Friends and family scoffed when I booked a recent flight to Philadelphia via the Frontier Airlines “hub” at the Trenton-Mercer County Airport in New Jersey.
“What kind of an airport is that?” asked one.
“I’ve never heard of that airline,” said another. “Do you need to flap your arms?”
“I hope Chris Christie doesn’t come over to shut the runway,” said a third.
“Well, I might get a story out of it,” I said, truthfully. “If nothing else, I’ll be $200 ahead.”
Yes, this was one of the few times I have chosen an activity in anticipation of a story. It didn’t hurt that the famous Frontier trip from Raleigh to Trenton costs only $39 versus the holiday-season-inflated $239 being charged by “real” airlines to fly to Philadelphia’s “real” airport.
“I guess it’ll be a little prop plane,” said my wife, Katie. She could not join me due to work obligations, but she supported my choice of airline; in fact, she’s the one who found it on-line.
“You haven’t taken out a life insurance policy on me lately, have you?” I asked, at the time.
“No,” she replied, smiling. “But maybe I should.”
Trying to ignore the image in my mind of a World-War II-era propeller plane, I moved on to additional logistical concerns: “How will I get from Trenton to my mother’s?” I said. “It wouldn’t be fair to have someone drive all the way to Trenton to pick me up.”
Instant research revealed the existence of a taxi that runs from the airport to a commuter train station in West Trenton, from which I could take a local train to downtown Philadelphia. From there, I could take another commuter line to Overbrook, a short walk from my mother’s condominium in the western suburbs. My personal version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles was set.
A number of prejudices had to be overcome in order for me to fly Frontier. There are certain aspects of life in which I accept generic or store-brand products, such as: aspirin, pasta, tee-shirts and copy paper. There are also areas in life that simply cannot be compromised, in my opinion, and require “name brands.” Principle among these are raisins, ketchup, tuna fish and tennis balls.
The above lists are neither comprehensive nor, necessarily, rational, but have developed over the years, and I am devoted to them. Airlines are a realm that have never been definitively on one side or the other; I’ve had tolerably tedious, as well as miserable experiences, on a variety of “major” airlines. Few non-“major” choices have arisen and, frankly, I’ve been comfortable with that. Thinking about Frontier, after all, sparked an anxiety-provoking recollection of a long-ago flight from Detroit to Muskegon on a six-seater that resembled a seventy-five minute roller coaster ride.
Still, for a story and $200, I was game.
The first thing I noticed about Frontier’s presence at Raleigh was that it was almost non-existent. The airport designated a skinny wooden lectern, nearly invisible between a newsstand and a restroom, as their “gate.” In numerous visits to Raleigh’s airport, I had never noticed it. Expecting only ten or twelve fellow travelers, I was shocked to see a crush of humanity wedged into the area around the lectern like sardines.
When I looked out the airport window, I was relieved to see a “real” airplane waiting, festooned with pictures of grizzly bears on the tail. “Before their last bankruptcy, they were based in Montana,” a man behind me explained to his friend.
Right on time, a young Frontier employee behind the lectern attempted to announce the boarding process. After several tries, it was apparent her microphone wouldn’t work. So she cheerfully displayed her North Carolina roots by shouting: “Y’all can start gettin’ on the plane.”
“Everyone at once?” asked the man beside me.
“Yep,” she said. “Ain’t no first class on Frontier.”
“Okay,” I thought. “We’ll ALL be second class passengers.”
And so it went. One hundred and fifty people piled onto the Airbus 318 and took their assigned seats in twenty-five six-seat rows. Surprising to me, every seat was taken. Boarding was random and chaotic, and we took off twenty minutes late, but so much extra time was built into the schedule that we arrived in Trenton ten minutes “early” after an uneventful fifty-nine minute flight.
The only anomaly was that a passenger across the aisle had a small dog in her lap. The flight attendant said: “The dog has to stay in its box.” But when the owner/parent replied: “She gets nervous in there,” the attendant thought for a moment, shrugged, and said: “I guess it doesn’t really matter.” Thus, the puppy remained out and eventually found its way to every lap in our row amidst much laughter. It yipped occasionally, but made less noise than numerous humans I’ve flown beside. Somehow, I can’t see that happening on United.