By Lee Tidball
As I was planning a recent Southern California vacation, I had a whimsical remembrance of a day back in 2008; booking a flight out of Modesto’s Harry Sham Field Airport for a business lunch in LA, a 10-minute drive to the airport, parking for free, flying to LAX in the morning, making my meeting, returning to LAX, then back to Modesto by 8 p.m. Even though the price had been outrageous (over $250 round-trip) and my turboprop flights had all the comforts of being the waist gunner in a B-17, it was a little slice of commuter airline heaven; no flight out of Sacramento, no 5-6 hour drive each way to LA. Ah…
“Snap out of it,” I told myself. All commuter airline service to anywhere from either Modesto or Stockton has long since disappeared (Stockton’s Allegiant Air offers vacation destination services only; Las Vegas, Phoenix/Mesa and San Diego) and rumors of it returning have proven to be little more than wishful thinking.
But looking a little farther south, I not only found airline service to LAX, but one of the most unique flying experiences I’ve ever had. The place is Merced’s Macready Field Regional Airport and the service is provided by Boutique Air; one of the fastest-growing names in regional commuter air service.
The little airline that can
Boutique Airlines is based in San Francisco and started in 2007. Originally just a U.S. Forest Service surveillance gig, it began charter passenger service in 2011 with its unique, Swiss-made Pilatus PC-12 turboprop aircraft. They began offering regional commuter service in 2014 through the federal Essential Air Services (EAS) program. In just the two years since, Boutique Air has added 12 such EAS hubs, providing its unique airline experience to communities as remote as Moab in Utah, Clovis in New Mexico, and Show Low, Arizona to international hubs like Albuquerque, Salt Lake City and Phoenix, compiling a flawless safety record along the way. In mid-2015, the Merced hub was added, offering service to both LAX and Oakland International.
Excited to discover that this was just an easy 35-minute drive down the 99 for me, I decided to check it out. Boutique offered three time options for both going to and coming back from LAX, and at a price point where myself and my partner Cyndie could fly round-trip for just over $200 — for both of us together. I practically fell out of my desk chair. Even refundable tickets were just $198 per person round-trip—and I was scheduling just a week in advance. Furthermore, the interior of Boutique’s PC-12s resembled that of a Leer jet, with executive-style, padded seating, electrical outlets and even leg room. “What’s the catch?” asked the skeptic in me, yet when I checked out the same route on Expedia, I found it had earned a 7.6 (very good) “happyrating” on their flight rating scale.
So yes, I booked the flight.
An important preliminary
As I perused Boutique’s website, I now braced myself for nasty surprises in fine print. Instead, I found a happy one; on Boutique, there are no baggage fees. Let’s say that again so it really sinks in; there are no baggage fees. The caveat is that, even though each ticketed passenger is allowed one checked bag, it must meet TSA standards for carry-on luggage. This, I was told when I called to clarify, is because the baggage area on Boutique’s PC-12s is small and potentially accessible from the cabin, therefore, checked luggage must conform to all carry-on regulations, including size, those regarding the carrying of liquids, gels, and pastes, no sharp objects, etc. When I asked about my trekking poles (our trip would involve extensive hiking), I was assured that Boutique routinely transported skis and even golf clubs, and that my poles should be no problem if properly broken down and secured. Checked bags must weigh 35 pounds or less, and a “personal” bag carried into the cabin no more than 15 pounds. Having never traveled this way before, packing became somewhat of a challenge, but we made adjustments, and the effect on our trip was negligible.
And speaking of calling Boutique, I did this several times before our trip, and each time was connected quickly to a real person who handled my questions promptly and professionally. Another happy surprise.
Going and coming back
For our 6:15 p.m. flight to LAX, Boutique advised being at the airport 60 minutes beforehand, so we left Modesto a tad after 4:30, arrived 40 minutes later at Macready Field, and shortly were checking in with two very proficient Boutique ground personnel under a cute little “street sign” with arms pointing to LA and Oakland. We got boarding passes, had our luggage weighed, and were relieved of our checked bags. My trekking poles, broken down and secured to my checked bag as instructed, were never questioned. We went through Macready’s TSA checkpoint and into a comfortable lounge area to await our flight. This experience was so laid-back that we almost forgot we were in an airport. Security checkpoints are never fun, but the friendly, yet professional TSA officers really took the edge off.
