The USA is more dependent on air traffic than almost any other country in the world. There are therefore thousands of airports throughout the country, of which more than 500 are served by regularly scheduled air traffic (source: FAA).
The Essential Air Service (EAS) program is designed to ensure that smaller cities are also connected to the major hubs. The US Department of Transportation spends more than $300 million each year to maintain scheduled flights. Some very interesting aircraft are used: Cessna 208, Tecnam P2012 (new development from Italy), Beechcraft King Air and Pilatus PC-12 are just a few examples.
Thanks to the EAS program, I was able to set foot in the Pilatus PC-12 for the first time during a trip in December 2021. With Boutique Air we flew from Baltimore via Altoona Airport (Pennsylvania) to Pittsburgh. Below are a few impressions of the trip.
But first the flight details:
- 4B843 Baltimore
- 4B844 Altoona
- 4B843 Baltimore
- Seat: 4F / 1A
- Aircraft: Pilatus PC-12 N645PC
(delivered in July 2005)
- Flight time: 35 min + 35 min
- Date: December 2021
About Boutique Air
Boutique Air is a small San Francisco-based airline that operates primarily charter and scheduled flights under the EAS program. The backbone of the fleet is made up of more than 20 Pilatus PC-12s, each with 8 seats.
With a focus on Essential Air Service, Boutique Air’s route network is spread across the United States. Below are the currently operated scheduled flights (as of December 2021):
Apparently, employment at Boutique Air is the entry point into professional life as an airline pilot for many pilots. As a pilot with Boutique Air, you can switch relatively easily to United Express and finally United Airlines (where the pay is certainly better). Accordingly, especially many young pilots are flying for Boutique Air.
I booked my ticket directly on boutiqueair.com a little over a week before departure. The website may not be the most modern, but it works perfectly.
Booking both segments Baltimore – Altoona and Altoona – Pittsburgh as a continuous connection on one ticket was possible without any problems. Cost: A whopping US$53 (~€50) for the entire booking. According to Google Flights, you can also fly with American, Delta and others for (almost) the same price – but where’s the fun in that?
With more than 10 million passengers per year, Baltimore Airport is one of the larger American airports. Nevertheless, there is also room for smaller airlines. Boutique Air also has its own check-in counter. I was a bit surprised that three employees were busy with the check-in. After all, the plane holds a maximum of 8 passengers.
I handed in my carry-on trolley there and was given my two boarding passes. The printer for the boarding passes seems to be a normal A4 printer, quite unusual:
As someone who collects printed boarding passes, I would have liked to have received a “real” boarding pass on thick paper. However, this is not a real point of criticism.
Boutique Air’s baggage conditions are unusual. Only one personal item and cabin trolley is guaranteed. The latter is stowed in the cargo hold.
Boutique Air does not charge a baggage fee. Trolleys, excess baggage and special baggage are also transported free of charge. However, only under the condition that there is still space on the plane. If not, the luggage will be transported free of charge on the next flight.
Boutique Air participates in the TSA Precheck program. This is part of the Global Entry program, so I was able to get through security in a flash. An advantage that I wouldn’t want to do without anymore.
After a stay in the Priority Pass lounge (The Club BWI – not a high-end lounge, but better than nothing) I went to gate D36. This is at the very end of the D terminal. There are no longer any passenger platforms here. The terminal area is at ground level and you can walk to the plane.
Six employees from the airline or airport (including the two pilots) then turned up at the gate. I don’t know what these people were all doing, but as a passenger, I felt a little like part of the Boutique Air family. Not bad.
According to the boarding pass, boarding should begin 30 minutes before departure. One passenger was still missing at this time. The gate agent quickly called the missing passenger on his phone number and made sure that he would show up soon.
We boarded the plane 15 minutes before departure, boarding itself took about a minute. Several flight enthusiasts seemed to be among the passengers, and hardly anyone wanted to go to Altoona.
Cabin & Comfort
There are no assigned seats at Boutique Air. I was one of the last to board and had to sit in the last row. I’ll call the seat 4F, even if no numbers were signposted.
