[ Trip Reports ]October 4, 2020 9:37 am ET
By Joey Gerardi
Trip Report: Flying the Former North Country Sky – Part 1
This is Part I of a two-part review. Part II will be available later this week.
Manistee, Mich. has been in the news frequently regarding the Essential Air Service (EAS) contract in the community. After seeing what carrier currently served the city, I decided to give it a try.
The community of Manistee switched EAS carriers at the end of September 2020, switching to Cape Air on Oct. 1. Before that date, the contract for Manistee was held by Public Charters, the airline name was North Country Sky and some of the aircraft on the route were flown by Ultimate Air Shuttle.
As it was unclear what airline website I should be looking for flights on — whether North Country Sky, Ultimate Air Shuttle or Public Charters — I decided to go with the first option. Searching, “North Country Sky” on the web, I got no results of any sort of airline homepage. Instead, it had me go directly to FlyManistee.com to book a flight.
The confusion immediately began. I clicked on the top link in the search results and it brought me to a page that read “No Results Found.”
I returned to the search browser, and it wasn’t until the third search option that I began to make progress, which brought me to “PublicCharters.com.” On the Public Charters homepage, the North Country Sky logo appeared along with banners reading “Fly Manistee to Chicago in only an hour.”
I did a little research, and it appears that this is currently Public Charters’ only scheduled flight. The rest are charter flights where you must book an entire plane. Another airline operated by Public Charters, Inc. was former airline “Texas Sky” which operated flights between Victoria Texas and Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport, but that flight ended in 2018, meaning they still haven’t taken the logo off the website yet.
As this was the airline’s only route, it was easy selecting the city I wanted from the drop-down menu. My goal was to fly there and back on the same day, and it took some searching to find a day where I could do that as the flight schedule wasn’t very consistent from day-to-day.
The number of flights was also inconsistent. Some days there would only be a single flight in each direction, and some days there would be two flights there and only one back, and so on. The times of the flights were also not consistent and didn’t line up with the published schedule on the airline’s page.
After selecting the flight I desired, it brought me to an overview of my itinerary. This is when it showed the aircraft type I’d fly on, what terminals I would arrive and depart from, check-in cutoff times and the price of the ticket.
Under the aircraft type, it also showed how many seats the aircraft had, which I found to be an interesting and unique feature. But I found out why it did this further on in the booking process.
Apparently, they cannot accept wheelchairs over a certain size or physically immobile passengers on aircraft with 19-seats or fewer. I feel this is rather late in the booking process to be telling passengers they can’t take this flight if they are handicapped.
This also brings up another issue: On days that only have one flight and happen to be on the 19-seat Beech-1900, mobility challenged passengers will be forced to either wait until the larger plane is flying the route or seek alternative travel.
Also on this page at the bottom is a word box where you type in the flight connection information if you’re not coming from or going to Midway Airport. The airline doesn’t have any baggage interline agreements with any carriers, so it’s odd that they ask for this information.
After this, I proceeded to the page where I put in my payment information and completed my booking. On the confirmation page, it again asked me to put in connection flight information if applicable.
Apparently, if you have a connecting flight they offer “expedited handling of any of your checked baggage.”
With an arrival cutoff time of 45 minutes before the flight and the small airport size, I decided to take my time and planned to arrive around 55-minutes prior to the departure.
About one-hour and 10-minutes before scheduled departure time I got a call from a local North Country Sky representative inquiring if I still planned on flying. I said I was and she informed me that they wanted everyone there one hour prior to departure. Apparently, on the Manistee Airports website, it does say “at least one-hour prior to departure” despite the airline’s website and itinerary both saying no later than 45-minutes.
I arrived at the airport right when I said I would — 55-minutes prior — and went inside to check-in. The airport terminal was very nicely designed and featured lots of rock detail in the foundation with the name “Manistee County Blacker Airport” on the rocks.
The inside of the airport and check-in counter also featured the same type of rock features as the outside of the building.
I then showed my ID, got checked and was handed a boarding pass with my seat number written in the top-right corner with a marker. On the boarding pass, it said issued by “Public Charters-North Country Sky,” linking the two names together.
In addition to my boarding pass, I was given a gate-checked tag for my backpack as it was too big to fit under the seat and there are no overhead bins on the Beech-1900. The gate check tag was a very interesting bit of information and was a story in and of itself.
