Travel

This summer, Alaska Airlines will fly smaller Embraer 175s on some rural Alaska flights

Alaskans love their planes.

They’re handy for getting around the “Great Land,” which is long on runways and short on roads.

For travelers headed Outside on a long flight, it’s not uncommon to board a Boeing 757, or even a 767. But on most flights to the West Coast, it’s the venerable Boeing 737 that does the heavy lifting.

The same is true for in-state flights. Alaska Airlines provides all of the in-state point-to-point jet flights. From Juneau to Anchorage, from Anchorage to Adak or from Cordova to Yakutat, it’s all Boeing, all the way.

That’s changing this summer on some routes.

This summer, Alaska Airlines will be operating quite a few flights to rural Alaska from Anchorage using the smaller, Brazilian-made Embraer 175 twinjets. Kodiak, Nome, Prudhoe Bay and Kotzebue will see the E175s for the first time. Most of the E175s start flying on June 16. Horizon’s flights to King Salmon, Dillingham and Fairbanks will continue. There will be two flights each day between Anchorage and Seattle, plus one Fairbanks-Seattle flight on the E175.

In October 2020, Alaska Airlines farmed out some routes to its subsidiary, Horizon Air. Horizon flies the E175, accommodating 76 passengers. That’s smaller than the 737s, which hold between 124 and 178 passengers. The larger jets also have more space in the belly for cargo.

Initially, Horizon operated one flight each day from Anchorage to King Salmon and Dillingham, as well as four or five flights a day between Anchorage and Fairbanks. The E175s are based in Seattle, so they would fly up in the morning and back each evening.

As a passenger, I think the biggest benefit of the E175 is the two-by-two configuration in coach. No middle seats. The overhead bins are smaller, for sure. And there’s no seatback power in coach. All of the smaller jets have three classes: first, premium and coach. First class has an interesting one-by-two seating configuration.

Additionally, Horizon will establish a base in Anchorage for both pilots and flight attendants. Alaska Airlines spokesman Tim Thompson said the carrier has not yet determined whether to base any aircraft in Anchorage, although he did say Horizon “will have spares available.”

This is not the first time Alaska Airlines has worked to match a smaller plane with a rural market.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, the Boeing 737QC “combi” was a real workhorse in the Bush. First developed by Wien Air Alaska, the plane featured a flexible partition that could be moved forward or aft, depending on the amount of cargo being shipped.

[From 2017: The last Combi: Alaska Airlines retires unique jets and offers new freight options]

I remember being bumped off an Alaska Air flight from Anchorage to Nome because there were just 12 seats (on a 737QC) and they were taken.

The FAA eventually disallowed the flexible partition, so Alaska retrofitted some 737-400s with a fixed partition, allowing for 72 seats on the plane. These planes were very popular until 2017, when Alaska retired the fleet.

In 2013, Alaska asked Horizon Air to fly several deHavilland Q400 turboprops, with 76 seats, to several destinations from Anchorage, including Fairbanks and Kodiak. That lasted for a little over three years.

With the soft launch to Fairbanks and King Salmon, Alaska and Horizon are hoping to find the right plane for rural markets in the E175.

That’s important, since Alaska Airlines keeps ordering the biggest version of the 737, the MAX9 with 178 passengers. Plus, the airline will be retiring the smallest version of its 737 fleet, the 737-700, with 124 seats.

Alaska Airlines has a growing appetite for the bigger 737s, including the ones that are flying around Alaska (737-800s and -900s). The airline wants to use those planes to fly nonstop from Anchorage to a growing list of nonstop destinations, including Denver, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Salt Lake, Chicago and San Francisco.

So Alaska and Horizon are tasked with matching an aircraft with rural communities that can provide some additional frequency instead of just one flight per day (or less).

For example, between Anchorage and Cordova, there’s just one 737 per day. If you want to go for a business trip, you must stay the night before returning the next day. Or, in Adak, there are just two 737 flights per week from Anchorage.

This summer, the schedule to Kodiak, King Salmon, Dillingham and Nome will feature a daily 737 flight as well as a daily flight on the E175. Kotzebue will have a daily nonstop E175, while the 737 will make a stop in Nome en route to Anchorage.

Keeping the 737 in the schedules is important. That’s because Alaska Airlines allows three free bags per passenger on in-state itineraries. Plus, with the Club 49 program, members can ship up to 100 pounds for $49 (plus tax). Freight is more important in the Bush — and the E175 can’t haul as much as the bigger jets.

Between Anchorage and Prudhoe Bay, Alaska Airlines flies two 737s each day. The revised schedule with an E175 has not yet been published. Interestingly, ConocoPhillips purchased a couple of Q400 turboprops from Horizon, which the company flies between Anchorage and the North Slope.

Alaskans love their planes. With this move, Alaska Airlines and Horizon hope that rural travelers will come to love the E175 after decades of flying on the 737.

Scott McMurren

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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