Minneapolis, MN - Washington, DC (MSP - IAD) | United Express (Mesa) | E175 [Coming Soon]
A Bit of Background
When looking for flight itineraries for this holiday journey, I had surprisingly few options. Since the Friday after thanksgiving is typically a very light travel day, airlines usually run far slimmer flight schedules than a normal Friday. Couple that with wanting to depart out of a small regional airport that doesn't have a lot of frequency to start with and you're going to end up with one or two options at best. That was the case for me on this itinerary: American did not have any itineraries from Ithaca to Minneapolis that Friday – if I'm remembering correctly, I think they just didn't operate the PHL-MSP leg at all that day, so American wasn't an option for me this time. Delta did have itineraries available, but they far, far more expensive than the United itinerary I ended up selecting.
However, just because United had a decent fare didn't mean I was necessarily content – flying United to Ithaca means connecting in Newark, which can be quite hit or miss depending on weather or the winds. Back in 2013, I spent 13 hours (from 8am to 9pm) stranded at Newark after a mechanical delay caused me to miss the morning flight up to Ithaca and the afternoon flight was delayed for several hours. Even with those negatives, however, a few things about this itinerary made me less hesitant to book it: CommutAir has since replaced the Dash-8 service to Ithaca with E145s, less likely to be first on the cancellation block in the event of poor weather, and this itinerary had about three-hour connections each time through Newark – a delayed inbound would mean I still had a decent shot of making my departure.
Despite my trepidation about my Newark connections, my inbound from Washington Dulles arrived right at scheduled time. Having not been in Newark airport in nearly 4 years, I was eager to explore the three main concourses of United's Terminal C. However, not long after entering the busy hallway near gate 105, my phone buzzed with an unpleasant notification.
I will say that something I really like about United's mobile apps is that they provide a more detailed explanation of flight delays than their competitors. Unfortunately, however, that more detailed explanation was one of the worst ones I could imagine – late inbound crews typically run greater risk of bumping against duty limits. So, I mentally prepared myself to see that departure time slip further and further into the night.
With that mindset, I headed for a United Customer Service counter near gate C130 to see if there was any way to get a meal voucher for a crew-related delay. A very helpful woman explained that United's policy was to only offer meal vouchers when a delay is greater than four hours, but since I seemed like a nice person (it pays to ask how someone's day is going, especially around stressful travel periods like holidays) she would give me one for my one hour delay. Thanks United!
With my $10 meal voucher in hand, I set out to the other concourses of Terminal C to do some spotting.
I even managed to get a few decent shots of United's A320 Friendship retro livery after arrival and parked among a sea of standard UA tails – it was quite a beautiful night in the New York Area.
After a bit of spotting I figured I should try and use the meal voucher the friendly customer service agent had extended me earlier. However, I quickly discovered that Terminal C had changed more than I realized over the past few years. Now, instead of a mix of fast food / fast casual sorts of restaurants and more expensive options, there are basically only very expensive options for meals – pretty much every single food option is what I would consider expensive. For example, I was in the mood for a burger. Walking past several restaurants to view the menu offering quickly revealed that was nearly a $35 proposition. Eventually, I decided to bite the bullet and put that $10 voucher to work and got a burger from a burger stand near gate C92. It was good, don't get me wrong, but $25 for a burger …. and that was with the voucher applied. I guess since it's United's hub for the New York CIty area everything has to be more expensive? Maybe I was expecting to pay too little?
Either way, after getting dinner I headed back over towards the high C130 gates. I was happy to see that our aircraft was already present on stand C130X accross the apron.
At some point during the afternoon, the delayed departure time had been moved up by 40 minutes, now departing at 6:00pm, or 20 minutes behind scheduled time. Since it was clear that time was likely to keep shifting either way I didn't roam far from C130.
C130 is an interesting gate area. It's clear that in the past, it was a traditional gate area. However, now, instead of using it to park a single aircraft at the jetway, it's used as the bus gate for the four remote regional aircraft parking stands (C130W, X, Y, and Z), and also for the non-stop bus service to Allentown airport that carries a United flight number. So as far as I could tell, the older C130 desk and flight information board is dedicated to that Allentown service, and the space that used to contain the C130 seating was opened up to house four more desks and boarding lanes, one for each of the remote stands.
That in itself is not too bad, except the seats for these five "gates" is seriously just plopped in the middle of the concourse. It looked like all of the seats from the old C130 set up had just been pushed into the concourse. That array of seating was adequate for the number of passengers, but seriously bottle necked the walking paths on either side of concourse. It also was quite hard to hear any gate announcements from these seats, as the speakers were only right near the gate area. With that in mind, I stood up and simply waited nearer to the C130X gate area when it became clear that the revised 6:00pm departure would not be met.
