Back before the merger with Virgin America, I feel that the Alaska Airlines fleet was marked by two features: First, if it wasn’t Boeing, they weren’t going. But also, most of the regional fleet operated by Horizon Air consisted of Q400 turboprops. Flying on Horizon Air may have been one of the last places Americans would encounter a Q400 as they have steadily been replaced on many other regional carriers used by Delta, American, and United.
Alaska made plans to buy a newer fleet of Embraer 175 jets to replace the Q400, and I quite like them. They have first class cabins and a nice 2-2 configuration back in coach. The Virgin America acquisition brought a second fleet of Airbus aircraft. And flying on the Q400 has been less and less common.
But Alaska was also expecting to take delivery of a few dozen Boeing 737 MAX aircraft and begin flights this summer. The carrier has been growing like crazy. I was a little surprised that they decided to retain the Airbus fleet, but I guess it was a good move because they need the planes and the MAX is now grounded. So it’s making another concession: Keeping the Q400 flying for a little bit longer.
Replacing a cutting edge passenger jet with a retro turboprop? It’s not that big of a stretch. The turboprops can replace the E175, and then the E175 can replace the missing 737s that were expected to be used on some routes. The range on those guys is impressive. Flying on an E175 between Austin and San Jose is actually a better experience than one of the Airbus craft used between Austin and Seattle.
I’m not too fussy when I travel. Especially on short flights the Q400 can be a fun and interesting experience. There’s free wine and beer to soften the rough ride, but you should definitely bring earplugs. The 2-1/2 hour flight from Seattle to Santa Rosa, CA, was about the limit of my tolerance.