By Joey Gerardi
Unique Connection Series Trip Report: Watertown, South Dakota
If you have read my articles in the past, you know I love out-of-the-way airports, airlines, and aircraft. This will be the second trip report in my “Unique Connection Series”, the first of which can be found here.
For this Unique Connection, I will be starting in Chicago and flying to Denver using a connection in the Essential Air Service, or EAS, city of Watertown, S.D. with Denver Air Connection. The airline is most well-known for operating the only passenger flight in the United States on a Fairchild Metroliner to Alliance. All of Denver Air Connection, or DAC, flights are operated by and are also a subsidy of Key Lime Air, an Englewood, Colo.
At the time this trip was taken, SkyWest under the United Express brand operated flights to Watertown, S.D. SkyWest lost the EAS contract in both Watertown and Pierre and fought to keep it, but the subsidy they asked to operate the EAS flights in these communities was twice that of DAC, so the Department of Transportation chose the DAC to operate the flights. United/SkyWest ended service to Watertown and also Pierre at the beginning of January 2022.
The morning of the flight, I arrived on an American Eagle flight from the northeast so I was already in the secure area of the airport, and passengers don’t need to leave if you are connecting from another flight, but because I wanted to get a paper boarding pass, I did leave the secure area. Unlike the last time I flew DAC back in the summer 2020, the airline now offers a mobile boarding pass option that can be obtained from their website when you check-in online, I screenshotted the boarding passes and saved them to the camera roll of my phone
The DAC ticket counter was at the east end of Terminal 3. I would like to point out that the scene is inaccurate, as neither Boutique Air nor Air Choice One operates flights to Chicago anymore, leaving just DAC and Cape Air at the east end of the check-in area.
They handed me paper boarding passes and pointed me towards TSA, but the closest checkpoint didn’t offer a PreCheck lane so I headed to the nearest one that did: Checkpoint 8.
I knew where I was headed, to gate L11A, but those that aren’t familiar with the airline might have a little trouble finding them if they don’t know where to look. Flight information for DAC, as well as Cape Air and Spirit, are only found on the white display monitors in the terminal.
Cape Air and DAC also share a single departure board monitor at the gate, so only the flight that is closest to the current time shows up which can be a little confusing. But as long as you are at gate L11A you are in the right place.
The flight was running a little late due to weather around the area, but this aircraft will take you all the way to Denver so there is no risk of missing your connection in Watertown.
The smaller aircraft of Cape Air, park right next to the terminal, and passengers can walk right out to the plane. But DAC operates an Embraer E145 on flights to Chicago so it won’t fit directly next to the terminal. The aircraft instead parks at Terminal 5 — or T5 for short — and passengers are put on a bus out to the plane.
DAC doesn’t have seat assignments, and the seating on the aircraft is first come, first serve unless the crew says otherwise. So if you want to get your pick of the seats, make sure to be near the door of the bus or you could be stuck without a window seat.
I took a seat in 15A, a window/aisle combo as the aircraft is configured in a 1-2 layout. There were only four total passengers on this flight, but like I said before that was due to the fact that United/SkyWest was operating the exact same flight at almost the exact same time. Coincidentally, United canceled their Chicago to Watertown flight the day I took this trip, so the four of us ended up being the only passengers going to Watertown from the Midwest that day.
I reached out to the airline to see how the service is doing now that United/SkyWest has left Watertown. Flights are averaging around 50% capacity on the routes to/from Watertown, which is good considering this is a low travel month and positive Covid-19 cases have gone up again. That 50% average for DAC is also really solid considering United was flying the route at an average load factor of 40.5% in January of 2020, according to aviationDB, before the pandemic even began in the U.S.
We then got into the long line of aircraft waiting to depart, and not long after we blasted off the runway westbound approximately one-hour behind schedule.
Even before we reached our cruising altitude of 36,000 feet, the flight attendant came around with the baskets of food and snacks, and yes, baskets plural. DAC offers one of the very best snacks and drinks options in the sky for economy passengers and rivals that of the larger carriers like JetBlue. One basket was full of brand-name snacks like Fridays potato chips and Jack Links beef steak sticks and another basket featured full-sized candy-like Skittles and Snickers.
Due to the emptiness of my particular flight, I opted to walk around the cabin to get some pictures to find the best seats.