Just before 6:00pm, the gate agent at 130X announced that the crew for the Ithaca flight was deadheading in from Charleston, SC – a quick check of the United app showed that flight as arriving at 6:00pm into a gate in Terminal A. I'm not sure how the United system thought a 6:00pm departure from a gate two terminals away was going to work, but the time had updated nevertheless. My phone buzzed again with another updated departure time of 6:20pm, which seemed at least a bit more reasonable, but still meant we would have to begin boarding before the crew was likely to even reach the gate area.
Around 6:15pm the crew arrived, and boarding began a few minutes later. I was a bit surprised that the boarding process included strict enforcement of all zone numbers and priority levels, as we were all boarding the same bus anyways. With that in mind as well as the fact that this was a completely full flight, I waited to be one of the final people to present my boarding pass to minimize time being stuffed into the bus.
Once past the gate agent, you walk down the C130 jetway, down a ramp, then onto the bus labeled with your destination. The bus for Ithaca was parked closest to the bottom of the ramp.
My patience in the boarding area had payed off – soon after I boarded we backed out of the parking stand and headed for the aircraft. Also, since I was one of the final people on the bus, I was very close to the rear door, meaning I was one of the first people off of the bus and to board the plane.
The E145 cabin may be quite small when trying to maneuver through the aisle, but it's 1-2 configuration is unbeatable on a short regional flight like this. My view of 23A from the aisle.
A peek across the aisle to the B and C seats of row 23.
A view of the 130W stand being prepared for an arrival.
Decent-enough legroom. I'd say it's more or less the same as United's mainline fleet.
It was a bit disappointing to see a large amount of crumbs in the aisle. I know it's just a regional jet, but the aircraft sat on this stand for nearly 2 and a half hours and wasn't touched?
Just before we pushed back my phone buzzed with another update, our departure had been pushed back to 6:40pm, or the original delay time. After an identical E145 arrived at C130W, we pushed back, right at 6:40pm.
Cabin view during push back. The cabin still had the light tan seats in some rows.
We then joined the queue for departure from runway 22R. I even managed to get an accidental panning shot of a JetBlue A320 landing on 22L as we lined up on 22R.
After about a 25 minute taxi from C130X (which isn't that bad for Newark, especially in the evenings), we were off from 22R.
Due to the extremely short duration of this 172-mile flight, I was expecting the sole flight attendant to make an announcement shortly after take off that the flight was too short for beverage service. However, similar to my short-duration mainline flight into Newark, there was to be a water/coffee run with a small bag of pretzels. Good on you CommutAir / United Express, it's always nice to have expectations exceeded.
Shortly after reaching cruise, the flight attendant made a few trips up and down the aisle with a tray of water and coffee cups, followed by a run passing out pretzel packets. Even with the quick service, we started descending towards Ithaca shortly after I received a water and pretzels at the rear of the cabin.
The moon was quite a sight just above the horizon for the entire flight.
We started descent while passing to the north east of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area.
Before long we were over Ithaca, on the downwind for runway 14. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to capture the view very well with my phone, but oh well.
The actual arrival was something I haven't experienced before on a commercial aircraft. We were clearly given the visual approach to runway 14, and the pilot flying over-cooked the right base leg a bit. I could see the runway (and the white-over-white VASI lights) quite clearly from my window. However, a few quick adjustments and were were down for a relatively smooth landing on runway 14.
View of the darkened control tower with the terminal in the background.
On stand 5 50 minutes after scheduled time. Flying time was just 36 minutes.
More pictures of Ithaca's terminal can be found in the next part of this series, and also in another of my reports, linked here.
United Express (CommutAir)
Newark - EWR
Ithaca - ITH
CommutAir really had a good showing on this flight. I was pleasantly surprised that a basic service was completed on this short journey, and the E145 is a pleasant ride on a short route like this, far more comfortable than the Q200 I last rode on this route.
Newark airport is kind of a mixed bag for me. It's an absolute power house of a hub, with United offering service quite literally all over the world. Terminal C, in itself is quite a nice space. However, there are few affordable food options, or even options for travelers in a hurry between flights -- but if you're looking for a nice steak dinner you're spoiled for choice.
Ithaca Airport is about as convenient as an airport can possibly get. Short lines and gates steps from the curb. More pictures of the terminal coming in the next report of this series.
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