Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Alaska Airlines unveils new Q400 turboprop plane


FAIRBANKS — Alaska Airlines took another step toward the Bombardier Q400 era in Fairbanks on Monday, when the company brought one of the twin-engine turboprop planes to town for a tour by employees, board members and the media. 

Starting in March, the 76-seat Q400 will replace Boeing 737 jets on most of the carrier’s Anchorage-Fairbanks routes. The Q400, which will be operated by Alaska’s sister company, Horizon Air, is projected to save money by slashing fuel costs and adding more route flexibility with eight daily round-trip flights. A single daily 737 flight will remain on the route.

Inside a hangar at Fairbanks International Airport, a Q400 was unveiled for visitors on Monday afternoon, as employees handed out glossy brochures and visitors wandered the aisle or sat in the co-pilot’s chair.

Alaska Airlines plans to add three Q400s to its fleet this fall, along with 30 flight attendants and 30 pilots based in Anchorage to operate the planes. The shift away from costlier 737s is expected to slash costs by about 30 percent, said Horizon Air President Glenn Johnson.

“It does come down to the right airplane in the right market,” Johnson said.

The change to the Q400, which was announced in June, was greeted with skepticism by some Alaskans. Accessing the turboprop planes across an icy tarmac was criticized by some, while uncertainty remained about how disabled passengers would get aboard.

Johnson said both issues will be resolved by the time the planes begin service in Fairbanks next year. He said a passageway will allow temperature-controlled access to planes. Several options are being explored to accommodate disabled passengers, but no final decision has been made, he said.

“We will make sure customers are warm and safe and dry,” Johnson said.

The cruising speed of a Q400 is 414 mph, according to a fact sheet distributed by Alaska Airlines, which is 88 mph less than a Boeing 737-400. But Johnson said the difference in flight time will be negligible, since the jets spend only a small amount of time at cruising speed on short trips.

The planes, which have been used by Horizon on runs that include Western Canada and the Portland-Seattle routes, are certified for the same temperatures as a 737, Johnson said.

The $30 million Toronto-made aircraft are about 12 feet shorter than a 737-400 and hold roughly half as many passengers. The interior of the plane is noticeably smaller than a 737, with two seats on each side of the aisle, but Horizon officials said the space for a seated passenger is the same as in a larger plane. 

Most carry-on baggage will be checked at the gate by the ground crew, then returned to passengers upon landing.

But company officials vowed that the planes won’t represent a downgrade for passengers. Perry Solmonson, the director of flight standards and training for Horizon Air, said the planes feature new technologies that allow them to better avoid winter storms and dampen vibrations. The cabins are fitted with 70 microphones, which record cabin noise to project sound-canceling frequencies to offset it, he said. Two flight attendants will be stationed on each route.

“You always wish you had your dad’s keys to the hot rod,” Solmonson said, gesturing to the plane behind him. “This is that.”

In a second-quarter conference call, Alaska Airlines’ vice president of planning and revenue management Andrew Harrison said the Q400 additions to Alaska will have only a small impact on the company as a whole. Alaska Airlines has a fleet of 128 737s and about 50 Q400s.

But Johnson said once the use of the planes reaches “a critical mass,” the shift should ultimately allow the company to pass savings onto customers in Alaska.

“That should help us as we move forward to bring lower fares to the state,” Johnson said.

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