This post isn’t so much of a trip report as it is a commentary. The Boeing B 737 is the most successful jet airliner in aviation history, with a total of more than 10’500 aircraft of the type built. It is currently in its fourth generation with the ill-fated B737 Max, the future of which does not look too bright in the wake of the two fatal accidents more than two years ago.
The B 737 was originally built to operate from small airports with limited infrastructure. This meant that the aircraft’s layout required it not to be too high off the ground for better access for the service vehicles and for the possibility to incorporate a set of retractable passenger stairs.
The result was an aircraft with a short, stuby appearance. It is most easily recognisable by the fact that the engines had to be mounted directly under the wing in order to maintain enough clearance to the ground and thus to avoid them becoming contaminated by ingesting debris lying on the ground.
Over the years, the B 737’s fuselage has been stretched a number of times. The wing has also been modified, together with new avionics and more powerful engines. The original B 737-100 was only 29 metres long. Today, the longest version of the type is the B 737-900 at 42 metres.
The B 737-600 is a bit of a squirt, at just 31 metres length. It is also the least successful model of the B 737 series, with only 69 aircraft ever built. Of those 69 aircraft, only about half remain in active service in 2020. Part of the -600’s problem was that it was simply too heavy for the number of passengers it was able to carry, which might also explain why it is the only version of the B 737 for which the manufacturer did not offer the option to have winglets, which would only serve to make the aircraft even more overweight.
SAS was the first and, at one time, the largest operator of the B 737-600, with a fleet of 30 units that were ordered mainly for domestic operations in Sweden. Their intention had been to replace part of their fleet of old DC-9s and MD-80s with the -600. The Scandinavian airline decommissioned its last B 737-600 in 2019.
For the passenger though, the -600 had a lot to offer in terms of comfort, because the cabin of the B 737 in general is much wider than that of other hundred seaters currently in the market, such as the Embraer 195 or the A 220. At least on the -600 there were hardly ever any issues finding a place to store your hand luggage in the overhead bin. As such, it made for a rather pleasant ride on the sector such as Stockholm to Zürich, which has a flight time of slightly more than two hours.
On the face of it, the benefits of having a standard model aircraft for a specific type of mission and then offering it in different models in varying sizes makes a lot of senses, especially in terms of crew training, planning flexibility and maintenance. And for the larger of the B 737 types, that obviously seems to have worked rather well. But the -600 also shows that at the bottom end of the scale, there comes a point where the benefits from having cockpit commonality and sharing parts with other types can no longer make up for the fact that you are, at the end of the day, carrying around with you a lot of dead weight that directly translates in the amount of kerosene you have to upload. That was pretty much the also experience Airbus made with its mini Airbus A 318, of which only 80 were built.
I must admit that I never really understood the Scandinavians’ obsession with summer and the sun until I came on this trip.
But I’m starting to see their point. It’s coming up to eight in the morning and it’s still dark outside. It’s also windy, cold and all round unpleasant.
Getting to the Airport
From Haugesund to the airport there is an airport bus. The journey time is about 30 minutes. The bus leaves at 08h15, to arrive at the airport with enough time to check in and go through security for the 09h35 departure to Oslo.
The bus departs from the Haugesund terminus, which is a rather depressing edifice that really could do with a fresh lick of paint.
In any case, I arrive at the airport about 50 minutes before departure. It’s a very convenient and small airport, with only four check-in counters and just as many gates. There is no lounge though.
Ever since I arrived in Norway, I’ve been craving one of those cardamom rolls. But somehow, wherever I go on this trip, they’ve either just run out or they’re still preparing them. I try my luck at the airport airside kiosk, but no luck…
But at least there is the fact that there are no airbridges at this airport. So when boarding starts, I can take my time walking across the apron taking pictures of the airrcraft taking me to Oslo.
I’m seated on 16F, which is on the second emergency exit row. Seat pitch is obviously very good. The only problem is that there is no arm rest on the window side of the seat. As a result, you’re either sharing the one on the other side, which seems a bit unfair on the guy stuck in the middle seat, or you have to find something else to do with your hands.
