By Joey Gerardi
Unique Connection Series Trip Report: Taos, New Mexico
If you have read my articles in the past, then you know I love out-of-the-way airports, airlines, and aircraft and would do almost anything to adventure to a new city or fly on a unique or rare aircraft type. So in this new series, which I will be calling the “Unique Connection Series” I will go over unique flight routings between two cities using a small or unusual airport as a stopover. The uniqueness of the connection might be referring to the small size of an airport, or a unique aircraft type, or both.
For this Unique Connection, I will be starting in Austin, Texas, and flying to Carlsbad, Calif. located roughly 35miles north of downtown San Diego using a connection in the small city of Taos, New Mexico. This was a special trip for me as the first article I wrote for AirlineGeeks back in December 0f 2019 was about the airline I will be flying in this trip report, so I was so excited to finally be trying it. The airline is Taos Air, but the flights are all operated by Hawthorne, Calif.-based Advanced Airlines using 30-seat Dornier328Jets which was another unique aspect of this flight.
At the time of writing this article, there are only 10-routes in the United States that are scheduled to operate on the Dornier328Jet. Taos Air/Advanced Air operates four of them, while Denver Air Connection fly’s the other six. The cities Taos Air operates from including its namesake of Taos, N.M., are Carlsbad and Hawthorne in California as well as Austin and Dallas Love Field in Texas.
Other than flying directly to or from Taos to each of the four cities, which you can definitely do as it’s a popular ski destination, you can fly between Carlsbad and Austin or Dallas Love Field and Hawthorne in either direction using a connection in the city of Taos. Taos Air uses all FBO’s, or a small terminal in Carlsbad’s case, so there is no TSA, no hassle, and most importantly no lines, so depending on where you live or need to go the Taos connection may actually be the faster option for you, but that will be explained later.
On the day of the flight, I woke up in Austin and headed to the airport for my 3:10 P.M. flight. Taos Air flights operate out of the Million Air FBO located on the south side of the Austin Airport roughly two miles from the South Terminal at Austin-Bergstrom. You don’t need to arrive more than 1-hour prior to the flight time, but I wanted to explore so I got there earlier than most.
The FBO was very nice, clean, and had a lot of natural light coming in, with a wall of windows looking out onto the ramp so there are plenty of plane spotting opportunities from here.
The person at the front counter instructed me that Taos Air passengers were to head upstairs for check-in, where I found a small table with a sign for Taos Air and a small scale for bags.
Each passenger is allowed two pieces of checked luggage up to 38lbs free of charge which includes snow sports items and helmet bags, anything above that is subject to costs and space availability on your flight. I was traveling with just a backpack, so it was weighed and I was given a Fiji water, boarding pass, and the freedom to explore and walk around until it was time to board.
The boarding pass was cardstock and was very nicely designed with Taos Air and the aircraft tail number on the front, and the words ‘Operated by Advanced Air’ on the back. I would like to point out that our aircraft ended up being N192T and not N192TS, but despite that very minor detail I was still impressed seeing a tail number on a boarding pass as well as the bright colorful design on it.
I headed downstairs for some exploring and found a self-serve soda machine, a Starbucks coffee machine, and a small bar inside the FBO all of which were nicely designed.
Since I’m not a coffee drinker I was more impressed with the bar and even more impressed to find that everything was complimentary, provided you were flying out of the FBO.
After grabbing a small drink I headed back upstairs to the lounge to find that more people had checked in for the flight, along with a pile of checked bags that were to be loaded onto our flight.
The arrival of my aircraft was growing closer, so I grabbed a seat and enjoyed the amazingly comfortable chairs, the FBO was super comfortable and offered more than most airline lounges that I have seen. Before I could become bored, the star of the show had landed, so I headed outside to the open-air deck to watch the aircraft pull in.
It was an interesting perspective, being able to see the top of the aircraft you are about to get on from such a close distance is not something passengers normally experience. My aircraft carried the tail number N192T and was originally delivered in early 2000 to Germany-based ‘Modern Air’. This aircraft even flew under the Delta Connection banner as N419FJ between 2001 and 2004, the detailed history of this specific aircraft can be found below.
Even for the non-aviation enthusiasts, the arrival brought many individuals up to the window to see the aircraft in all its glory.
Taos Air doesn’t have seat assignments and the seats are first come first serve, similar to other small airlines, so just after the aircraft’s arrival, I proceeded to head downstairs to make sure I could get on first. You can request a specific seat when you book the ticket, and while your request isn’t a guarantee they try to comply with all requests if they can. Roughly 20-minutes after arriving the flight attendant, whose name is Kimberly, came inside and took me and the other 17-passengers outside to the aircraft as well as collected our boarding passes
She also reminded us that masks are required while on the aircraft, as quite a few people didn’t have them on while inside. While the mask mandate is in place for all airport terminals, the FBO is technically private property so they weren’t required for people inside the FBO building itself as it doesn’t fall under the jurisdiction of the TSA. I did reach out to the specific FBO and they did inform me that masks were indeed optional for passengers inside the building, although the employees working there are required to wear them.
