* The last Combi jet: Alaska Airlines retires unique fleet and customers get new freight option
For decades, people in rural Alaska have traveled on uniquely configured combination passenger-freight jets with people in back and everything from baby reindeer to new cars to fresh flowers up front.
The last of the Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-400 Combis took off Wednesday afternoon from Anchorage on Flight 66. That is what they call the milk run — since milk is often on board — to Cordova, Yakutat and Juneau, then on to Seattle.
"When it lands in Seattle tonight, it is being decommissioned. That is the last Combi aircraft we had," said Tim Thompson, Alaska Airlines external affairs manager.
The end of the Combi flights will save Alaska Airlines money, he said.
The combination jets had had about a 20-year life. They were starting to need more maintenance. They weren't as efficient as the airlines' newer jets, either.
"Those airplanes will really fly forever. It's just the amount of maintenance that you have to do," Thompson said.
All five of the passenger-freight 737-400s — the latest and last configuration of a Combi — are being sold. They could hold 72 passengers in the back cabin and on the upper deck, big containers of freight. In their place Alaska Airlines is adding three 737-700s strictly for freight, one of which is already in service.
The change increases the airline's cargo capacity by some 20 percent, Thompson said. Passengers will fly separately in new 737s.
When Alaskans off the road system fly, they often leave home with empty totes and coolers, stock up in cities, and haul everything back as part of their checked baggage — three free ones on Alaska if they are traveling in state and two on a competitor, Ravn.
They can still bring their totes on regular flights. The switch to separate cargo flights is bringing a new freight benefit for Club 49 members, the airline said.
That is a program for Alaskans who are part of the airline's mileage plan. It's grown to 365,000 members since starting six years ago, offering incentives like two free checked bags during travel Outside, according to the airline. Other recent changes affect people flying with bikes, skis or other oversized sports gear.