Our take-off is to the northwest and very bumpy, thanks to a strong crosswind. But shortly after we’re airborne, we pierce through the cloud and a burst of sunshine floods the cabin.
The fligh time to Oslo is only 34 minutes. On board service in Economy Class consists of complimentary tea, coffee or water.
The weather in Oslo is slightly better. I think. It’s colder, but at least the sun is trying to break through the cloud.
And once more I have the good fortune of deplaning via stairs instead of an airbridge. Hurrah!
I now gave three hours to make my international conn… finally, come to papa my sweets, I’ve been looking all over for you…!
The meeting in Akrehamn finishes just before 14h00. Which is good, because I’ve ordered a taxi to take me to Haugesund’s Karmoy airport at 14h00. The journey by taxi to the airport takes roughly twenty minutes and will cost you NOK500, which is pretty good by Norwegian standards. Theoretically, you could also go by bus. But in most cases this will be inconvenient, because the busses are infrequent and there is no direct bus from Akrehamn to the airport anyway.
Haugesund airport itself is a dinky little thing. The landside departure area is basically one big room with check-in counters, self-service machines and a highly efficient security lane.
I’m unable to check-in online. Or rather, I can check-in, but I can’t get my boarding pass. I try the self-service machine, which at least allows me to change my seat for the onward flight, but eventually only spits out the boarding pass for the flight to Oslo. So I head over to the Wideroe counter, where a frumpy middle-aged female explains that she has no idea what I did exactly, because I’m checked in just fine. What do I know woman, it’s your check-in system. I’m just a lowly passenger, and apparently one in dire need of being lectured…
There is no lounge at Haugesund airport. Which is hardly surprising, given that the departure area has all of three gates and is roughly the size of a very small broom cupboard. But there is a kiosk where you can purchase snacks, drinks, magazines and last minute souvenirs.
Boarding starts slightly ahead of schedule, due to the fact that the plane arrived in Haugesund nearly ten minutes early. I’m all excited, because there are no air bridges in Haugesund. So I’m going to have to walk across the apron and use stairs to get aboard. Woohoo! I know I’m a nerd, but I’ll admit that I purposely selected a seat on row 20, just so I could use the rear door of the aircraft for boarding.
Of course, what I don’t take into consideration, is that this is September in Norway. I exit the terminal building, which is precisely the moment the heavens open. Moreover, it’s blowing a gale. Perhaps a normal human being would just get on with it and make a run for the stairs. But the opportunity is just too good and the plane just way too pretty. So I keep stopping to take photos of my aircraft.
Eventually, by the time I get on board, I’m soaking wet all down the back of my trousers. I look as though I just embarrassed myself with excitement. But I don’t mind, because after all, I got to take aeroplane photos up close, so it’s really not that far from the truth…!
The cabin of this aircraft is in much better condition than those of the two Boeing B 737-700s I flew with to get to Haugesund. The aircraft has wifi installed, which is available at a price in the SAS Go cabin. Moreover, it has the new cabin interiors with the dark grey Recaro seats installed. Seat pitch on row 20 is good and the seat is comfortable enough.
That is, of course, until Mr. 20B arrives. Seriously? I mean, admittedly, his physique really is quite spectacular, and I dare say that back in the good old days he probably would have made even the toughest Viking warrior look like a bit of a wimpy weakling with fitness anxieties. The only way he can fit his long legs into the seat, is to sit there spread-eagled and with his elbows poking into my side. Worse still, I can’t even complain to him, even if I dared to, because it’s obvious that he’s really trying his best to take up as little space as possible. But at least the flight to Oslo is only forty minutes.
There are four crew on this flight. One young man who allegedly smiled the last time way back around the turn of the century, and three senior females who could be his mom, granny and great-granny respectively. I can’t really say anything much about the cabin crew because there is no interaction with them. During boarding they successfully ignore their passengers and pretend we all aren’t really there, and then after take-off, I drop off to sleep and miss the service. Such as it were.
In SAS Go, tea and coffee are complimentary. All other snacks and drinks are available for purchase, subject to the duration of the flight.
