To hell and back on a turboprop
If I’m going to hell when I die – and I have it on very good authority that I am – at least the first part of that experience will not come as a surprise. I know what the scene at the gates of hell will look like.It will be exactly like the scene that greets your eyes as you approach the end of the moving walkway in Concourse B of Denver International Airport on your way to the dreaded Gate 61.For those of you lucky enough to have avoided this preview of damnation, I will note that Gate 61 is the departure gate for the United Express flights to Aspen (and, for that matter, Vail) that are operated by Mesa Air.Mesa Air is the outfit that operates the dinky little prop planes (that’s a technical term) that have taken over more and more of the flights into the mountains. The other United Express flights, the smooth, fast, convenient ones using the bigger four-engine jets are operated by Air Wisconsin. I have plenty of complaints about Air Wisconsin, but there’s no doubt about it: Air Wisconsin is Purgatory. Mesa Air is plain old hell.The area around Gate 61 – just like the territory on the far shores of the River Styx – is filled with milling crowds of confused and suffering souls, dreading whatever lies ahead. The wails of the hopeless fill the air. There’s no place to sit. There’s no room to stand. Rasping screeches fill the air – in hell the noise comes from Satan’s henchmen, at Gate 61 it comes from a cheap PA system … but what, really, is the difference?But the real parallel between Gate 61 and the gates of hell is that the deepest horror lies beyond.Never mind the confusion, the delays, the screaming mobs of the damned … I mean, the passengers. Never mind the long, dank hallway with well-meaning but helpless Mesa Air employees doing their best to keep things from falling apart. From the gate to the tarmac, the experience is either Third World or third rate (take your choice) – but still, never mind that, I’m talking about what comes next: the flights.Mesa Air flies deHaviland Dash 8s – twin-engine turboprops or (to use that technical term once again) dinky little planes.I have heard Mesa Air stewardesses tell passengers – in soothing tones – that the Dash 8 is “the perfect plane for mountain flying, the safest plane for this kind of flight.” But the fact is, these planes represent a great leap backward in class, quality, comfort and service from the jets that used to handle all the United Express flights into the mountains.The Dash 8 may be safe, but it flies lower and slower than the jets and it gets blown all over the sky.On one flight I took recently, the weather was a little rough, nothing serious, but the Dash 8 got tossed up, down and sideways every minute or so. And the woman in the seat in front of me screamed – a real scream, filled with real terror – every time the plane lurched. She was not a happy customer and I cannot believe that she will gladly contemplate another flight to Aspen.On another flight, the man across the aisle from me grabbed the stewardess before we took off and said, “I’d feel a lot better on a real airplane.”What happened? Somehow, when no one was paying attention, the air service from Denver to Aspen changed from deluxe to disaster.And nobody seems to mind – except, of course, the passengers. Everyone once in a while, I read a comment in the paper from some PR flack explaining what great service we’re getting. “Why, it’s better than ever!” they exclaim. “Things are great!”Well, I’m here to tell you that ain’t the case.In fact, the only consolation I can take is that when I do finally make that journey to my “final destination,” across the Styx and into fiery damnation, I’ll find that very same PR flack already there, burning in his own private pit.I’ll kick a clump of brimstone down on him and I’ll scream, “Gate 61!”He’ll know what I mean.Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.