There are no overhead bins. The hand luggage (a small backpack for me) therefore had to be held on the lap or stowed under the legs. Not exactly comfortable, but justifiable for the short flight time.
The checked baggage travels in the fuselage of the plane. Theoretically, it would even be accessible during the flight, but the luggage compartment is separated by a small metal grille:
As you can see in the photo, some of the leather seats look pretty worn out. Boutique Air would do well to give them a facelift.
Nevertheless, the leather armchairs are comparatively wide and comfortable. The leg and knee room seemed surprisingly tight to me. Not a big problem for a 30-minute flight, but I wouldn’t want to spend much longer there. Rows 1-3 should later turn out to be significantly better. At least my seat offered enough recline despite being in the last row.
There is (similar to e.g. a Cessna 172) a combined hip and shoulder strap. There is also a seat belt sign and even an air nozzle for each seat. And with the blinds, you really do feel a little like you’re in a private jet. According to the safety card, there is also a tiny toilet next to the entrance door.
Food & Drinks
Despite the short flight time, Boutique Air actually does have a small catering offer. The service was somewhat unconventional: before take-off, one of the pilots asked what drinks we would like. The small cans of soft drinks (Coke, Sprite & Co) were then passed through to the 4th row by the fellow passengers. There was also a small pack of mini pretzels:
Flight to Altoona
After boarding, we were offered the above-mentioned catering offer and received a short safety instruction during which we learnt, Among other things, that there are 3 emergency exits in the small plane. Afterwards, we started right away and we found ourselves on the runway a good 5 minutes after boarding.
A highlight of the flight: the Pilatus PC-12 has no separation between the passenger cabin and the cockpit. Passengers can look over the pilot’s shoulder throughout the flight. Better than any window seat on a mainstream airline:
The flight was smooth. Due to the comparatively low flight altitude (10,000 ft = 3 km), we had a good view of the Appalachian Mountains. The landing in Altoona was as smooth as I’ve ever experienced on any other flight.
Stop in Altoona
The flights Baltimore – Altoona and Altoona – Pittsburgh have different flight numbers. They are also treated as independent flights, meaning each passenger has to leave the plane for approximately 20 minutes, then waiting in the very small waiting area:
The waiting room does not offer more than around 20 seats and a coke machine. There are no toilets there either. In order to get to one, I had to briefly leave the security area. So I was at least able to take a brief look into the – amazingly large – terminal of the airport:
Then I had to go through TSA security again. Thanks to the precheck, shoes and belts could stay on. The laptop had to be scanned individually despite the precheck. The two TSA employees felt happy to have anything to do at all.
I was a bit surprised that there even is a TSA control at the small Altoona airport. This is probably not always the case with EAS flights.
Continuing to Pittsburgh
The connecting flight from Altoona to Pittsburgh was rather uneventful. Two passengers had disembarked at Altoona. We were also joined by another passenger and a package (with its own seat).
Unfortunately, there wasn’t another round of snacks and drinks. Thanks to the open-seating concept, I was able to try seat 1A at least once. This offered an additional feature compared to 4F: it can be turned a little towards the aisle after takeoff, leaving more space for the legs. Apparently, this is the case everywhere in rows 1-3.
I made a small detour to include the Pilatus PC-12 and Boutique Air in my flight statistics. And as an aviation geek, it was definitely worth it: Boutique Air offers a very unconventional flight experience at a bargain price. Reminds me a bit of the Hahn Air private jet between Dusseldorf and Luxembourg, with a little less luxury.
However, you shouldn’t plan too much on the day of the flight. Boutique Air flights are often delayed many hours or even cancelled altogether. Looking at Flightradar24, the fact that everything went down like clockwork for me is more the exception than the rule.
Aside from the unique flight experience, Boutique Air is an important lifeline for American small airports. However, it may not be in the spirit of the EAS program if most passengers travel from Baltimore to Pittsburgh without ever setting foot in Altoona. The subsidies are intended to connect smaller airports – not to fly plane fans cheaply from one big city to the next.
Translated by Ditmar Lange