This Story was Written by Andrew Vane for AirlineReporter.com:
Although not filled with the glory of a wide-body international flight typically experienced by others, any opportunity to fly commercially always brings a smile to my face. Getting to fly, no matter the distance or aircraft, is what being an #AvGeek is all about! To quote a childrens book titled “Railroad Toad” by Susan Schade and John Buller (that I used to read to my children): “Give me a ticket to anywhere, the farther the better I don’t care!”
Well, that opportunity rolled around again for me. This time, I got to fly for business from my home city of Charlotte, North Carolina to the capital of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg. Up one afternoon and back the next is all I had time for with this trip.
To give you some background on Charlotte-Douglas International Airport (CLT), in 2012 it was the eighth-busiest airport in the US and had more domestic flights than New York’s LaGuardia and Kennedy combined. As a major hub to US Airways (soon to become American Airlines), the airport has grown from three small crisscrossing runways in the 1960’s to four long runways capable of handling an A340-600 or Boeing 777. CLT officials are also planning to give the longest runway a 2,000 foot extension at some point in the future. Hmmmm. My last fortune cookie said “I see big things in your future” so perhaps someday an A380 will grace CLT.
Like most airports, CLT is continually experiencing construction in one form or another. The airport is currently adding a new parking deck, new entrance roadways, an expansion of Terminal E, and a truck/rail inter-modal facility. The familiar statue of Queen Charlotte has been relocated during construction, safely out of harm’s way.
To assist departing travelers with finding parking, CLT has a mobile-friendly web site that can help you see which lots are open and how much they cost. There is also a free mobile app called My Charlotte, but it simply links you to the aforementioned web site. Parking options vary from $5 per day long-term lots to $19/day in business valet. Drop your vehicle at the terminal and they’ll take it from there. Even though I traveled on business, I chose to be fiscally responsible and opted for the covered daily parking deck ($7/day) which also kept the hot southern sun off my Mazda.
As a side note, one of the finer aspects of CLT is the free public observation area. Filled with parking spots, picnic tables, and benches, the airport overlook sits at the approach end of the airport’s center runway off Old Dowd Road. With heightened security, most US airports are either relocating their observation areas away from the action or removing them altogether. When visiting, I strongly recommend any AvGeek takes advantage of this asset before it’s gone.
With four TSA checkpoints, the wait is usually short (or nonexistent) at CLT unless you have an early flight when only one or two checkpoints are open. CLT also features the new TSA Pre-Check at the B checkpoint for those in a hurry.
The terminals are arranged like a stick figure of a reindeer, with each branch projecting from the main terminal (body). Terminal A (the tail) serves the non-hub carriers like Delta, American, United, Air Canada, and, as of this past April, Southwest. B and C terminals (the legs) mostly serve US Airways’ domestic flights and a few wide-bodies. Terminal D (the head/neck) serves Jet Blue and international flights (including a daily A333 or A340 Lufthansa flight to Germany). Terminal E (the antlers) serves all the regional jet action operated by the regional US Airways Express carriers. OK, so maybe it doesn’t look exactly like a stick figure reindeer, but possibly like Max, the Grinch’s dog-turned-reindeer.
Taking a 5:55PM flight out of Charlotte, I hopped aboard a CRJ-900 operated by Mesa Airlines, one of the US Airways Express regional carriers. Terminal E is currently being extended with new gates added at the north end. As a result, some gates are merely doors to the tarmac where you walk on out to the aircraft to board. Terminal E has that “small airport” feel.
One good thing about flying a smaller regional jet is that with only 90 passengers, it doesn’t take all that long to get everyone aboard. When you compare this to loading up a 185-passenger A321 from a single gate, the boarding time is essentially cut in half.
Loaded up and ready to go, our 9-year-old Canadair CRJ-900 (N916FJ) was on its way. A good way to distinguish the CRJ-700 (70 passengers) from the CRJ-900 (90 passengers) is the number of wing exits. There is one on each side for CRJ700, versus two for CRJ900’s.
