Written by John Harrell
MIAMI — It’s still dark in Seattle at 5:00 a.m. as passengers check in for early-morning departures. But one of Southwest Airlines’ most hardworking employees, about to begin a 14-hour workday, has already been waiting here at Sea-Tac Airport since the previous evening: the airplane itself.
Tail number N446WN, a Boeing 737-700, arrived here last night from Sacramento. And Chicago. And Tampa. And Rochester, N.Y. And Orlando. In one day, this single plane, now resting at gate B10, flew over 5,600 miles, carrying a total potential passenger load of 715 persons over 806,000 seat-miles—over three times the distance to the moon. On a light day.
This morning, the plane’s 6:00 a.m. scheduled departure from Sea-Tac Airport is its first on another five-leg day, bound ultimately for West Palm Beach, Fla., via four other cities. Virginia Spears of Port Orchard, Wash., flying from Seattle to Chicago this morning, will not meet Stan and Marcia Treiman of Bohemia, N.Y., who are later flying from Tampa to Long Island—even though all three will fly on the same day on the same airplane.
In order for the airplane to be on its way on time, flight attendant Mike Maldonado is due at the gate at 5:30, along with colleagues Carol Leone and Margie Nelson. No later than twenty-five minutes from 5:30, the plane will also have been visually inspected, says Capt. Brad Dunham, who will be in charge of the plane today until Baltimore, three stops hence. By 5:55 a.m., with the passengers boarded, the plane inspected, snacks and beverage cans in place, and the boarding door closed tail N446WN pushes from the gate as Southwest flight 1296. Fourteen taxi-minutes later, it lifts off from runway 16L, turns eastward, and climbs up over the Cascade Mountains.
The cabin crew serves drinks as the sun comes up over Idaho some forty minutes later, the plane now flying at 569 miles per hour relative to the ground. Sitting aft, company historian Richard West, along for today’s ride, examines the plane’s ACARS data on his tablet.
ACARS, or the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, is a messaging service that connects the cockpit and the plane’s computers to Southwest’s dispatch facility in Dallas. Throughout the day, the system will transmit takeoff, touchdown, and fueling data, along with messages between the pilots and dispatchers. The plane automatically sent a message at the moment it lifted off from Sea-Tac at 6:09, says West, and later, a dispatcher uses the system to message the pilots, informing them that they’re the first Southwest plane over Helena, Mont., today.
At about 11:30 a.m. under a sunny Chicago sky, Capt. Brad Dunham guides the plane through a final hard right-hand turn to land on runway 13C at Midway Airport. The computer logs the landing-time of 11:33 a.m. for dispatchers, and the plane taxis to gate B10 and comes to rest.
Within moments, the aft-right door opens, and in steps Damian Aguilar, a provisioning agent tasked with re-stocking the galley for the next flight. It’s not even noon, but for Aguilar, it’s late in the workday: this is the ninth airplane he’s restocked this morning, and there’s still one more to go after this. Aguilar makes good time as he stashes armfuls of beer, ice, snacks, and soda into their assigned location. He says he can ready an aft galley in less than ten minutes, the smaller forward galley in less than five.
Turning the plane around quickly—getting it back into the air with passengers—has long been part of the Southwest ethos, and it helps to explain why this particular airplane will make five hops today. When the airline started flying in 1971, says company spokesman Dan Landson, “we found that . . . the more time the plane was on the ground, the less we were making money.” In those days, he says, the airline strove for the “10-minute turn”—reducing the time between arrival and departure to only that many minutes.
“That time has increased over the last forty years,” Landson explains. “Obviously, there are more seats on the plane, more people are traveling, there’s more luggage that’s on, there’s more freight that’s loaded on.” Turn-times now, he says, can be about twenty minutes—but that will likely change soon.
Entering more congested air markets, like New York LaGuardia for example, has impacted the airline’s ability to get in and out quickly, he says. The introduction of the 737-800 to the fleet, which carries more passengers than a 700-series plane like N446WN, has also contributed to the uptick in time. Now, to improve its on-time performance, Southwest is extending is typical ground-stop time and redoubling its efforts to make sure flights leave on-time at the beginning of the day. “We’ve found that when the first flights of the day are behind schedule,” says Landson, “you never catch up throughout the rest of the day.”
Flight 1296 has, fortunately, arrived to Chicago well in advance of its scheduled arrival time. Yet even though the flight attendants will be switching planes, they need to remain onboard until they’re relieved by their successors not yet present. Capt. Dunham, however, will be continuing in the cockpit all the way through to Baltimore, still two stops away. During the transition, he performs a quick, pre-flight check of the flight deck controls—it takes this seasoned pro less than a minute, while the more extensive check comes just before pushing back—and examines a weather report in advance of the next leg into Tampa.
Some rough weather stands between our current location and Florida. Mentally picturing his anticipated route on the weather map, Capt. Dunham sees that it will mean turbulence on the way in. He advises the passengers of the anticipated bumps before the plane lifts off, bound with a new cabin crew for the Sunshine State.
Sure enough, it is not long before the clear air beneath the cruising airplane gives way to cloud-cover as Flight 1296 begins its last segments into Tampa over the Gulf of Mexico. It’s sunny on top and 72 degrees and raining hard on the ground, but between cruising altitude and final approach is a stratified series of parallel cloud formations stacked like pancakes, which means shakes, bumps, and seated flight attendants as the airplane passes its 2,800th domestic mile today, just over halfway through the planned 4,850 mile trip.
Touchdown in Tampa is at 4:12 p.m.—twelve minutes past schedule—but the gate is occupied by another plane. The airliner’s second leg doesn’t come to an official end for another twenty minutes, left out to soak under a driving rain. Once it does, the turnaround process commences afresh: new snacks, drinks, a quick wipe-down, and other provisions by Tampa’s ground crew. Forty-one minutes after parking, the plane—now as flight 1385—is on its way to Baltimore.
In the air over Florida, Captain Dunham leads the airplane in a quick ascent through the still-turbulent cloudbank. As before, there’s smooth air above the clouds, but the flight is expected to hit rough air again on the descent into Baltimore. Several anticipatory warnings from the crew caution the passengers to finish their drinks early, and the pilots have asked the flight attendants for word that everyone’s seated so that the plane can start to descend through the chop. The warning proves worthwhile, as Dunham negotiates through several patches of rough air on approach to the DC area.
It is dusk when the plane lands in Baltimore on runway 10 and parks at gate A2. Long before the crowd clears out enough to let aft-seated passengers leave, the ground crew is at work again, servicing the galley for the plane’s next leg. There’s still Islip, N.Y., on the itinerary—and then the final, late-evening flight to West Palm Beach, Fla.
As Capt. Dunham rolls his suitcase from the gate, having handed the reins to another pilot and crew for the 42-minute flight to Long Island, he does so having overseen the completion of over ten hours of passenger service in four separate markets. As for the plane, when it arrives into West Palm Beach at about midnight, it will get to rest for about seven hours—and then take off for Atlanta, Denver, and six cities in California, including Los Angeles twice. Just another day.
Disclosure: Southwest Airlines Co. provided Airways with airfare, lodging, and two meals during travel. Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren contributed to this report.