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Remembering a plane close to Alaskans’ hearts – the 737 combi

  • Author: Scott McMurren
  • Updated: October 29, 2017
  • Published October 28, 2017

A 737-400C (combi) coming in for a landing at Nome Airport. (Photo by Scott McMurren)

Travelers, it seems, are nothing if not nostalgic.

After all, one of the pitches to travel more is to "create memories to last a lifetime," or something like that.

So if travelers can wax sentimental about a special beach, a remarkable meal or a memorable destination, do the same feelings apply to an aircraft? It appears so.

This month has been one of long goodbyes for a couple of aircraft types. Alaska Air's 737 "combi" planes finally were retired after a decade of steady service. The fixed-partition models (737-400C) were introduced in 2007 to replace the 737s with the movable partitions. Those 737-200s started flying in 1968 with Wien Air Alaska, which was the launch customer for that model, featuring the gaping cargo door on the forward left-hand side. Alaska picked up some, but not all of the combi aircraft when Wien stopped flying in 1985. The 737 combis showed up in Anchorage later with two other now-defunct airlines: AirCal and MarkAir.

Like many Alaskans, I flew in a 737 combi all over the state: to Nome, to Prudhoe Bay, to Adak and to cities in Southeast Alaska. In September, I had the chance to fly to Ketchikan on the "combi" with stops in Juneau, Petersburg and Wrangell.

As Alaska Airlines steadily upgraded its planes with new seats, larger overhead bins, charging ports and Wi-Fi, the combi got left behind. While travelers around the state get to use air stairs all the time to get on and off the jet, Anchorage travelers are spoiled with fancy jetways to avoid the wind and weather. So my last journey on the combi included the march down the stairs and on to the apron to board from the rear.

Although I lucked out and got an aisle seat, another fellow who was my size (XL) got the middle seat next to me. We both just shrugged our shoulders and joked about how we needed a shoehorn to get in and out of the seat. And so up-down-up-down-up-down-up-down we went to Ketchikan. Along the way, we found we had several mutual friends and we agreed that it was time to retire the combi in favor of Alaska's newer Boeing jets.

When is the last time you've flown on a Boeing 747? The aircraft often is dubbed "Queen of the Skies" and once flew regularly between Anchorage to Europe with British Airways, Japan Airlines and others. That was back when Anchorage was the gas station for airlines flying between Asia and Europe, before flights over Russia were permitted. One season, for a couple of months, Northwest flew the 747 between Anchorage and Seattle!

These days, most of the 747s at the airport are hauling cargo. The airlines are phasing out the giant 747s and replacing them with "big twins" like the Boeing 777 or 787.

United Airlines is making a big deal of retiring its last 747 on Nov. 7, with a "retro" flight between San Francisco and Honolulu. Forty-seven years ago, that was the route where the 747 first was deployed for United.

My first flight on the 747 was less than remarkable. The seats were cramped and the interior was frayed around the edges on the Pan Am flight from Honolulu to Auckland, New Zealand. Everyone got a pillow and a blanket, though. A couple of years later, Pan Am sold their Pacific routes to United.

Most of the 747s you'll see in Anchorage now are hauling cargo between Asia and the Lower 48 or Europe.

There are other airplanes that have come and gone without much fanfare. One of my favorite in-state planes was operated by Era Aviation, now part of Ravn Alaska. The Convair 580 was a 50-passenger aircraft with big seats and plenty of legroom. And they were fast, covering the Anchorage-Kenai route in about 18 minutes.

New aircraft like the Boeing 787 and the Airbus 380 are moving in to fill the gap left by the 747. My experience with the 787 was delightful, even in the cheap seats. Norwegian is flying from Seattle, Oakland and LAX nonstop to Europe. The standout features were extra headroom, huge overhead bins, bigger windows and better air circulation than older jets. The new plane really does make a difference.

The Airbus 380 was less impressive to me. I didn't take a shower on board or hang out at the fancy bar. I was on an Emirates A380 between Dubai and Kuala Lumpur. I was in row 78, in the middle section with four seats across. Every seat was filled. The cabin staff was very helpful, but it was just a little tight. I found Emirates' 777s to be more comfortable.

Other planes, including the Boeing 737 MAX, the Airbus 350 and the new C-series jets from Bombardier, are rolling out to replace older planes.

It's true that I have lots of great stories while flying in the older planes. Back then, there still was a smoking section, though. Now, I look forward to climbing aboard a fuel-efficient, traveler-friendly aircraft like the Boeing 787. Or, here in Alaska, the Boeing 737 MAX.

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at zoom907@me.com. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.

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