Offbeat Alaska: Flying with the cargo

Riding on an Alaska Airlines Combi Plane

Our first view of the 737-400 Combi (at the Anchorage airport).

I knew when I booked our flight to Bethel that this trip would be different.

You see, we would be flying on an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Combi aircraft.  This plane is configured to carry 72 passengers plus four cargo containers that can carry up to 6,000 pounds of freight.  Alaska Air is the only US-based carrier that currently uses these Combi planes, and they have a total of five in their fleet.  These aircraft primarily serve Alaska, with Seattle being the only stop in the lower 48.


Approaching the rear staircase as we walk along the tarmac. Cargo is being loaded into the front of the plane.

Instead of boarding our plane via jetway, we were escorted from the terminal onto the tarmac, where we walked a few hundred feet to our plane and then ascended a stairway at the back of the plane.  The seating starts at row 17, and there only 12 rows of seats, so the boarding process was quick.

The seating layout of a Boeing 737-400 Combi Aircraft. Image: Alaska Air

There is no flight deck access to the passenger compartment.  Two flight attendants work the passenger compartment, and one works the front of the plane with the pilots (so that they can assist in an emergency).

The bulkhead that separates the cargo hold from the passenger compartment. It was kinda weird being unable to see the front of the plane.

These flights frequently serve areas that have no road access (like Bethel, Ketchikan, and Juneau), bringing with them mail, perishable goods, and time-sensitive cargo.  On the way back, they often bring Alaska’s fine seafood to the lower 48, making it possible to go from boat catch to Seattle within 12-48 hours.  They also transport sled dogs for various races around the state.  Our flight attendant told us that the week prior, there were 40 dogs in the cargo hold, but they were so tired from running their race that they didn’t even bark.

The strangest cargo she’d ever seen on a flight?  Live reindeer!

Freight being loaded into the cargo hold.

As far as we know, there were no live animals in the cargo hold, but I’m really glad we had the opportunity to fly in a Combi plane, especially since Alaska Air is phasing them out in favor of more fuel-efficient 737-700 cargo aircraft.  No longer will there be passengers and freight containers on the same flight, and that’s one less offbeat thing about traveling in Alaska!