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Trip Report: Contour Airlines’ Essential Air Service from Plattsburgh, NY to Philadelphia
The closure of the U.S.-Canada land border due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which remained in place for over two years between March 2020 and November 2022 was particularly hard for some of the regional airports in the U.S. that heavily rely on Canadian passengers to generate traffic. Among those Plattsburgh International Airport, nicknamed “Montreal’s U.S. Airport”, located in the northern part of the State of New York, close to Interstate 87 and only 64 miles from the Canadian city of Montreal with its 3 million inhabitants.
All flights to Florida and Myrtle Beach, S.C. operated by Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air were halted and only now are slowly coming back, but with much lower frequencies than before and without the return of Spirit Airlines, whose services used to be extremely popular among Canadian snowbirds as well as immigrants from the Caribbean and South American who would connect in Fort Lauderdale and make use of Spirit’s extensive network in the region.
Plattsburgh is trying to restart also with Contour Airlines, the operator who has won the contract for the Essential Air Service (EAS) to this town after the tumultuous exit by SkyWest, a regional operator on behalf of United Airlines that used to operate two daily flights to Washington Dulles, with a 50-seat Bombardier CRJ-200 aircraft.
Contour Airlines has now replaced this service with a double daily link to Philadelphia International Airport operated with a 30-seat Embraer 135 aircraft.
Airlinegeeks has tried the service on a mid-week day trip to Philadelphia International Airport at the end of February.
Mere Minutes from Parking Lot to Gate
The outbound flight LF 3901 was scheduled to depart at 8.00 a.m. with an estimated time of arrival at Philadelphia Airport at 9.10 a.m. The adventurous trip towards the airport on a snowy February morning with a 9°F (-13°C) temperature saw us arrive at around 6.40 a.m. and park our car right in front of the entrance at the small airport.
We had already checked in online, but the boarding pass did not have the “TSA PreCheck” logo despite us entering our Frequent Traveler Number in the booking. Since the airport was completely deserted, we decided not to bother the lonely check-in agent and take off our shoes for once.
The main terminal hall, opened in 2017 after a $55 million investment by the local Chamber of Commerce offering four gates with boarding jetways, was occupied by just a couple of people busy with the vending machines, since the only food outlet was still closed.
As the expected time of departure was approaching, there was no sign of the aircraft at the gate nor any announcement by the gate agent. At approximately 8.25 a.m. it was announced that the aircraft would be towed to the gate “shortly” and boarding would start.
We eventually got onboard just past 9 a.m. using the stairs outside the jetway and walking a few meters in the snow to reach the aircraft. The flight took off approximately 90 minutes late at 9.26 a.m. It was quite surprising how there was no sense of urgency on behalf of any members of the ground or flight crew, especially considering how the main purpose of this flight is to allow passengers to connect with short and long-haul flights at Philadelphia to reach a wide range of destinations. In fact, it is possible to make a reservation with connecting American Airlines flights in Philadelphia in the same transaction on the Contour Airlines website, and all point-to-point fares between Plattsburgh and Philadelphia include a full-size carry-on and a checked bag, which is quite rare these days.
The aircraft has a three-abreast seating configuration, with one seat on the port side and two on the starboard side. The interiors are quite worn out with blue leather seats offering a very generous 36” seat pitch throughout the cabin.
During the 60-minute flight the onboard service is limited to soft drinks served with a tray service (no cart in the alley) and a free snack (cookies or salted pretzels) served afterward, which may be seen as counterintuitive.
The flight arrived in Philadelphia at around 10.30 a.m. disembarking at Concourse F.
A Puzzling Delay
The return flight LF 3904 was scheduled at 6.50 p.m. that same evening, but while on the train from Downtown Philadelphia to the airport a text message advised of a 45-minute delay due to a late arrival of the incoming flight. Therefore, at the airport, we decided to investigate with the check-in agent why our boarding pass was not displaying the “TSA PreCheck” logo. Apparently, this was due to an unidentified glitch, which was fixed in no time by the agent who provided us with a new boarding pass allowing us to use the preferential “TSA PreCheck” lane.
After having rearranged our wardrobe (the temperature in Philadelphia had reached 66°F (19°C) during the day), we proceeded through security and to Gate F5 to wait for our flight. The new departure time of 7.35 p.m. came and went without a single communication from the staff. A Contour agent used the computer terminal at Gate F5 to re-accommodate passengers of the flight to Ogdensburg, NY that had been canceled, but we had to wait until almost 8 o’clock to hear an announcement of a further delay to our flight. We eventually boarded and left the gate at around 9 p.m. landing at a snow-covered Plattsburgh Airport just after 10 p.m., almost two hours after our original arrival time.
This Contour Airlines service “does what it says on the tin”, providing a connection to a major international airport for a regional community that would otherwise be an isolated airfield on the foot of the Appalachian Mountains. The challenging weather conditions were certainly partly responsible for the delays experienced, but given the seemingly relaxed attitude towards timetables, we would definitely schedule ample connecting times should we have to use this flight to catch an onward international connection from Philadelphia.
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