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N913AK on its takeoff roll from SEA on its inaugural revenue flight for Alaska Airlines on March 1, 2021. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer Lindgren

N913AK on its takeoff roll from SEA on its inaugural revenue flight for Alaska Airlines on March 1, 2021 – Photo: Jeremy Dwyer Lindgren

On March 1 at 6:30 a.m., Alaska Airlines’ first Boeing 737 MAX 9 took to the skies from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on a flight to San Diego. That flight made Alaska the third U.S. carrier to place the MAX into service since the plane’s grounding was lifted at the end of 2020, and it was the first airline to place the plane into service that didn’t receive any of its orders prior to the grounding in March 2019.

What was it like? Alaska did invite the local news media and AvGeek outlets to cover the departure, but the event was tastefully subdued overall.  The worst part? Getting up at 2:30 a.m. to get to the airport on time. The best part? The flight itself, of course. As we reviewed back in 2019 before the grounding, the MAX offers a fine passenger experience, even more so now that the tragic issues with the aircraft’s avionics have been sorted and certified.

The flight crew consisted of Alaska's fleet captain and chief training pilot

The flight crew consisted of Alaska’s fleet captain and chief training pilot

During the standard preflight passenger briefing, the pilots commented on how much they liked flying the new aircraft, saying that Alaska did 50 hours of proving flights over 19,000 miles with that plane prior to putting it into line service, including several flights for employees. They also noted the MAX’s greater efficiency, saving 15% in fuel costs over the prior model.

As I experienced on Icelandair's Max 8, the plane is noticeably quieter in the cabin than the NG series planes the MAX replaces, even when seated near the engines

As I experienced on Icelandair’s Max 8, the plane is noticeably quieter in the cabin than the NG-series planes the MAX replaces, even when seated near the engines

I flew in coach, seated in row 13 both ways, in the aisle southbound and at the window back to SEA. If you’re familiar with Alaska’s current 737 NG cabin  configurations, the overall layout is the same, save for some nice detail improvements, including additional USB ports that are much more accessible, and a clever device holder in the seatbacks. All in all, the MAX 9 provides a very comfortable and surprisingly quiet passenger experience.

This was my first commercial flight in nearly 12 months, and the biggest change I noticed was how often the flight attendants came through the cabin to pick up trash. Well, that, and there were no hot meals, alcoholic beverages, or poured soft drinks offered – water and soda were dispensed in single-serving cans or bottles.

Alaska has orders to take delivery of 68 MAX 9s, with options for an additional 52, so the MAX plays a primary role in the airline’s plan to modernize its fleet. Alaska plans to eventually divest itself of most of the Airbus A319/320ceos it acquired as part of its acquisition of Virgin America, coming closer to being an all-Boeing airline once again, although it does look like they’ll hang onto the 10 A321neos in their fleet for now.

The outbound flight to San Diego was quite full, with plenty of AvGeeks and Alaska Air crew in evidence. The return flight was considerably less full, more in line with what I’m told are more normal passenger loads given current COVID concerns.

Alaska is currently using N913AK on two daily roundtrip routes from Seattle; flights 482 and 539 to and from San Diego in the morning and early afternoon, and flights 398 and 705 to and from Las Angeles in the late afternoon and evening.

Here we are on the base turn over Elliott Bay in Seattle on the way back to SEA. The MAX's engines are considerably larger than the NG

Here we are on the base turn over Elliott Bay in Seattle on the way back to SEA. The MAX’s engines are considerably larger than the NG.

An El Al 767 at Zurich airport. Credit: Aero Icarus – Wikimedia Commons

An El Al 767 at Zurich airport – Photo: Aero Icarus | Wikimedia Commons

Ask any self-respecting airline geek which airline was the first to introduce commercial trans-Atlantic twin-engine services, and you’d probably get an answer like TWA, American, or maybe Air Canada. The surprising answer? Plucky little El Al, the fiercely independent but resource-challenged national airline of Israel. How did that happen?

Never shy in taking on a new challenge, El Al has built a reputation on pioneering industry breakthroughs – a non-stop distance record on the JFK-TLV proving flight with a Bristol Britannia in 1957 (5,760 miles). A trans-Atlantic speed record on the 707 JFK-LHR segment in 1970 (7 hours, 57 minutes). The ultimate “high passenger density” 747-400 operation in which a staggering 1,122 Ethiopian refugees were safely (if not so comfortably) evacuated from Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv in 1991. And a set of remarkable COVID repatriation flights in 2020.

In 1983, El Al took delivery of the first of four 767-200s from Boeing. The first two airplanes were the standard range models (4,270-mile range). The second two airframes were extended range (ER) variants, equipped with Pratt & Whitney JT9D-7R4E engines, enabling a range of 5,610 miles.

By 1984, the FAA was actively working with several operators to implement new overwater operational approvals for twin-engine operations – what would become known as ETOPS- Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards. But the old rule – that the flight had to stay within a 60-minute radius of a suitable landing site — was still in effect.

