Tuesday, July 26, 2011

AirTran Airways and BWI/Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

At the end of June a relative of mine living in the Washington D.C. area contacted my mother and I about coming down in a few weeks for a visit. Since I had not been to the D.C. area since middle school I was immediatly up for the getaway. I would travel down on Wednesday, July 13, my mother would travel the day after on July 14th and we'd both travel back to GRR together on Sunday, July 17. With the dates set, travel logistics needed to be figured out. When travelling into the Washington D.C. area you have a choice of three airports. The first, and largest, is Washington Dulles airport in Northern Virginia which is a ways from the center of the metro, but is a major hub for United Airlines and serves as the regions international gateway. One needs access Dulles by freeway or shuttle, or likely bus as the Metro rail does not reach out to it yet. Second is the most convenient, Washington Reagan National airport. This airport is very similar to NY-LaGuardia, it sits in the center of everything, right on the Potomac and more than a mile South of the Pentagon on the Virginia side. It's land-size is small, but it's extremely busy and congested, again similar to LaGuardia. It's usually a more expensive airport to fly through as it's used a lot by businessmen and politicians due to it's location and ground/public transportation options.

From GRR, you have a non-stop flight to Reagan National (DCA) by Delta, but it's often expensive as mentioned earlier. There exists no direct flights between GRR and IAD (Dulles) as of yet, so one must likely take United and connect in Chicago. Until the last year, the third choice wasn't much better. The third choice being BWI, or Baltimore-Washington International. BWI sits South of Baltimore and is only a half-hour's drive from D.C.'s Northern suburbs. In May of 2010 low cost carrier AirTran Airways began several daily round-trips between GRR and it's BWI mini-hub. BWI is not only home to AirTran, but it also serves as a massive East-coast hub for Southwest. Fares here are usually heavily disounted compared to choices one and two. As an example, both my mother and I had ticket prices that were below $200 R/T, likely 1/3 of what it would have cost to fly into DCA, the most convenient airport. With my relatives living in Greenbelt, Maryland (North of D.C. proper) BWI made the most sense. We found out there was a shuttle running every 40 minutes between BWI and the Greenbelt Metro station (the last stop on the Green Line and a mile from my relative's residence!). It was sealed and all was booked with AirTran, an airline I had never flown with previously.

Wed. July 13, 2011
AirTran Airways
Flight 959
Seat 26 A - Window
Dep. 2:34 PM
Arr. 4:04 PM

I arrived at GRR around 11:00 in the morning due to it being my only option for a ride to the airport, and I wasn't going to pay for parking so it was worth it in the end. After sitting around for a while I made my way through security and down the B councourse to gate B-5.

My Boeing 717 awaited me, my first Boeing 717 experience. It turned out to be very similar to a DC-9, just 40-years younger. Before boarding the gate dragons were announcing an upgrade to business class for $49, not bad at all. I gave it some thought, but decided against as it was only a 1hr. 15min. flight. In no time my zone number four was called to board. I am very impressed with AirTran's boarding process, both times we loaded fast, orderly and without gate-lice and line-jumpers.
We pushed back and taxied out for an Easterly takeoff from rwy. 8R. We proceeded out over the Michigan countryside, over Lowell, MI, passed over DTW and Downriver Detroit, and Lake Erie. We made land-fall around Cleveland and continued on our Southeastern heading over W. Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland. Upon our arrival there had been storms in the area that were moving South and it was a rainy approach over the Chesapeake Bay into BWI.

Detroit Metro Airport below!

Obligatory legroom shot. My legs are almost stretched out all the way, when you're 5'3", even coach isn't bad.

Our rainy approach over the bay.

Upon landing it became very clear to us that the storm had just passed through BWI and was headed South toward Dulles and Reagan. These two United Boeing 777's and the SAS Scandinavian Airbus were all diverted to BWI on their way to Dulles. The flight crew also informed us upon landing that BWI controllers had issued a ground-stop to all departing aircraft. As we taxied in, we passed a holding que with no less than 8 Southwest 737's, a US A320 and two AA 737's waiting for clearance to get outta dodge.
We taxied around from the South side of the terminal over to the North side where concourse D sits, and where AirTran resides. As we pulled in we were one of only a handful of jets at the councourse nearly 30 gates large; a couple US E-145's waited with a US A320 to Phoenix, a lone United 757 stood by waiting to head back to Chicago. We were the only AirTran flight present when we arrived. BWI, aside from the gorgous and relatively new Southwest Airlines terminal, is somewhat lacking. It has a very 1980's spartan feel to it, but it's efficiently utilitarian. Concourse D has sufficient food and dining, but is nothing to write home about. If connecting between concourses and terminals, one must leave security and then re-enter as one cannot traverse between the airport concourses without leaving the sterile airside area. I failed to take any pictures either in-bound or out-bound of the terminal and gate areas, my appologies. In Lieu of photos, here is a gate map:

AirTran is overall a pretty decent low-cost airline. The price is right and they seem to have things down to a pretty efficient science. Modest cabin crew and clean, new planes. My only real complaint was that on both my flights I encountered a severely broken armrest in my row. When I say severely broken, I mean actually busted/physically broken and coming apart. Even though you are an LCC, this is not the image you want to leave a customer with. Would I fly with them again however? Certainly, if they have a price and schedule that works for me.

With the pending merger of AirTran and Southwest, it is un-clear what changes are in store for the airline. There has been a lot of speculation about SWA cutting some service(AirTran) to smaller cities like Grand Rapids. I for one am really hoping that does not happen, but I will remain dubious until official news arrives. With the merger in mind, I will leave you with a picture of AirTran's future.

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