Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Air Choice One Travel Report: Chicago O'Hare to Burlington, IA

[Ignore what Google says about the cost. My ticket cost $56!]
UPDATE: Landing Video on YouTube now.

On a trip to visit classmates from seminary across the Midwest, I stumbled across Air Choice One, a small, regional communter airline, that offers flights to regional airports under the Essential Air Service program. For about $56, I was booked on a flight from O'Hare to Burlington, IA, on a little Cessna Caravan.

In the weeks leading up to the flight, I enjoyed some reports from previous travelers: this blog, and this video, for instance.

On the day of the flight. I called the number listed for Chicago operations, and was told that the flight was on time. I showed up at Terminal 3 of O'Hare at about 5:40 pm for a 7:00 pm departure to Burlington. Air Choice One's check-in counter is located at the far left end of the terminal, next to Spirit Airlines. There was no one ahead of me at the counter. Check-in was routine (except I was asked my weight). A carry on tag was added to my backpack, and a regular baggage tag for my check-in luggage.

The check-in bag had to be dropped off at a nearby TSA X-ray screening point, after which I entered the long line for security (a rarity for me, since I am normally TSA Pre-Checked when I fly Delta). By about 6:15 pm, I cleared security and visited the restroom, as the airline's website advises. At counter L10B (next to a crowded Spirit Airlines boarding area), I was told to wait next to doorway 9. They were waiting for a connecting passenger to come through, and would start boarding as soon as she showed up.

The crowded Spirit Airlines boarding area, from doorway L9, ORD Terminal 3
At about 6:50 pm, an agent lined up all the passengers on the two Air Choice One flights (going to Burlington, IA and Decatur, IL), in order of seating, Row 1, Row 2, Row 3 and Row 4, and then lead us down a set of stairs to the tarmac. There were two Cessna Caravans parked next to each other. The Burlington passengers were directed in to the one on the left. You drop your bigger carry-on bag before boarding (my backpack, but not my camera bag. Others carried purses, or any smaller hand-held personal item). We climbed up the narrow stairs, in order of seating, by row.

Walking on the tarmac 

Blurry photo of the boarding process 

The pilots were already in their seats. The captain turned to us to give a very brief welcome and safety message -- pointing out the exits, their heights off the ground, the location of the fire extinguisher, the flight time to Burlington (about 90 min with headwinds), and that it would be bumpy at take off and landing because of headwinds. He was interrupted by the ramp agent yelling weight distribution issues through the window. Then she turned to me and said,, "You ... sir ... yes, you, the heavy set guy in Row 3, we need you to switch seats with the lady in Row 2." Gee thanks. "That would be me!" I said, and raised my hand, eliciting chuckles from my fellow travelers. Unfortunately, Row 2 faced the rear of the aircraft, so I didn't have a clear view of the pilots and the instrument panel. The seat did swivel (but did not recline), so during the flight, I could crane my neck to get a forward view.

View from my window [Before being moved to Row 2].

The seats are nice and wide, and plush leather. 
A few minutes after 7, the door was closed, the engine started, and we were off! We taxiied about 10 minutes and then lined up onto runway 28R. The single prop engine roared to full thrust, and we hurtled down the runway, taking off after a short take-off roll. Take off was indeed bumpy, and we lurched and bounced, gaining altitude as the airport slowly receded. Flaps went up at 1000 feet, and a few minutes later, we stabilized at our cruising altitude of  6,000 feet. From that point on the flight was quite uneventful. The twinkling lights of Chicagoland gave way to the relative darkness of northern and central Illinois, punctuated by small clusters of light. The seat recline was either broken, or disabled, so I didn't try to sleep (also, given the face-to-face seating, I didn't really have much space to stretch my legs). All my fellow passengers slept. I read a book, and periodically twisted around to get as much of a view of the instrument panel as I could.

Missing recline button. 
[Cropped close up of the instrument panel. It took several shots on my Nikon D5300, set to manual focus (not wanting the autofocus light to distract or draw attention to me!), to get this shot. You can see the altimeter reading 6000 feet.]

About 10 minutes prior to landing, the Captain announced our descent and approach into Burlington. We slowly lost altitude. I craned forward, and saw as the runway (12/30? I can't be sure), came into view, as we bumped and bounced out of the night sky, lined up, and coasted past the threshold onto the runway (altitude, if I recall correctly, around 700' MSL). We turned off the runway to park in front of the tiny terminal building. The Captain thanked us for our business, and asked us to remain seated until the door was opened, after which we disembarked, picked up our carry on baggage, and walked to the terminal. Barely five minutes later, our checked-in bags were delivered to the terminal door.

All in all, it was a fun ride. Everyone was courteous, but, at least to me, seemed functional, efficient and somewhat cold. I missed Southern warmth!

On the ground in Burlington!

The deserted terminal at Southeast Iowa Regional Airport (KBRL) 
View of the terminal from the parking lot

1 comment:

Ollllddude said...

You may have been heavier than the lady you switched seats with, but you are not "heavy set". You are a good sport, though.