After that came the only glitch of our experience. A PC-12 showed up at the departure door exactly at 6:15, but just as promptly left and we waited 30 minutes for another plane to finally arrive. We and five others finally boarded and randomly took seats in the 8-passenger cabin. The front four seats were in “executive” arrangement, facing each other, and the other four in a traditional face-front set-up. Yes, they were larger and more comfy than regular airline seats, and yes, there was legroom, though we had to stretch out into the tiny aisle to take advantage of it. This was made easier by using the seat’s swivel function to turn it more sideways; just had to be careful when someone was seated behind us. Once settled (with backpacks on the floor in front of us), and after an unusually intimate explanation of safety features by the co-pilot, we were off by 7 p.m.
We found our hour-long flight to be unusually quiet and smooth for a turboprop. I attribute this to the PC-12’s design; a single engine in the nose as opposed to one engine on each wing. The noisy, vibrating stuff is up front, far from the cabin, giving us passengers a more jet-like feel and sound level instead of the B-17 treatment. Coming over the mountains and into LA was typically choppy, but hardly more than on a jet, and the landing? Let’s just say that we four in the back were all gaping at each other as we realized, 10-15 seconds after the fact, that yes, we had touched down on the runway; there was no “thump” whatsoever. It was the smoothest landing I’ve ever experienced.
We deplaned on the tarmac, were escorted to Gate 39 in Terminal 3 at LAX, walked to baggage claim, grabbed our checked bags, and were out awaiting a rental car shuttle all within 15 minutes of arriving at the gate in Los Angeles.
Our trip home was even smoother. After arriving at LAX, we went to another friendly Boutique Air counter, checked our bags, proceeded through security and on to Gate 39, and, when boarding time came, were met by Boutique personnel who led us across the tarmac to another PC-12, had another unusually quiet and smooth ride back to Merced, where we deplaned, claimed our luggage, and were in our car in Macready’s parking lot less than 10 minutes after touch-down. The only difference was that this time, everything was spot-on time.
All that was left now was the easy drive home, sweetened by the fact that we hadn’t stopped at some tollbooth exiting the airport to fork over a small fortune for six days of parking. Just like in Modesto, parking at Merced/Macready is free.
Overall, my first experience with Boutique Air’s Merced-to-LAX service was exceptional, and I’d highly recommend it. The schedules are convenient, the flight experience comfortable, and the prices incomparable. And for similar Bay Area service, Boutique flies twice-daily flights to Oakland and back for as little as $58 round-trip. With summer time coming up and SoCal area attractions beckoning (including the recently-opened Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Hollywood), Boutique Air might be just the ticket for you, you and your spouse, or even you and your family. But do plan ahead. Those eight seats per flight will no doubt be filling up fast.
Note: All price quotes are as of May 2016.
Boutique Air’s Merced Service is a Good Idea for:
– Southern California vacation/destination travelers (singles, couples, or smaller families). The farther ahead you can plan, the better.
– Travelers wanting connecting flights out of either LAX or Oakland. Boutique advises scheduling a flight to arrive at LAX or Oakland at least an hour and forty-five minutes ahead of your connecting flight, as you’ll have to claim your bags and go through security again before boarding.
– Business travelers who can plan at least a couple days in advance.
Not Such a Good Idea for:
– Spur-of-the-moment business travelers; same or next day seat availability is rare.
– Large families or groups; there likely will not be enough seats.
– Any traveler who needs to carry lots of luggage; luggage is restricted to a checked bag (that conforms to carry-on bag restrictions) and a personal bag with a weight limit of 50 pounds combined per person.
– Travelers who need a wheelchair, walker, or have other severe ambulatory issues; boarding the PC-12 is by a door-stairway only, there are no ramps, etc.