainline and horizon gates have excelled views across Seattle’s 3 parallel runways.

Boarding: There were actually a few other flights to Portland departing from the adjacent gates both before and after our flight so it was important to keep track of our flight number and departure time when listening to the announcements. Once boarding was called you enter a channel with all the other sub gates that are boarding and mix with other passengers on different flights again. As you get on the tarmac we kept walking until we found the Portland flight – although with several flights boarding at the same time a few passengers were confused (one almost boarding the Vancouver flight). Given the mix of passengers I presumed that the cabin crew would re-check boarding passes at the gate to make sure you got on the right flight but this didn’t happen – I guess the headcount should identify stray passengers but it doesn’t seem inconceivable that you could get on the wrong flight altogether.

InFlight: Taking off three minutes early we lined up on the centre runway and took off towards the north before making a gradual left hand turn over Puget Sound leaving distant views of Seattle downtown behind our tail. Again the views from Seattle to Portland were pretty impressive, especially as we passed over the smoking Mt St Helens at the dash 8′s lower cruise level as I wondered how the dash 8 would stand up to the ash and turbulence should the quietly smoking volcano decided to blow her top (again too much Air Crash Investigations). Approaching and landing into Portland from the southeast I didn’t get much of a city view until we were close to the airport. On landing the south of the field appears to be an air force base while the north is the commercial terminal. The short taxi got us to the gate 5 minutes early (which was handy as this was a much shorter connection). This aircraft was destined to continue onto Santa Rosa and then Las Vegas so most passengers remained on board as we departed, facilitating a quick turn of that aircraft.

The Third Flight: AS2635
Route: Portland, OR to San Francisco, CA
Time: 10:22
Seats: 5A and 5B
Gate: A9

Terminal: The Horizon end of the terminal was a similar set up to Seattle with lots of gates even closer together all leading to the same actual door to the tarmac. We didn’t have much of a stopover here so I didn’t get a chance to explore much more of the terminal. The small cafe / convenience store at this end of the terminal was doing a roaring trade. Unfortunately there wasn’t that great of a view of the Tarmac from the terminal as the gates wrapped around the walls (and we were at ground level).

Boarding: The monitors were advising a gate change from gate A10 to gate A9, which was literally two or three steps away! Given all the gates go to the one door, which then leads to all aircraft stands I’m not sure what the significance of the gate change was for us in the terminal. Our luck of early departures came to an end with the San Fran fog apparently to blame although we boarded only slightly behind schedule and the ground staff kept us all informed. Sitting in the plane on the tarmac the pilot apologized for the delay and said as soon as air traffic give him the green light we would be off.

InFlight: Taking off to the northwest only 16 minutes behind schedule we soon turned to the left, which provided some great views of Portland before heading down the coast for San Francisco. The crew apologized again for the delay and that due to the fog it was unlikely that we would make up any lost time. Although sometimes interesting the scenery wasn’t as breathtaking as the earlier flights until we got abeam San Fran International airport where the 2 intersecting sets of parallel runways provided a constant stream of new planes to watch take off or land. We managed to reduce the delay to 12 minutes by the time we descended through the fog for a smooth landing into the Bay area. Interestingly on arrival at the gate a ramp was used for passenger deplaning instead of the normal air stairs. On arrival into the terminal we quickly found the air train to the metro trains and were in the city, ready to start our honeymoon in no time.

So that’s my InFlight trip report for our Alaska Airlines hop from Canada down the west coast of the USA and into San Fran. Would I do a connecting flight like this again? Hell yeah. Although perhaps I’d leave a little later in the morning as by the time we got in we were stuffed! Hope you enjoyed this style of post – it’s long I know but it is 3 flights. I’m gradually getting my blogging mojo back and hope to have more articles up really soon :)

 

Also if you like watching planes take off and land, don’t forget to check out my videos on you tube, just like this one which is taking off from Seattle on the way to Portland:

 

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