Alaska Airlines (AS), through their wholly-owned subsidiary Horizon Air, recently announced that they would deploy some of their Bombardier Dash-8 Q400 aircraft to the State of Alaska. While Dash-8’s have long been a fixture in Alaska Airlines’ pacific northwest network via Horizon (I was flying them within Washington as a child), this marks their first major deployment up north.
Why would AS begin flying Q400s in Alaska? For the same reasons other carriers have moved towards regional jets and turbo props – operating costs, frequency, and flexibility. On the operating cost side, Q400s are extremely efficient, particularly compared to the Boeing 737-400s that are a mainstay of the AS fleet in Alaska. Bombardier estimates savings in examples like this to approach 40%. From a frequency and flexibility standpoint, more flights on a smaller plane can meet passenger demands, maximizing load factor while increasing service frequency, to the benefit of passengers.
In the case of the Anchorage to Fairbanks route, AS is increasing frequency to nine flights per day (from seven), but significantly reducing available seats. Currently, the seven daily flights are on Boeing 737-400s, seating 144 passengers. That’s 1,008 available seats per day. The new schedule provides eight daily flights on the Q400 (at 76 all-coach seats) and one remaining flight on the 734, for a total of 752 seats (a capacity reduction of 25%). This also all but eliminates the first class cabin on this route. That being said, you have to assume that this will significantly boost the Alaska load factor on these routes, increasing profitability.
Alaska Airlines is one the largest operators of the Q400 (they also like to decorate theirs in local sports liveries; see above). The Q400 is the latest, enhanced version of the Dash-8. The program dates back nearly 30 years, but now offers a technologically advanced airliner with similar safety features to mainline jets. Originally offered by de Havilland Canada, Bombardier acquired the company after a particularly-messy ownership change. The Dash-8, now offered only in its largest Q400 variant, has been an extremely successful program, delivering over 1,000 airframes.
While Alaska residents may be upset about losing mainline jet service, the Q400 is still a capable and comfortable aircraft. Seating is arranged in a 2-2 setup (meaning no middle seats) and Bombardier utilizes noise-cancelling technology on the “Q” models to reduce the drone from the turboprop engines. While seat width remains the same as the 737-400, pitch is reduced by an inch. This shouldn’t matter much on the routes these planes are being used on; Anchorage (ANC) to Fairbanks (FAI) is less than a one-hour flight.
I recently flew on a Q400 (a United Express version) for a flight much longer than ANC-FAI, and found it to be no less comfortable than a comparable regional jet. Actually, my discomfort on the flight had nothing to do with the equipment choice, and everything to do with the clientele. I was flying from a “less than cosmopolitan” (to be polite) destination back to Denver, and the announcement was made that electronics would be permitted after 10,000 feet. The woman in front of me, in heavy country twang, yelled out, “you mean we’re goin’ higher than 10,000 feet?!?” I had to bite my tongue; it was an interesting flight.
While regular Alaska Airlines Q400 service doesn’t begin in Alaska until March, proving flights have already taken place. Obviously, Alaska Airlines is hoping to convince its namesake-state clientele that just because it is a smaller plane doesn’t mean it is a lesser experience. I, for one, would love to fly on a “Horizon” Dash-8 again, mainly for nostalgic sake from my youth.