As we walked out to the aircraft it became very loud as the APU, Auxillary Power Unit, was running. I highly recommend earplugs for the short walk out to the plane for those with sensitive hearing, but if your hearing isn’t sensitive you should be fine. The Taos Air/Advanced Air Dornier328Jet is laid out in a 1-2 configuration and seats 30 passengers.
When the flight was booked I requested a window just behind the wing, and when I got on the aircraft the flight attendant already knew the request. She suggested either row 9 or 10, and I opted for seat 9A, a window/aisle seat on the left side of the plane. I was impressed that she knew exactly who made the request, although the camera was probably a big hint.
The flight then proceeded on as any other airline flight, the safety briefing followed by engine startup. The Dornier328Jet has a unique sounding startup and it was awesome listening to it. It was a short taxi out to the runway and we blasted off the runway from Austin only 13 minutes behind schedule.
I love regional jets, and the Dornier328Jet has to be one of my favorites, the high wing offers views that are unmatched in the airline industry today. Most other high winged aircraft in commercial service today, such as the Cessna 208, are unpressurized so they can’t climb that far above the clouds.
Not long after departure, Kimberly came around with the snack basket and also get our drink orders. A majority of the snacks are made and produced right in Taos, N.M., or by other B Corporations as the airline love to show the commitment to the local communities that they serve as well as the environment. But if local snacks don’t suit your fancy they also had name-brand snacks such as Doritos or Lays chips.
The airline also offers complimentary alcoholic beverages to those passengers over the age of 21, for those that aren’t they also offered a variety of juices and also water. Taos Air is also the world’s first carbon-neutral airline and has a 100% carbon offset program, and in that same spirit, the water is instead served in a large metal thermos which you can take with you and refill later, I still use mine. It is truly amazing the lengths the airline goes to in order to be more sustainable, even with the extra weight the metal bottles can add to an aircraft.
By this time the flight was nearly half over and we had reached our cruising altitude of 30,000-feet. I decided to get up and talk with the other passengers around me to get their perspectives on this service. Almost everyone I talked to was either coming or going to see family and grandkids in the Taos, N.M. area. They all praised the service and were thankful that it existed as they no longer had to drive two hours to the next closest airport in Santa Fe, N.M. Those that weren’t going to see family or go home were going to the Taos Ski Resort. The airline offers free transportation to and from the airport and the Taos Ski Resort and also offers free ski/snowboard rentals to passengers coming in on Taos Air.
One person I talked to even said this was the first time going to see her brother in over five years as he couldn’t drive long distances anymore and she didn’t have the money to rent a car and drive, and this service enabled her to see family she might not otherwise see. This is one of the reasons I fly to these small cities, to talk to people and get the stories most others wouldn’t hear, it isn’t just about the cool aircraft, it is who these planes can connect and bring closer together that wouldn’t travel otherwise had these types of services not exist.
The exit row seat, 9A, is by far the best seat on this plane and offers the most legroom. I’m not tall by any means at 5’4″, but remember this is still a regional jet so the legroom isn’t the best, but it still feels roomier than a 50-seat CRJ-200. There was also no Wifi on this aircraft or any of the airlines Dornier328Jets, but that shouldn’t be an issue as the views are more than enough to keep you occupied for the entirety of the flight.
By this point in the flight, we had begun our descent into Taos a while back. The city of Taos, N.M. was also visible out of the left side of the aircraft.
We then passed over the Taos Regional Airport, I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be a rather long approach to the airport. The flight crew was practicing IFR, Instrument Flight Rated, procedures on this flight and we took the long way in passing the airport twice before actually landing. The crew is required to do this every six months or so in order to stay IFR current.
The approach into Taos was very windy and the plane did rock back and forth quite a bit as we got closer to the ground.
Despite the high winds in the area, the crew did a great job making a smooth landing on the runway only two minutes behind our scheduled arrival time at 4:12 P.M. which brought our total flight time for the first leg to 1-hour 49-minutes. Another thing I noticed once we landed, the Dornier328Jet doesn’t have thrust reversers, meaning the aircraft has to rely completely on wheel braking and speed brakes.
I then caught my first glimpse of the small terminal with the small metal fence surrounding it, this was the terminal for the city of Taos, N.M.. It is always so fun seeing what the terminals look like in these small cities, they always add some sort of local flair.
After the engine shut off I was escorted off, as everyone had to get off for refueling for safety. Also, I was the only passenger that was continuing onto Carlsbad and I might have possibly been the first passenger to ever to fly from Austin all the way to California on Taos Air, as they seemed very shocked when I told them I would be getting back on.
