Mission Uncomfortable

Aircraft are designed for certain missions. The mission criteria are basically how far how many people are to be taken. This determines the size of the aircraft and the types of engines to be used as well as the cabin amenities that are offered the flyer. The aircraft manufacturer determines the design of the aircraft but the airlines configure the cabin as they see fit.

I buy my airline tickets somewhat differently than the average traveler. Price is still king as it is for most travelers but as an aviation geek I have a few more criteria: Have I flown that airline before? Am I flying on an aircraft I’ve never experienced before? If I have to connect is the connection city one I have not yet experienced?

Sometimes these geeky choices can backfire.

My last trip was from O’Hare to San Francisco. I ended up on Delta. Delta offered the best price and my special geek criteria were met as well. I had to connect via Minneapolis, which was not the most direct routing but at least I got to fly on an aircraft I had never flown before, the MD-90.

The MD-90 is the third generation of the fabled Douglas DC-9. I was excited to experience this aircraft. Less than 200 were produced so it was a rare treat. I was wrong, very wrong.

My travel day started with a short hour-long flight from O’Hare to Minneapolis on an Airbus A320. I had no complaints. The A320 is one of the most common aircraft flying today. It was a totally forgettable flight, which is a good thing.

My MD-90 experience was problematic before I even boarded. The MD-90 is narrower than most other mainline aircraft. The coach cabin is laid out in a 2 by 3 seat arrangement. The advantage of this setup is that the passenger has a one in five chance of being stuck in a middle seat as opposed to one in three chance on any other 3 by 3 narrow body. The downside with the MD-90 is that since the cabin is narrower, the overhead bins are comparatively tiny.

As I was on a cheap ticket on an airline with which I have no status, I was stuck in the last boarding group.  Before I even had the chance to wedge my carry-on in the overhead bin, the gate agent insisted I check my bag before boarding the flight, as she was certain there would be no space left. She was wrong.

The cabin itself was clean and for an aircraft of its age was in good shape. The aircraft had been “upgraded” with the most modern seats in Delta’s fleet. These new “slimline” seats are made to be as thin as possible in order to wedge more rows of seats into the aircraft. That’s nothing unusual today. The problem was that the seats felt more like park benches than something suitable for a four-hour flight to the West Coast.  There was no in-flight entertainment of any kind. By the end of my trek to San Francisco my back hurt and my legs were numb.

Why was this the case? Delta was using an aircraft configured for the wrong mission. The MD-90 was originally envisioned as a short-haul aircraft. The flight would have been tolerable if it was on a short leg such as my first flight to Minneapolis.

Why did Delta use the MD-90? The MD-90 has just enough range for the flight. Delta has very little market presence in San Francisco, which makes flying a larger aircraft unprofitable. The coach cabin was configured for short-haul missions and not the four-hour medium-range flight I was on.

From a passenger viewpoint the aircraft was on the wrong mission. From Delta’s viewpoint the MD-90 was flying the right mission. My back and legs begged to differ.