The landing in Oslo is quite bumpy. But at least the weather is much better here, so I get some good views of the landscape on the approach.
I have three hours to make my connection. Transferring in Oslo is painless and easy. The biggest problem really, is that the facility is too crowded, so getting through can be difficult at times.
When I flew to China with SAS in July, I have to say I rather enjoyed their product and service on long-haul. But on short-haul, I think they’re a complete stinker. As I already mentioned before, their aircraft tend to be filthy and tattered, which makes you wonder about the state of those parts of the aircraft that you can’t see. But apart from that, the crews on all flights were totally uninspired and bland, which again is a stark contrast to my experience with them on long-haul.
The MD-80 figures prominently in my childhood memories of lazy summer vacations spent at the beach in Malta, sitting in the shade, digging my toes into the backing sand and gazing out across the azure shades of the Mediterranean sea.
In those days there were not that many direct flights to Malta. Air Malta operated a three times weekly schedule to Zürich with the mighty B 720, and that was it. Not of course, that I would have minded as a child to travel with that old veteran but alas, my parents had their reservations, shall we say. Back then Air Malta was not the world’s most reliable airline and with only three weekly flights tended to be rather pricey for family of five. So instead, we used to travel with Swissair from Basel via Zürich to Rome, initially with the DC-9-50 and later with the MD-80, and then from there on to Malta, either by Air Malta or with Alitalia on the B 727-200 and later also with the MD-80.
My memories of these flights are no longer clear and are now shrouded in the haze of the many years that have since elapsed. But I do remember Swissair serving lovely, tasty warm pancakes filled with spinach in a tomato sauce on the Zürich to Rome sector. I remember my elder sister, and I am still grateful to her for doing it, preparing a calendar for me to cross the days in the run-up to the summer holidays and the moment when I would finally set foot on an aircraft, an MD-80, again.
In later years, Swissair brought relief to us with the introduction of flights to Malta, also with the MD-80 of course. To begin with Swissair too operated on a trice-weekly schedule, which was later increased to daily except Tuesdays.
So perhaps you will now understand how the MD-80 came to be linked so closely to those adolescent, carefree memories of mine of summers suspended in the warmth of the summer sun. Perhaps you will now also understand why I wanted to take one last trip with the MD-80, to pay homage to this excellent aircraft before it disappears from Europe forever.
Planning the Trip
There are already not that many airlines left in Europe that operate the MD-80. I deemed charter flights to be too complicated because I only had a weekend to do the trip. Most tour operators only sell packages for at least one week’s stay somewhere. And Alitalia seemed like a bit of a wild card. Thus, very early on during the planning phase for this trip, it became apparent that SAS would be the easiest, most convenient option. There was however one complication that needed to be considered: the coolest thing about the MD-80 is of course the possibility to board/deplane through the rear exit, to the death defying, agonising roar of the running APU. Therefore, it was not simply a question of finding a flight operated by SAS with the MD-80 but also of finding a destination which did not have any airbridges, thus increasing my chances of availing myself of the peviously mentioned aft stairs.
Eventually, I decided on the following routing: Zürich-Stockholm-Skelleftea-Stockholm-Zürich with SAS. On Friday evening, 10 June 2011, I would fly from Zürich to Stockholm on an MD-80. I believe it was Björn Viking, a sprightly 26 year old. I would then spend the night at the Radisson Blue in Arlanda’s Sky City. The next day, in the morning of Saturday, 11 June 2011, I would fly to Skelleftea and back on the same plane, Olav Viking. After another night in Stockholm proper I would then fly back to Zürich on Sunday afternoon, 12 June 2011. This report covers the flights from Stockholm Arlanda to Skelleftea and back.
Date: 11 June 2011 Airline: SAS – Scandinavian Airlines From: Stockholm Arlanda To: Skelleftea Aircraft: MD-80 Seat: 26F
I awake on Saturday to the sight of a magnificent Thai Airways B 747-400. After a quick coffee and a shower I check out of the hotel and make my way to Arlanda’s terminal 4, from where my flight to Skelleftea will be leaving.