As I got off and saw the mountains behind the airport, it reminded me of another reason why I connect in these small cities; I get to very briefly see places that I might not otherwise see, while still getting where I need to go. As an AvGeek, I was also obligated to get a picture of myself in front of the Dornier328Jet, which the ground crew was happy to take for me.
The terminal in Taos was quite small, but again the airline only recommends you arrive for your flight one hour prior to departure so there isn’t much time for sitting in the terminal.
Despite being a small terminal on the inside, there was plenty of outdoor space for passengers to walk around as long as they didn’t try to venture out close to the airplane.
I then went up to the small podium and got checked in for my flight onto Carlsbad, Calif. they again weighed my bag and I also received a new boarding pass, this one did have the correct tail number on it, N192T.
IT wasn’t long before the pilot gathered everyone to take them out to the aircraft, he took our boarding passes and we got onto the aircraft bound for California. I decided to try out a non-exit seat for this flight, so I took a seat in 8A, just ahead of the exit row but still a window/aisle seat on the left side.
With Kimberly as the flight attendant for this flight as well, I settled in for the flight to Carlsbad which was scheduled to be just about the same flight time as the first leg. This leg only had 13 passengers total on it, but it did have noticeably more younger kids on it. Our total time on the ground in Taos was just under 1-hour making this an efficient and quick connection. Same as before, safety briefing and the startup of the two PW306B Turbofan engines. We blasted off out of Taos only 11 Minutes behind the original scheduled departure of 5 P.M. local time.
Again, the benefit of a high wing aircraft is being able to see the sights below and it definitely paid off on this flight. Just after takeoff, we flew over the Rio Grande River that is located inside of a canyon, and it was certainly a sight to see.
This flight progressed identically to the other, climbed up to cruising altitude which this time happened to be 28,000 Feet and the snack and beverage service began. For this flight, I decided to try out the snack selection and it didn’t disappoint.
Despite not knowing of either snack brand before the flight, it was an interesting choice of snack but they were certainly both tasty. By this time it was becoming late in the afternoon and the sun was now in front of our aircraft, I could clearly see the reflection of the aircraft on the jet, another plus of having a high wing aircraft.
I tried to talk to passengers on this flight as well, but nobody really felt like talking and most of the passengers slept for this flight. I kept myself busy by taking pictures out of the window, and the views didn’t disappoint.
As we got closer to our final destination we began to descend and in addition, a layer of smoke and haze began to fill the skies over southern California. We also passed the Salton Sea, which is located just north of Imperial, California, the place where I flew Mokulele Airlines just over a year before.
About 20-minutes outside of Carlsbad, the mountains, and hills slowly started coming into view as well as greener terrain.
Carlsbad Airport has an interesting history. Taos Air is the first airline to successfully serve the airport since United Express left in 2015 due to the retirement of their Embraer E120 aircraft. The airport has had several unsuccessful attempts made by Caljet by Elite and most famously California Pacific Airlines, but the detailed history of the airport can be seen HERE.
The approach was a lot less windy going into Carlsbad, and we proceeded to land at 6:01 P.M. local time, five minutes ahead of schedule, and had a total flight time for this leg of 1-hour and 50-minutes. The two flights on Taos Air were super fun and definitely make for a unique connection to any AvGeeks that are up to the task, in addition to the unique connection you’ll also get to ride on the Dornier328Jet, a dying breed in the United States for commercial airline service.
You can also do the unique Taos Air connection in the opposite direction as the flight times do work out. You can also make a connection in Taos, N.M. between Dallas Love Field and Hawthorne, Calif. in both directions. Hawthorne is located 4-miles southeast of LAX, so instead of going to the congested larger airport you can save a lot of time, and have more fun doing so.
Time for some math; from the time I arrived at the FBO in Austin until we landed in Carlsbad it was 5-hours and 45-minutes total including the connection in Taos. Flights from Austin to San Diego International Airport are scheduled at 3-hours and 10-minutes, and add in 2-hours for TSA in Austin and another hour to drive from the airport located in downtown San Diego to Carlsbad and that’s another hour, which leaves you at 6-hours and 10-minutes which is already more and still doesn’t including time to get your car. So depending on where in Southern California you are going or coming from, not only is this the more fun and unique option, but it just may be the fastest option as well. Plus, it’s on a DornierJet which is a super fun plane to fly on.
By no means is this service Emirates first class, but it is comparable if not better than short-haul domestic first-class flying within the United States. Plus Taos Air was definitely a fun and enjoyable experience for me and will make a great experience for any AvGeek that wants to make the trip and extra effort to fly on a unique aircraft and see a place they’ve never been to.
A video of the experience can be found below