By Joey Gerardi
Unique Connection Series Trip Report: Massena, New York
If you have read my articles in the past, then you know I love out-of-the-way airports, airlines, and aircraft and would do almost anything to adventure to a new city or fly on a unique, rare aircraft type. So in continuation of this series, which I call my “Unique Connection Series”, I will go over a unique flight between two cities using a small, unusual airport as a stopover. The uniqueness of the connection might be referring to the small size of an airport, a unique aircraft type, or both.
For this Unique Connection Series, I will be starting at Baltimore-Washington International Airport or more commonly referred to as ‘BWI’ and traveling to Boston Logan. The route between the two isn’t underserved in the slightest and has at least 15 nonstop flights a day in each direction on the 369-mile sector which is served by four different airlines; American, Delta, JetBlue, and Southwest. Those traveling between the cities that do connect will most often than not go through the New York City area only adding a couple of miles extra overall to the trip.
But I decided to take the road a lot less traveled going almost double the distance, 670 miles total, and connecting in the small Essential Air Service community of Massena located in northern New York State along the St. Lawrence River and the US-Canada border. I will be taking this flight with San Francisco-based Boutique Air, on board one of their 8-seat Pilatus PC-12s.
Boutique Air recently submitted a request to terminate their EAS contract in Massena, but with plans to re-bid for it at a higher price due to the increased cost of fuel since they last won the contract. This isn’t the first time this has happened as Boutique did the same thing with three other communities, and they aren’t the only carrier to do this either. Cape Air has requested to terminate a few of its contracts due to a pilot shortage and has no plans to rebid for them.
Boutique Air operates three daily flights out of, and into, Massena, with the plane starting the day early out of Massena. One plane takes the route; Massena-Boston-Massena-Baltimore-Massena-Boston-Massena, meaning that it is possible to connect in the opposite direction leaving Boston in the morning, but since I had to fly in the morning of the flight, times didn’t work out correctly so I opted for the reverse with an afternoon departure from Baltimore.
I was coming to the BWI Airport from the Amtrak/MARC train station which offers a free shuttle to the airport. My flight out of BWI wasn’t scheduled to leave until 2:15 P.M., but knowing the train system in our country I arrived a lot earlier than I needed to account for any unexpected delays.
Boutique Air’s counter is located in the D concourse between Allegiant and JetBlue, they did have a sign on the counter saying they wouldn’t arrive until 12:30 P.M. but they actually had someone there much earlier, at around 11:15, so I got checked in and head through security earlier rather than normal so I could get a bite to eat before the flight.
Boutique Air does participate in the TSA PreCheck program, and while it isn’t super helpful at the smaller airports they serve it definitely helps at places like Baltimore and Boston. It took a little extra time to get my number added as the computer didn’t want to cooperate at first, but we managed to get PreCheck to show on my boarding pass.
Before leaving the check-in counter they asked for my approximate body weight and weighed my backpack, normal for flights on planes as small as the Pilatus PC-12 or similar size. The TSA PreCheck line didn’t even have three people in it making the process super easy, and I’m glad I spent the extra time getting it put on as the regular line was rather long.
Once through security, I went up to the departure board and found Boutique towards the bottom of the list, the terminal houses many airlines so the Boutique symbol doesn’t stand as an oddity with airlines like Avelo, Sun Country, and Air Senegal showing on the board.
The trek down to D36 is a longer one, located at the very end of the concourse it sometimes felt like you were going too far. But, the airline does have little reminders in the terminal as they have placed several signs along the walk to the gate.
The Boutique Air gate is located in the ground board section of the terminal, where U.S. Airways Express used to be located when they served the airport. It was a nice treat that some of the gate podiums in this area still had the U.S. Airways logo on them too.
With no other airlines located in this section anymore except Boutique, there is plenty of seating even when they have a full plane of passengers.
Slowly one by one, the other passengers showed up at the gate area for the flight with six of us total heading up to Massena on the flight this afternoon. Eventually, the star of the show rolled in, a 2003-built Pilatus PC-12/45 that Boutique took possession of in 2018, and carried the registration N7YR.
It wasn’t long before we boarded began, on flights with smaller planes they sometimes will have you sit in a specific place due to weight and balance. But for this flight, we could choose where to sit, and I choose the right side facing backward. When flying north from Baltimore to Massena, the right side is best as you won’t be facing directly into the setting sun in the west.
Pre-flight briefing and engine startup were quick. With us at the end of a concourse, it was one of the shorter taxi times at the airport and we took off exactly at 2:15 P.M., which was our scheduled departure time.
Not more than five minutes after taking off those on the right side of the plane could see downtown Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay.
we quickly climbed above the clouds and the scenery below disappeared. Despite the PC-12 being a small plane, it’s pressurized, meaning it can fly higher than most single-engine aircraft and get above the weather making it perfect for this route as northern New York sees their fair share of harsh winter weather for many months of the year.