It’s hard to wrap our heads around this today when we can fly 19 hours with up to 330 minutes ETOPS. But the notion of twin-engine oceanic operations was new stuff back then. A lot was unknown. An inflight engine shutdown would make the remaining engine work harder. Could it handle the stress? Could the one remaining generator or hydraulic pump reliably perform? And simply relying on the APU to cold-start at cruise or for the ram air turbine to properly deploy was not sufficient. Alternate airport requirements were more strict and a host of crew-training, equipage, and certification requirements made the very proposition of viable commercial ETOPS operations a daunting task.

What was clear was that the economics of twin-engine operations was quite compelling. The cost savings of operating a 767-200 with 190 passengers compared to a 370-seat 747 on a typical trans-Atlantic route was in the range of 45%. Fuel and crew costs (including the new two-person cockpit of the 767) accounted for the majority of the trip savings.

Having trialed its two ERs on shorter European runs from Tel Aviv, El Al was ready to exploit the 60-minute rule for commercial service from North America. On March 26, 1984, El Al became the first airline to offer commercial ETOPS flights, operating a 767-200ER (4X-EAC) from Montreal to Tel Aviv. The non-stop route, in compliance with the 60-minute rule, took 11 hours and 8 minutes.

El Al's first ETOPS flight was from Tel Aviv to Montreal on March 26, 1984. Credit: Great Circle Mapper

El Al’s first ETOPS flight was from Tel Aviv to Montreal on March 26, 1984 – Image: Great Circle Mapper

Based on the early success of the Montreal route, El Al added more ETOPS flights the next year offering 767ER service on the following routes:

  • Tel Aviv – Amsterdam – Chicago – Los Angeles (LAX)
  • Tel Aviv – Amsterdam – Montreal
  • Tel Aviv — Amsterdam – New York (JFK) – Miami
El Al's early transatlantic routes were groundbreaking. Credit: Great Circle Mapper

El Al’s early transatlantic routes were groundbreaking – Image: Great Circle Mapper

Ultimately, the airline would achieve 120-minute ETOPS approval, allowing more flexible routings on the North Atlantic runs.

El Al’s achievement was groundbreaking – both technologically and psychologically. There was a lot of resistance to the idea of twin-engine oceanic flights back then – from the International Federation of Airline Pilots (IFALPA) to former FAA Administrator Lynn Helms. Ultimately, technology – and economics – would prevail.

TWA was quick to follow El Al's ETOPS example. Credit: Ralf Manteufel -- Wikimedia Commons

TWA was quick to follow El Al’s ETOPS example – Photo: Ralf Manteufel | Wikimedia Commons

El Al’s exploits were closely monitored by other airlines, eager to cash in on the favorable twin-engine economics. TWA had ten 767s on order at the time, and was working with the FAA to secure 120-minute ETOPS authority, which would allow for more direct routings from its St. Louis hub. TWA launched trans-Atlantic ETOPS flights the following year on its Boston – Paris route and would go on to build a network of 767 routes from St. Louis and New York (JFK) hubs. American and Air Canada were quick to follow. The floodgates were opening.

Air Canada quickly sought ETOPS certification for its 767s as well. Credit: Michel Gilliand – Wikimedia Commons

Air Canada quickly sought ETOPS certification for its 767s as well – Photo: Michel Gilliand | Wikimedia Commons

Today, the vast majority of flights across oceans are performed by twin-engine airplanes. Few were the visionaries who could foresee that development in the early 1980s, when the very notion of twins across the ocean was controversial. But the contemporary dominance of twin-engine intercontinental flight came about only through three decades of patient, deliberate development in commercial ETOPS operations – punctuated by the bold exploits of a few early movers. So, next time you board a 787 for Frankfurt or A350 to Hong Kong, you might just tip your hat to that plucky airline from Israel that started it all.

Not gonna lie - it'd be great if El Al would do a heritage livery like this. Credit: Michel Gilliand – Wikimedia Commons

Not gonna lie – it’d be great if El Al would do a heritage livery like this – Photo: Michel Gilliand | Wikimedia Commons


About the Author: Steve Jaffe is founder and editor of airlinestoisrael.com and author of Airspace Closure and Civil Aviation — a Strategic Resource for Airline Managers.  His career has spanned all facets of commercial aviation, including marketing and consulting roles at Boeing, the FAA, US Airways, and AVITAS.  He remains an avid avgeek (best plane ever — the 757) and is working on indoctrinating the next generation of geeks and geekettes.
An early morning departure from Kansas City International. - Photo: JL Johnson

An early morning departure from Kansas City International – Photo: JL Johnson

It has been three-hundred and ninety days since I last flew. That flight was as routine as possible: Southwest Airlines from Chicago Midway back to Kansas City, concluding a standard trip to visit with business partners. At the time, there was some concern over risks of a pandemic but the topic wasn’t a worry for most. Headlines of the day were about the Iowa caucuses, Trump’s first impeachment hearing, and a Pegasus 737 sliding off the runway in Istanbul. 2020 was going to be an incredible year for travel, both for the work -and- personal varieties. We all know how that turned out. Like many, I decided that flying during a global pandemic was not a good idea. Shortly after, my employer instituted an outright ban on travel. Events across the board were canceled and Delta parked a sizable chunk of their fleet on one of Kansas City’s runways.

