Alaska Airlines' announcement late last year that they plan to phase out of their 737-300 "combi" or combination aircraft means the end of an era for the state's commercial aviation industry. The aircraft's innovative design, which combined both freight and passengers in the main cabin, brought larger aircraft to Bush destinations for decades. And it was one of several aviation innovations that originated in the Last Frontier but would eventually be used around the world.
Use of the combi in Alaska dates to 1958 when Northern Consolidated Airlines purchased the first Fokker Fairchild F-27B aircraft. The F-27B was a twin turbo-prop with an oversized cargo door, a modification to the best-selling F27 aircraft which seated 40 passengers. (It was also used for a military version of the aircraft.) The B model allowed for the first formal configuration of freight and passengers in an upper deck (or main cabin).
Northern Consolidated itself has a unique place in Alaska history, as the airline that effectively started the state's sport fishing industry.
Ray Petersen founded the company in 1947 by merging his own Bethel-based Ray Petersen's Flying Service with several other airlines. In 1950, he obtained permission from the National Park Service to build fishing lodges within Katmai National Park. Soon, articles in such national magazines as Field and Stream and Outdoor Life appeared touting adventures in the Bush with direct air service out of Anchorage. Remote sport fishing, which had before been prohibitively expensive and difficult to arrange, became a critical aspect of Alaska's burgeoning tourism industry. It also fueled big growth for Northern Consolidated which began flying the combis out of Anchorage to destinations like Bethel and Dillingham, creating regional hubs still critical to rural Alaska's economy today.
The combi was a natural fit for Alaskans, who were accustomed to flying with freight and mail and didn't bat an eye when anything from sled dogs to pumpkins to bales of hay was loaded in the cabin. Wien Air, Northern Consolidated's primary competition also purchased and flew the F-27B.
In 1968, unable to expand on their own, Northern Consolidated and Wien merged forming a new company, Wien Consolidated Airlines. The new company was able to take the use of combi to another level with the purchase in May 1968 of a B737-200 combi, a jet specially designed for them by Boeing Aircraft. Wien would go on to pioneer jet service on gravel runways and bring the larger aircraft to places into which, eventually, Alaska Airlines would follow them. After Wien went out of business in 1985, Alaska Airlines became the only commercial operator of jet combi planes in the state.
Alaska Airlines will be replacing the combi flights with a fewer number of all cargo aircraft; it is unclear how the passenger traffic will shift from the combis to existing or new passenger flights.
Contact Colleen Mondor at firstname.lastname@example.org.