The hassle of flying from a “spokes” city

In a recent post examining Singapore Airlines’ world’s-longest-nonstop flight EWR/SIN, I didn’t just appear out of thin air at Newark.  I had to first fly from Raleigh (RDU) to Newark.

Which highlights a problem for those of us who live in a “spokes” city in a flying world dominated by airline hub cities.  Raleigh/Durham isn’t big enough to support many overseas connections.

Raleigh/Durham International Airport has come a long way in the last few decades, with more than 400 daily arrivals and departures to 66 destinations on 11 airlines. Raleigh now serves London and Paris nonstop daily with a 777 and 767, respectively, and both flights make money, according to the operating airlines, American and Delta.

But to reach most of America and most international destinations, I have to first fly to a city like Newark, and that is a pain.  United flies direct to cover those 416 miles RDU/EWR, but if I prefer another airline, then I have to connect to get to the connection city.

To cut my costs for the Singapore trip, for instance, I used an AAdvantage award and thus had to connect both ways through Charlotte just to get to Newark and back home.  Here are my real-time notes going and returning which illustrate how traveling even those relatively short 416 miles is a chore:

RDU/CLT/EWR [Written the morning of my Singapore Air flight EWR/SIN]

Yesterday afternoon I flew Raleigh to Newark on American Airlines via Charlotte. My Singapore Airlines flight Newark (EWR) to Singapore (SIN) departs at 9:45 AM, and no flights from RDU were early enough to connect this morning. So I booked a room at the only on-airport hotel at Newark, the Marriott, thinking i i could walk there.

Normally I could have, but the arctic temps of the so-called “Polar Vortex” were still abating. It was in the low teens last night, so I had to call the hotel shuttle rather than walk.

Getting to Newark through Charlotte last night, CLT airport looked shabby and shopworn. What happened to North Carolina pride? The place had the feel of a Greyhound station. Particularly shameful since it used to be our home-grown Piedmont Airline’s proud hub.

Finally boarded my CLT/EWR flight, albeit late on account of late crew arriving to gate, on an older AA A320 with no charging plugs.

And once again, my AAdvantage Million Miler Lifetime Gold status made me Group 4—but actually group 8—after wheelchairs, Concierge Key, Group 1, uniformed military, Group 2, parents with small kids, and Group 3. Jeez, half the passengers were on board by the time my supposed “priority” Group 4 began frantically to search for the few remaining overhead luggage space.

On board Charlotte to Newark flight, everybody was on laptops and phones, so most window shades were down. These days Smartphones rule eyeballs. It was gloomy, like being in a dark cave. I love looking out of airplane windows, but that didn’t happen yesterday.

The Charlotte-Newark flight arrived last night at the EWR A concourse, so had to find my way to the Marriott from there.

Newark airport looked more like a developing nation than most developing nation airports. Terminal A is a mishmash of ugly shops, and whoever designed the TSA security line should be sued for incompetence. There is no room for people to move simultaneously out and in to the terminal. It’s insane, though given the small space, I guess that’s all they could do.

Despite the crowding and rat’s maze and the rundown appearance, the place was hopping. Maybe most people don’t care whether an airport keeps up appearances (Charlotte redux).

Got the Airtrain from Terminal A to Parking P4, and called the Marriott en route. Miracle! The bus was actually just pulling up when the jam-packed Airtain arrived at P4. And there were cheerful, well-trained staff at both ends of the Airtrain journey who helped me get to the right place. That human touch canceled out a lot of the bad impression of EWR appearances.

Nice big-ish room at the Marriott with two walls of windows.  Enjoyed a G&T at the way-way-overcrowded Marriott restaurant. People were offering hefty tips to get in like it was the Copa or something in 1955. Ridiculous. I’ve never seen an airport hotel restaurant, mediocre by definition, that demanded reservations to get in, and it was a slow Friday night.

Liked the Marriott room: quiet and everything comfy despite downstairs crowding, and I slept soundly.

This morning I was checked out at 6:59 AM, but the scheduled 7:00 AM shuttle never came. Lots of folks waiting before I got there, too. By 7:15 when a bus arrived, too many were waiting, and the driver had to leave some folks. They were angry, as were people who did make it because they had cut getting to their flights too close, including two sets of pilots. I was glad that I had decided to leave myself an extra hour of time.  Pretty soon I was checked in to my Singapore Air flight and headed to security, which is another story.

Of course if I lived in a big city or had been able to connect the same day to my Singapore flight, all this rigmarole and expense flying to Newark and staying at the hotel would not have been necessary. It costs me an extra day plus the expenses.


Despite sitting in the last row on my Singapore flight arriving back to Newark, I was the first one out of immigration after we landed, thanks to moving fast, plus being registered with Homeland Security as a Global Entry member (which allows me to scan my passport and fingerprints and then go, avoiding long lines at Immigration), plus having no checked bags. The plane landed early at 4:50 AM, and I was out of immigration and customs by 5:20 AM.

Immediately took the Newark Airport Airtrain to Terminal A and asked at the American Airlines Priority counter if I could please stand by for earlier flights. Sure, they said.

Stand-by boarding passes in hand, I zoomed through the Terminal A TSA Pre line and at the gate was put on a 6:20 AM flight to Charlotte, with a stand-by connection at 9:25 AM CLT to RDU. Thus I boarded my AA flight to CLT at 5:50 AM, exactly one hour after landing from Singapore, not bad!

In Charlotte I was just given a seat on the 9:25AM CLT/RDU flight which arrived RDU about 10:00 AM. That was a four hour time advantage because I hustled to make it happen; my original flight was scheduled to leave EWR at 10:00 AM and the connecting flight was due to arrive Raleigh at 2:00 PM.

All good, but even with over two million people living in the Research Triangle area of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill served by RDU airport, we are still a “spokes” city and have to connect to access direct flights to most of the world from here at considerable expense and time.  It’s a hassle.

2 thoughts on “The hassle of flying from a “spokes” city

  1. Will, I recently moved to Durham from Pittsburgh. Now RDU is my main airport. I actually find it better to fly from than PIT.
    Prices are cheaper, more frequent flights to ORD. LGA, DFW.
    For most of my overseas travel I connect in ORD and have found the connections to be reasonable.
    Yes, there are times when I need to connect in CLT – but it is a minor inconvenience to someone who fly over 120k miles each year.

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