My reasons to not travel were varied. Back in November, David cared for most of them. If you haven’t read his piece, I would recommend starting there because this is a sort of follow-up. Go ahead and click, we’ve got it set up to open in a new tab for your convenience. One crucial piece that I think David left out was that I don’t believe either of us were particularly concerned about *our* health, but the risk of contracting and unknowingly spreading to others. That is an important part of the narrative which I think has been missing from the conversation. I am not worried about me. I am worried about my wife, my son, my son’s teacher, his schoolmates, their families… Public health is less about the individual, and more about the population. My decision to not fly was not about me, it was a selfless one.

But now I’m ready to fly! What has changed? Click read more and let’s get into it.

Current Air Force One landing

Air Force One lands at Joint Base Andrews – Photo: National Geographic/Renegade Pictures

Recently, I had the opportunity to have a sneak peek at the upcoming National Geographic documentary on the new Boeing 747-8i planes that are being heavily converted to take on the role of Air Force One. While the current planes, based upon the 747-200, are maintained impeccably, they’re getting long in the tooth at over 30 years old.

This behind-the-scenes look was pure AvGeek gold, but also appeals to all audiences. My nine-year-old daughter thought it was great (and told me to say so in this review)!

A Qatar 777-300ER receives a water-cannon salute as it taxis to its gate at Sea-Tac Airport

Qatar Airways (QR) launched service from Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar, to Seattle, Washington, on Jan. 29, 2021, two months ahead of schedule. It also marked the first new service to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Inaugural flights are always a joy to cover – you get to see other media colleagues and friends, there’s always a bit of a festival atmosphere, and, best of all, you get to go out onto the ramp at a busy international airport to take photos and enjoy the experience of being airside.

The 777 is an imposingly large aircraft

The 777 is an imposingly large aircraft

Qatar now serves the three largest cities on the U.S. West Coast: Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. The Seattle service will be served by Boeing 777s with 42 seats in Qsuite business class and 312 seats in economy. The Qsuite seat layout is a 1-2-1 configuration, and economy is 3-4-3. Seattle service begins at four times weekly (Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays), and is scheduled to switch to daily service on July 1.

The new Seattle service will offer connections from the U.S. to global destinations in Africa, India, Nepal, and Pakistan, among others. The national carrier of the State of Qatar continues to rebuild its network, which currently stands at over 120 destinations with plans to increase to more than 130 by the end of March.

Before the inaugural event, I had the opportunity to chat on the phone with Mark Drusch, SVP of Revenue Management, Alliances and Strategy at Qatar Airways, who’s based in Doha.

“We understand that there are Somalis in Seattle who want to go home — we know where our customers need to fly. We have flown a robust schedule even in the depths of covid, so we’ve had our finger on the pulse of the market and have been able to accurately gauge the movements that are required,” he said, citing strong pent-up demand for travel to East Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Indian subcontinent.

Further, covid has opened up a wave of interest in travel to exotic/under-visited destinations. “We have got a massive developing market between the U.S. and more exotic beach destinations like the Seychelles,” Drusch said. ‘People want to go someplace a little more isolated, and that market has developed quite nicely.”

He also cited the attractiveness for the airline of the strong business environment in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. “This area has not had a problem during the pandemic,” he said, adding that “the Pacific Northwest will rebound faster because of the kinds of businesses we have up here.”

The 773's cargo hold was filled with containers. Qatar flies the large jets, in part, to maximize its cargo-handling opportunities

The 77W’s cargo hold was filled with containers. Qatar flies the large jets, in part, to maximize its cargo-handling opportunities.

Cargo is the one aviation sector that has seen growth since the emergence of COVID-19. “Our cargo market has just boomed during the pandemic. We are the largest passenger/freighter operation in the world, we were experts already in carrying cargo on freighters and passenger planes, and we’re flying the 773, which has lots of cargo capacity.”

Asked if Qatar sees itself as being in competition with Emirates for connecting passenger traffic, Drush said, “Lets be honest – the airline industry is very competitive, but we’ve been different than Emirates – they’ve pulled back from the U.S. and Europe. We’ve continued to be in the market for our customers; in the middle of covid we repatriated almost 2 million people.”

The 777-300 cockpit is also quite spacious

The 777-300 cockpit is also quite spacious

Qatar Airways Privilege Club and Alaska Mileage Plan members can now earn frequent flyer miles on both carriers. Beginning March 31, 2021, members can also redeem frequent flyer miles on both carriers’ full networks and elite oneworld Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald status perks, including lounge access.

Of interest to those in the Pacific Northwest who are Alaska Airlines frequent fliers, Qatar is part of the oneworld alliance, which Alaska recently joined. Alaska Airlines will connect customers from the U.S. West Coast to Doha and beyond via its other hubs in Los Angeles and San Francisco, complementing existing strategic partnerships with JetBlue and oneworld carrier American Airlines.