The domestic terminal is very functional. On this Saturday morning it is also very empty. I go through security, where the staff on duty seem happy to see a ‘client’. I then make my way to a coffee shop and have breakfast, which consists of a cinnamon roll, or Kanel Bollar, and a coffee.
The boarding gate has one attended queue and an automatic one, which I try and which works perfectly.
And then from there I walk down the gangway to my aircraft.
Judging by the condition of the cabin you’d never guess the age and hours on this bird!
With only 30 passengers on the flight, I couldn’t really say we take off. In actual fact I think blasting off or rocketing off would be more appropriate…
Generally, SAS has buy-on-board service in Economy Class. However, on morning flights that leave before 09h00 they still serve a complimentary breakfast, even on our short flight of 55 minutes. The breakfast hits the spot. It consists of orange juice, blueberry yoghurt with müsli, two buns, cold cuts, cheese, tomato and salad.
I’m still sipping my coffee when the captain comes on the blower to inform us that we’re about the start the descent into Skelleftea. Outside the views are of very flat land, lush green vegetation and water. Skelleftea is a mini airport. So far Ronne airport on the Danish island of Bornholm has been the smallest airport I have ever visited, but I think Skelleftea takes the biscuit.
My plan works and I am able to deplane through the back, which I greatly enjoy. I feel like a little kid again, emerging into the bright sunlight under the magnificent empennage of the MD-80. The only thing missing is the noise: alas the APU is not turned on as the aircraft had been plugged in to an external power supply.
As I make my way to arrivals I keep stopping to take pictures. The nice thing about this airport is that none of the staff actually seem to mind.
Date: 11 June 2011 Airline: SAS Aircraft: MD-80 From: Skelleftea To: Stockholm Cabin: Economy Class Seat: 28F
I am the last passenger to enter the terminal. I now have 20 minutes to ‘connect’ to the return flight. Theoretically, I could turn right at arrivals and go down a narrow hall that would bring me to departures – the terminal is like somebody’s country house – but instead I decide to step outside and enter the terminal again on the departures side. I guess in a way my reckoning being that by doing so I can now say that I actually was in Skelleftea proper and not just changed planes there, which technically would not be quite true either, given that I return to Stockholm on the same plane with which I had arrived…
Skelleftea has one boarding gate, so while your boarding pass is scanned for you to go airside, you’re also reporting for your flight. Boarding starts rather unceremoniously. There is the sound a bell, then the doors open and we are free to get on board again. No announcement is made.
The flight attendant’s expression as she sees me coming back on board again is priceless. It’s a mixture of incomprehension, surprise and alarm. So I quickly show her my boarding pass and explain that I am undertaking the trip specifically to fly the MD-80 and not because I have any particular business in Skelleftea. This proves to be quite an ice breaker and throughout the flight, the entire cabin crew keep stopping at my row to talk to me about why I like the MD-80 so much, some of them also give details about how long they’ve been with SAS and why they like working on the MD-80.
With only 70 passengers on the return leg, boarding is soon completed, we make a quick taxi, backtracking to the end of the runway, and blast off from runway 10.
Feeling gratified by the mission successfully accomplished, I am able to lean back and enjoy the views outside.
Just before landing the lead flight attendant comes by to inform me that the captain has been informed about me and would like to invite me up to the cockpit after landing to have a look around. I think this is really nice and indeed, once we land and everybody has disembarked and I make my way to the forward exit, where the cockpit crew is already expecting me. The first officer offers me his seat and takes a few picutre. We chat a bit about what a great aircraft the MD-80 is to fly. According to the first officer the last aircraft is expected to leave the SAS fleet by 2012 and he confirmes that this was much to the regret of many of the staff at SAS.
Eventually I manage to tear myself away, after all these kind people have work to do. So I thank them for their kindness and, with a heavy heart, I bid my last farewell the elegant MD-80.
All in all, this trip was really worth it and certainly one of the more memorable ones. I really enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to get one last flight with the MD-80. So I will have more fond memories of this aircraft to add to those of my childhood.
As for SAS, the kindness and friendliness of their crew really are the airline’s biggest asset!