Duck and squeeze are the watchwords in the new age of air travel by regional jets in Memphis.
I've flown Pinnacle Airlines six times this year and Northwest and U.S. Airways four times. Considering all the bad news in the airline industry this summer -- the mechanics' strike, the soaring cost of fuel, terrorism threats, Hurricane Katrina, bankrupt airlines -- the experience has been remarkably smooth.
Regional jets, which carry 42 or 50 passengers depending on seat configuration, are cramped if you're over six feet tall and weigh more than 200 pounds. But the discomfort was minor and tolerable on flights of two hours or less and offset by the convenience of direct service to my destinations.
Memphis International Airport has made improvements to the "rotunda" -- where the three wings of the B Concourse intersect -- that make it more appealing, user-friendly, and beneficial to Memphis by promoting our attractions and businesses.
The A Concourse is now used mainly by Delta and Northwest. (Both are expected to file for bankruptcy this week.) The end of that concourse is specifically for regional jets. The B Concourse is pretty much all Northwest. The C Concourse is used by everyone else, including Air Tran, Continental, U.S. Airways, and American.
Larry Cox, chief executive of the Memphis Airport Authority, said the preponderance of passenger traffic at the airport is now on regional jets. In July, Northwest flew 89 outbound flights per day, while Pinnacle flew 87 flights and Mesaba flew 52 planes a day. A year ago, Northwest was flying 125-150 flights a day.
Fares remain reasonable if you shop around and book in advance. I snagged a $300 flight to Tallahassee last weekend on Pinnacle and pre-booked a Northwest flight to Raleigh-Durham in October for $213, which is about what it would cost to drive there and back. Using Priceline.com, I got a rental car for $20 a day from Hertz in Tallahassee and for $25 a day from Enterprise in Raleigh. Priceline now gives you an answer almost immediately if your bid is accepted. You can rebid if your initial bid gets no takers.
Mid-afternoon departures and Sunday late-afternoon returns were on time or within 15 minutes each time. On every flight I've taken this year, I got my ticket on the Internet, but not my boarding pass and seat assignment. Unless you have broadband, it's faster to do it at the airport kiosk where you stick your credit card in the machine and are through in two minutes. Printing them with dial-up service takes much longer.
Beverage service on regional jets making a trip of 90 minutes or less hardly seems worth the trouble. Why not just have an attendant hand everyone a bottle of water when they board? Many passengers carried food and coffee aboard that they bought in the terminal.
On regionals, avoid sitting in rows 11 or 12 by all means if you can. They're in the back of the plane, uncomfortably close to the restroom, and the seats don't recline. I was shoulder-to-shoulder and sweaty leg-to-leg with my heavyset seat companion for the entire 80-minute flight. Both of us were grateful when it was over.
Carry-on bags that fit into overhead compartments on a full-size jet are too big for regionals, but they let you carry them to the door of the plane, where an attendant tags and stores them for you and takes them off when the plane lands, saving the trouble and time of checking them. Why didn't they think of this before, when we stood in the aisle waiting for some passenger to cram a giant carry-on into an overhead bin?
Airport security seems more efficient than it was a few years ago but still somewhat illogical. Women from the age of 7 to 70 were asked to remove their shoes. Returning from Tallahassee on September 11th, I was singled out for a thorough search of my bag and person. I had forgotten I had bought a small corkscrew, and I thought I would be busted. But the attendant pulled it out of the bag, removed the plastic cover, looked at it, and put it back. Right next to her was a display case of banned items, including small tools, clippers, and nail files. Beats me.