The cabin was pristine and clean, with the DAC logo embroidered on the headrest cover. If you are looking for an engine view, absolutely sit in the very back row of the aircraft, while it is a bit noisier than the front of the cabin the engine views are worth it. But those pictures will come later as I sat in that seat for the second leg. At this point, I decided to take a short nap before we began descending into Watertown, S.D. and when I woke up roughly 30 minutes later, I could see the farms of South Dakota below us.
The flight attendant came around one last time for this flight and took any garbage and candy wrappers we had created during this flight. Flaps came down and soon after I could hear the main landing gear locking into place. Just before landing, we flew over the southern end of the city of Watertown.
After landing we taxied to the small terminal and saw a United CRJ-200 that was getting ready to depart to Denver. It was truly a unique sight to see two airlines at an airport of that size, of which that sight disappeared at the beginning of Jan. 2022
We had arrived an hour late into Watertown due to the weather in Chicago, but originally the connection/layover time here was one hour 45 minutes. So now with the delay, the connection was only 45 minutes, but the good news was that we were back on schedule for the flight to Denver.
After stepping off the aircraft and tripping over a cone on the ramp, I and the other three passengers were ushered inside to the non-secure area, and I re-checked myself in for the flight onto Denver. I did have my mobile boarding pass for the second flight, but I still wanted to get a printed copy of it for my collection and they were unable to print the second segment while I was in Chicago.
One thing I’ve noticed from the Denver Air Connection desks is that they are all so unique. Unlike at larger airlines where everywhere you go the check-in desk looks exactly the same, every DAC counter has its own unique look to it. Some have beautiful wood facades like here in Watertown and in Alliance. Denver has a very unique 3D sign behind the counter with mountains in it. It definitely stood out from United’s metal podium next to it.
As I had a little bit of time to spare, I headed out to the front of the airport to see the entrance. The smaller EAS airports usually try to have their own unique look or sign, this airport had a bench with the words ‘Fly ATY’ on it, and ATY is this airport’s code. This was the 34th EAS Airport I have visited.
I then headed back inside, they had passengers wait in a pre-security waiting area but it wasn’t for long as they began to send people through security. Although there was no separate security line for TSA-PreCheck, they did offer it.
The waiting area post-security looked virtually the same and featured roughly the same number of seats and benches.
Not more than five minutes after going through security, they came and I and the other six-passenger for this flight, making the total number of passengers seven for this leg onto Denver.
For this flight, I chose a window seat in the very back of the aircraft, 18C, in order to get some engine views, and the way the aircraft is set up, I was also able to get the wing in the photo as well.
From here everything progressed as a normal flight, engine start-up a short taxi out to the runway, and we blasted off for our flight to Denver.
Same as the last flight, about 20 minutes after departure, the flight attendant came around with the snacks and drinks. On DAC flights, in addition to the amazing snack and candy options, they also offer juice, soft drinks, water, and even full-sized Gatorade. I chose Ritz, a Twix bar and Gatorade.
Also, not long after taking off, the clear blue skies slowly began to turn into a dense cloud of smoke due to fires west of us, and the closer we got to Denver, the heavier the smoke layer became.
But before the smoke completely set in, I was able to see Alliance, Neb., below. This is the location that DAC fly’s their Metroliner to from Denver.
As we came closer to Denver, the smoke got thicker until I could barely see the horizon which was unfortunate. But despite the smoky skies, this trip was still amazing and very enjoyable.
Before long, we began our descent into Denver, and the flight attendant made the final round to collect garbage or anything else we’d like to get rid of. The approach into Denver was particularly bumpy that day, but the crew handled it wonderfully.
From the time we took off from Chicago until we landed in Denver, the time was roughly four hours. So it is definitely not the fastest way of getting between the cities, but with premium snack and drink selection on the Denver Air Connection flights, it may very well be the most unique and fun way of getting between the cities. As we pulled into the gate in Denver I noticed something, a large number of DAC aircraft on the ramp.
Denver Air Connection has rapidly grown in the past two years, more than doubling the number of destinations and routes they serve. Hopefully, with any luck, this soon won’t be the only Unique Connection that the airline offers. For the time being, this connection is only possible going westbound from Chicago to Denver as the timing of the flights isn’t possible going east from Denver through Watertown, S.D. unless you want to stay overnight in Watertown.
If you haven’t flown Denver Air Connection, give them a try if you have the chance, it is truly a unique way of getting between the Windy City and the Mile High City and is an adventure for any AvGeek. And while you are at Denver International, you might as well fly on their Fairchild Metroliner to Alliance, but that trip report can be found HERE.
For a video account of this Unique Connection in Watertown, check out the link below.