It wasn’t long before we reached our cruising altitude of 25,000 Feet, and the seat belt sign was turned off. Now keep in mind, there isn’t really anywhere to go with the sign being off, there is a bathroom but it is not recommended you use it as it’s just a bucket with a toilet seat and the cabin isn’t tall enough to stand up in. There is however a self-serve snack drawer at the front of the cabin, along with another drawer for drinks.
The snacks included Cheez-its and Chex-mix while drinks were sprites and water bottles. With planes this small, even without knowing each other beforehand, you tend to strike up conversations with each other, giving off a very friendly environment while flying. The backward-facing seats also help strike up a conversation as it’s very rare to find seats like these on any commercial aircraft where you are directly facing the other passengers.
This is one of the reasons I like these smaller planes, they promote and invite conversation with people you have never met before and you sometimes get to hear some really interesting stories of their travels.
With all of the talking the flight went by quickly and it wasn’t long before we began our slow descent into Massena. As we approached the airport I hopped to a seat on the other side of the cabin as we flew along the St. Lawrence River which represented the US-Canada border in northern New York State.
Along the way, we passed over Ogdensburg Intl., another EAS Airport that I have flown to in the past.
By this point in the flight, the pilots had opened the curtain that goes into the cockpit, giving all of the passengers a view out the front and of the controls.
It wasn’t long before we touched down in Massena at 3:52 P.M. after a 1-hour and 37-minute flight up from Baltimore. The approach was really windy but the landing was one of the smoothest I’ve ever had.
Massena is the 45th Essential Air Service airport I have been to, which was a huge accomplishment for me personally as these smaller airports are a big part of what I love about the industry; the small airports and airlines that bring us all together.
Once the engine shut off in Massena everyone deplaned, but I did stay on for a quick extra second to get a picture of the empty passenger cabin, something I didn’t get to do when I got on in Baltimore as I was one of the last ones on.
Of course, I had to get the obligatory AvGeek photo in front of the terminal and the plane which one of my fellow passengers was happy to take for me.
Once you go inside the terminal there are two options, leaving the secure area and staying in the gate area. For those continuing onto Boston, you need to stay in the gate area and not leave security. If you are continuing onto Boston but you leave the secure area then you might be stuck in Massena for the night.
The gate area was nicely laid out, with around 10-15 seats and four recliners on each end of the room with a large flat screen in the middle. There is also a bathroom which is useful considering you don’t want to be using the one on the plane.
The flight onto Boston isn’t that much later with the scheduled departure time being 4:35 P.M., but, there was a delay due to gate space in Boston. Boutique Air shares a gate in Boston with Air Canada, who was delayed that evening, meaning until they left we weren’t allowed to take off from Massena.
The employees apologized for the delay and put out some snacks and drinks for us on a little tray located next to the tv.
When it was finally time to board it didn’t take long with only five of us total going to Boston, none of which started with me in Baltimore and were all new passengers coming from Massena only.
Same as the first flight, we could choose our own seats as it wasn’t weight restricted. On this flight, I chose a forward-facing seat in the second-row right side. taxi out was simple and we took to the skies 24 minutes behind schedule, which of course was the fault of Air Canada and not Boutique’s, meaning those making connections in Boston would have a tough time if they booked a short layover.
As we approach the winter months when the days are shorter and the sun sets earlier, those on this flight won’t see much as it will happen mostly during the dark from November until mid-February, but the sunset in the early part of this flight is nice to see.
For this flight, the cruising altitude was much lower than the first flight at 15,000 feet but still higher than most single-engine propeller flights getting you above any weather that might’ve been along the route.
One of the other passengers took out her full-sized laptop and began to work on it, lighting up the cabin and showing just how easy it is to get work done on the full-sized tables that pull out of the walls near four of the seats.
The sunlight was now almost completely out of sight and the sky was a nice orange-red by this point of the flight.
At some point shortly after I took that picture, I fell asleep for most of the remainder of the flight to Boston. When I woke up I could see the lights of Boston and the airport below us.
We landed on one of the airport’s smaller runways, 32, avoiding the wake turbulence of much larger Boeing 777’s that were landing almost parallel to us on runway 33L.
We landed at 6:02 P.M., a little over 15 minutes behind schedule due to the gate delay out of Massena. And when we pulled into the gate we became surrounded by Air Canada aircraft with our gate being the only one in the nearby gate area not being occupied by an Air Canada plane.
From the time we took off from Baltimore until we landed in Boston, it was just under four hours, so it’s definitely not the fastest way between the two cities, but it for sure is the most unique way of flying between them. Plus with us entering winter, the New York City area might not be the easiest place to connect when the weather rolls in, so having them put you on Boutique might just save your trip if your connecting or nonstop flight was canceled.
With Boutique Air having five routes left in the entire country, this might be the only way to try this unique carrier and fly on the PC-12 without trekking all the way out to New Mexico, Texas, or Oregon. Community comments for this EAS proposal are due really soon, on Nov. 29, 2022 to regulations.gov, and we hope that all airlines have the funds and subsidies required to operate properly and cost-effectively, especially with fuel prices continuing to rise.
So, the next time you travel try connecting somewhere new and unique, you may just like where you end up.
A video account of this trip can be found below