For a time period of about a month this past year, North Country Sky asked for help from Florida-based Silver Airways. North Country Sky — more specifically Public Charters, Inc. — had an aircraft usage issue. One of the carrier’s aircraft was in for a maintenance check, and all the other aircraft in the company were doing charter flights and were available to serve the Manistee to Chicago route.
So for about four weeks, a Silver Airways Saab340 operated the route and brought with it the other airline’s flight attendants, pilots and, evidently, luggage tags. For those couple of weeks, this route looked like any one of the carriers twenty or so routes in Florida except for one detail: they were a long way from Florida.
After check-in, I proceeded to the small waiting area which doubled as an arrival lounge. It was very cozy and felt more like a cabin in the woods than an airport, featuring comfortable chairs and a huge floor-to-ceiling fireplace. The fireplace appeared to be made of the same type of rock as the outside of the building and the check-in counter.
Roughly 35 minutes before scheduled departure time, the TSA screening checkpoint opened and I made my way through. Just before leaving the screening area, there was a sign informing passengers that checked bags must be retrieved in Chicago before going to a connecting flight.
The gate area was nice as well, with around 20 or so chairs with huge windows giving passengers a view of the aircraft outside.
The aircraft for the flight down to Chicago Midway would be on a 1989 Beech-1900C aircraft with the registration of N806JG. The tail also had a very small North Country Sky logo.
The “C” model of the Beech-1900 aircraft is almost identical to the “D” version from a passenger perspective. The two main differences between them are that the “C” models have a much lower ceiling in the passenger cabin and there is no bathroom onboard.
One of the pilots then gave us a safety briefing of the aircraft.
After startup, we made a quick three or so minute taxi to the end of the runway and took off to the west roughly 12 minutes ahead of schedule. Just after takeoff we turned left and pointed roughly south and flew along the western Michigan shoreline until we reached the southern Michigan border.
Despite being on a pressurized aircraft, we didn’t cruise at that high of an altitude. We first made our way up to 17,900 feet but only stayed there very briefly before making our way down to 11,000 feet followed by 6,500 feet for the last bit of the journey.
As this is a smaller turboprop, there is no flight attendant and therefore no snack or beverage service for the roughly hour-long flight. For the entire flight, we stayed relatively close to the west Michigan coastline and didn’t venture directly over Lake Michigan much.
Passengers on the left side of the aircraft could see the coastline for the entirety of the flight. Where I was on the right side of the plane, all I could see for most of the flight was Lake Michigan, although the propeller kept me thoroughly entertained.
As we approached the southern end of Lake Michigan we began to turn slightly west and the city of Chicago came into view in the distance.
By the time we were pointed west, we had leveled off at around 3,000 feet. I have flown into Chicago Midway many times onboard Southwest Airlines, but this low approach gave me a view I have never experienced before. As we flew our low approach over the South Chicago suburbs, downtown Chicago was now clearly in view off the right side of the aircraft.
We then proceeded to make a smooth touchdown on Midway’s runway 31C twenty-minutes early. The smooth touchdown was attributed to the pilots, and the fact we had a lot of extra usable runway as these runways are more accustomed to Boeing 737 aircraft versus the small Beech-1900C we were flying on.
After arrival, we became surrounded by much larger 737 aircraft at the Southwest Airlines Midwest hub. Compared to our little 19-seat turboprop, the 737s looked massive. We taxied for about five minutes to the A concourse and arrived at gate A14, another inconsistency as the confirmation email from when the flight was booked said we would arrive at the C gates.
Nonetheless, we had arrived at Midway, and we pulled into the gate 15-minutes early. After engine shutdown, I noticed a Dornier J328 at a gate near to ours, which I assumed to be my next aircraft.
After deplaning I stopped briefly to take a picture of the aircraft but was immediately told to head inside by an airline employee. So I proceeded to head up the stairs that led into the jetway and entered the main terminal.
If you were only traveling with a carry-on and the weather was good, I could see how this would be very convenient. The jetway brought passengers from Manistee directly into the middle of a bank of Southwest Airlines departure gates. While it works when everything is on-time, in the wintertime when flights get delayed or if you check bags, it can cause quite a hassle as you have to recollect your checked bags and the airlines don’t work together when flights are delayed or canceled.
Part II of this review will be released later this week.