After departure, the flight attendants provided the typical complimentary beverage service of soft drinks and juices. Other snacks were available for purchase. My experiences flying economy are always mixed. While American and Delta provide both a complimentary beverage and snack like Biscoff cookies, food items and snacks for US Airways flights are a la carte. Unfortunately, my soft drink consisted of a cup full of ice sprinkled with Diet Coke. At least the flight attendants were friendly and polite.
Harrisburg International Airport (MDT), which has operated for over a century, is situated on the east bank of the Susquehanna River a few miles south of the city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. With all the hilly terrain, the airport and single runway appears to have been squeezed on to a flat piece of land between the railroad and river. MDT is served commercially by multiple daily flights by Delta, US Airways, United, and American. Allegiant, Frontier, and Air Canada have one daily flight each. I also spotted some A310 and A300 cargo planes.
The original terminal, now closed, appears to have consisted of 5 gates. The present day terminal is roomier with 12 gates and includes a parking deck and retail stores. Plenty of room is available for TSA and the few nice shops have a sampling of the local culture with soft pretzels, Hershey’s chocolate, and Pennsylvania Dutch items. Unfortunately for me, my flight just missed the airport’s free Open House.
We approached from the southwest giving me some nice views of the airport, the Susquehanna River, and what the locals refer to as TMI, better known to you and me as Three Mile Island. Yes, that Three Mile Island: the site of the infamous nuclear incident in 1979. After a very smooth landing and exit, I waited on the jet bridge for my roll-aboard bag.
Here is where it gets interesting. Since most people don’t like to pay the $25 bag fee (me included), instead of “deplaning” through the jetbridge to the terminal, most passengers stay to wait for their bags. Of the 90 people on the aircraft, at least 50 checked their bags at the gate to avoid the fee. Unfortunately, the jetbridge is about 5 feet wide so there isn’t much room to form some sort of a line, get past people to get your bag, and then navigate back past everyone to the terminal.
The bags appear in no particular order and if you’re at the back of the line its often difficult to spot if the bag sitting there is yours. The effect of this Grab-N-Go event also delays the next set of passengers from getting on the aircraft and drew some interesting looks from the gate agents. Perhaps US Airways already accounts for this in their schedule. Every time I encounter this I say to myself “there’s got to be a better way.” Since larger aircraft have larger sized overhead compartments, there are often fewer people who check their bags at the gate and less of a line.
Incidentally, when you deplane at a gate that has no jetbridge, you often have to wait for your gate-checked bag on the tarmac, no matter the weather conditions. You’re always gambling so you may have to stand in the heat, cold, or rain for a good 4-5 minutes.
Upon arriving in the city of Harrisburg, I conducted my business, took in some of the local culture and exquisite dining, and then was back at the airport and ready to return to the Queen City.
Check-in at MDT was a breeze with US Airways’ automated boarding pass computers. Although there was only a single TSA checkpoint at MDT, there were only two departing flights that afternoon, which meant the line was almost non-existent. Boarding was smooth and I took my window seat in 15A. After a brief taxi past the cargo heavies, we departed to the north, turning to swing southward towards the Mason-Dixon line and home.
My return flight on a similar, but slightly younger, CRJ-900 (N939LR) was uneventful. I was pleased to see there was a bit less ice and more Diet Coke in my cup this time. I also lucked out as there was nobody in the aisle seat next to me so I had room to stretch a bit.
Landing smoothly in Charlotte on the newer western runway (18R), I was able to get a nice view of Lake Norman and Uptown Charlotte on approach. “Downtown” sounds too negative so we call it “Uptown”. I also got a nice view from the taxiway of a new intermodal rail/truck facility being constructed between the runways. We taxied past a Boeing 767 on the hardstand, four Airbus A330’s, and a Lufthansa Airbus A340. This is when getting a window seat pays off since there is normally not as much to see at 30,000 feet.
Overall, it was a very good trip. The cost was 50% higher since I took a direct flight out of a hub without a connection but I avoided the potential risk of delays more commonly experienced by larger volume airports. Plus, choosing a direct flight to Harrisburg gave me the option of a direct return flight. Without a lengthy return trip, I was home in time for dinner; my wife cooks much better than the airport and charges me less too.
Follow Andrew’s domestic economy travel and plane spotting on Twitter @PipelineDrew.