Starting an airline can be an expensive proposition. There are employees to hire, licenses and permits to apply for, ticket counters and gates to secure. Oh, and airplanes. You’ll definitely need some of those. All of these factors prevent us from seeing too many new airlines flying around the United States.
When I first moved to Washington, DC twenty years ago, a small airline was in the process of being born. Atlantic Coast Airways was a regional carrier for United Airlines based at Washington-Dulles. They couldn’t/wouldn’t agree to new terms United was offering them to keep flying for them. The story I heard was that they wanted to control their own fate, refusing to continue to take price cuts. Instead, they decided to start their own commercial airline. In a nod to their new path, they named it Independence Air.
They refurbished the interiors of their regional jets, added a few cool drinks and snacks. They even came up with a cool safety audio track that played on the political themes of the DC area, featuring James Carville and Mary Matalin talking to folks on “the left side and the right side of the aisle”. Then, they flooded the mid-Atlantic and Northeast with cheap flights. Where it used to cost over $500 round-trip to fly from Dulles to Westchester County Airport (HPN) in New York, Independence was happy to do it for $39 one-way.
United added a ton of capacity to their routes, equally flooding the market with cheap prices. Alas, Independence Air was no more. There are similar endings for lots of new airlines that don’t exist anymore.
A New Airline Catches My Eye
My wife’s cousin lives near Macon, Georgia and has invited us to visit a time or two. It’s been on our radar but we never did make it down. When he reached out recently to tell me about Contour Airlines, we had the perfect reason to visit. Contour was launched as an offshoot of an existing charter operation, run by Corporate Flight Management. They’re an experienced charter operator who also has experience operating a small handful of Essential Air Services (EAS) routes. If you nerd out on airline facts, stay tuned for a future post with a bit more on the economics of the flight.
They were launching exactly one commercial route out of Macon (Middle Georgia Regional Airport), Baltimore-Washington Airport (BWI). MCN used to be served by larger commercial airlines, most recently Delta. Delta walked away over a decade ago. A few airlines took a swing at offering flights to Atlanta via the Essential Air Services program. Reliability and lack of connecting itineraries posed issues that ultimately killed those attempts. Contour Airlines is taking a different tack, offering low fares to a popular destination for residents of the area.
If an introductory fare of $49 one-way wasn’t good enough, they also offered a discount for children traveling with an adult. That meant our family of 4 was able to fly to Georgia for less than $400 round-trip. Bonus, we wouldn’t have to deal with the madness that is Atlanta Hartsfield Airport.
The booking engine was a bit clunky, requiring a few restarts after the page wouldn’t cooperate. Soon enough we were booked.
PRO TIP: Contour Airlines already has the pipes built-in for TSA Pre-Check. You can’t enter your information online, but a quick phone call to customer service solved that for us. To my knowledge, there’s no online check-in at the writing of this post. I didn’t notice that our return boarding passes didn’t have Pre-Check. Thankfully, Macon is a very small airport.
Getting Checked In
At BWI, you’ll actually find the single check-in counter a bit further down from the exterior signage. Head in through the door marked for Alaska Airways and you’ll find it. Terminal C is their home, along with American Airlines and a few others. It took a bit longer than normal standing in line to get our boarding pass, but we were on our way to security with plenty of time.
There were only about 20 people on our outbound flight. The gate agent offered pre-boarding for families traveling with children and folks with disabilities. After that, there were no boarding groups (and really none necessary).
Onboard the Embraer 135, there were 10 rows of 3 seats each. Legroom was more generous that pretty much any other regional jet coach seat I’ve sat in. I was easily able to get in and out of the window seat without my daughter needing to get up while she was buckled into the aisle.
The seats are a standard leather seat, more comfortable than some of the new slimline seats being offered by other airlines. They offer a standard amount of recline for a regional jet.
For aviation geeks, I noticed two anomalies from a standard regional jet of this size. Where I would normally expect a single “Row 1” seat to be was an open space. And, at the back of the plane, there was plenty of space behind the last row. They definitely weren’t trying to cram as many seats on as they could.
There were also a few telltale signs where they got the used plane from. The repaint job still had some of the gold piping of an airline I’m pretty familiar with. The interior looked pretty familiar as well. Admittedly, the soap in the lavatory was probably the biggest clue.
The flight attendant served drinks on a drink tray as opposed to from a cart. She offered a variety of snacks in a basket. In just about 90 minutes, we were landing at MCN and taxiing to the terminal.
My daughter turned to me on our return flight and noted, “I think I like this airline better than United. The crew is a lot nicer.” FWIW, I didn’t say anything to her about the crew being nice, mean or otherwise. It’s possible she’s heard me say unkind things about United crews in the past. But, I don’t end up with a lot of truly horrible crews on United. They’re not setting any service records. But I generally tend to keep a low profile on planes nowadays, not asking for much out of the ordinary.
She was absolutely right, though. Both flight crews on our Contour flights were exceedingly pleasant. Our daughter got up to use the lavatory on one of the flights and the flight attendant walked to the back to make sure she didn’t have any trouble using the door to the lav. They were also pretty accommodating with a woman who brought a small dog onboard, which yielded this fun airline picture.
Middle George Regional Airport
You would think that since I’ve been blogging for a number of years I would have figured out this picture-taking thing. However, I neglected to snap photos of the waiting area outside security in Macon. The airport is tiny, as you might imagine. Avis, Hertz and Budget all have car rental counters there. The only one manned upon our arrival was Avis. However, a rental wasn’t an option since they were all closed on Labor Day, our date of return.
There’s a single ticket counter and plenty of seating outside of security. This is the only commercial flight operating out of the terminal and the plane only has 30 seats. You’ll have plenty of room. There’s a small lunch counter in the airport and a small, quieter waiting area behind a set of glass doors to the left of the security entrance. There’s also a very small courtyard where you can stand outside.
Security didn’t open up until about 40 minutes prior to our flight departure. It was obviously a quick trip through security. We didn’t have PreCheck this time through, but there was only a metal detector for everyone to pass through. Once on the other side, there’s plenty of space for 30 passengers. There are actually 3 total gates, although they only need one right now.
Note, if you’re looking for food, you’ll want to plan on that prior to passing through security. There are two vending machines in the waiting area past security. One has snacks, the other bottled beverages. The snack machine accepts credit cards, the soda machine does not. Alas, bottled water was sold out when we tried to buy some. There are a couple of water fountains if you brought your own bottle. If not, you’ll need to wait until you board. There’s really no reason to pass through security early. It’s quick, given the low volume of travelers. And, when there was a ticket problem with two passengers on our flight from Macon, the plane waited a few minutes for them to clear security. We still landed on time (and almost 30 minutes early on the flight down from BWI).
The Final Two Pennies
The flight times for the route are as follows:
Flights departing from BWI:
9:30 am (arrives 11:25 am)
5:00 pm (arrives 6:55 pm)
Flights departing from MCN:
7:15 am (arrives 9:00 am)
2:45 pm (arrives 4:30 pm)
The airline is currently only running one round-trip per day on the weekends but that may change in the near future. For residents of Georgia, there’s also a rumor that The Bahamas is the next destination Contour plans to add.
The special introductory fares of $49 one-way are gone for the time being. But, $69 one-way fares can still be found. The “normal” price will be $89 one-way. Middle Georgia Regional Airport (MCN) is just shy of 90 minutes from Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. Given the low price on these fares, MCN can serve as a reasonable alternative for folks trying to get between the DC area and Atlanta if you don’t mind some driving.
The post New Airline Review: Contour Airlines Baltimore-Washington to Macon, Georgia was published first on Pizza in Motion