Once a fairly regular sight, combi and quick-change aircraft operated by major passenger carriers are now exceedingly rare, with only three airlines – KLM, Air China (both with 747-400M’s), and Alaska still operating any sizeable number in scheduled passenger-freight services. Air China will begin phasing out the 747-400M later this year, leaving only KLM and Alaska in the scheduled service combi business. A few other carriers possess aircraft built as combis, but no longer use them for scheduled mixed services.
Alaska’s 737-400 combis were converted by PEMCO to replace factory-built 737-200QC’s in the mid-2000’s. The Seattle-based Airline has flown combi services to small, isolated communities in Alaska since the 1970s (first using 727-100s), and the combis typically operate “milk run” types of routes. A typical flight might take the combi from Anchorage to Seattle by way of Juneau, Petersburg (pop. 3000), Wrangell (pop. 2,300), and Ketchikan (pop. 8000). These unique machines also service the oil industry on the north slope, and can be seen regularly at Barrow and Prudhoe Bay/Deadhorse.
Unlike the earlier 727 and 737-200QC’s, the 737-400 combis cannot be reconfigured. Regulations put in place after the 1987 crash of South African Airlines Flight 295, a 747-200 Combi, dictate a fixed barrier between passengers and cargo, among other things. Passengers board through the rear door by a stair on the tarmac while cargo is loaded through the conventional cargo door. Unlike the other aircraft in Alaska’s fleet (which have a first class section), the combis have only one class seating for 72 passengers. Up front, there’s room for four LD7s, which at some small airports are loaded by forklift rather than a conventional loader.
Alaska’s Cargo-door equipped fleet is comprised of six 737-400s, five combis and one main-deck freighter.
In earlier times, the 727 and 737-200 were useful for unpaved airports in the far north, but all of Alaska’s destinations are now paved. In Canada, Air North, Air Inuit, and First air are still using gravel-kit equipped 737-200s for some destinations that require services similar to Alaska’s. Like Alaska Airlines, operators of the 737-200 have been looking more closely at or actively acquiring 737 classics as replacements for these older aircraft.
©Photographer: Alex Kwanten