Continental sees future for turboprops

 - October 30, 2006, 11:32 AM

Apparently done pouring 50-seat jet capacity into a system overflowing with Embraer 145s, Continental Airlines continues to explore the possibility of adding more turboprops to its network, according to Continental managing director of scheduling and planning Karen Zachary.

Unfortunately, reality has a way of undermining good intentions. First, Continental must find a regional airline with the wherewithal both to finance airplanes and to fly them at its own risk (that is, under a pro-rate revenue-sharing arrangement); second, it must choose its markets carefully, given the backlash from communities that have grown accustomed to 50-seat jets.

SkyWest Airlines CEO Jerry Atkin told AIN that Continental earlier this year asked him to add Saab 2000 turboprops to his Houston-based turboprop fleet. Unwilling to do so, he ceded SkyWest’s Houston Continental Connection feeder service, to Colgan Air, which now flies 10 Saab 340Bs at the southeast Texas hub.

Expanding T-prop Routes

Cape Air CEO Dan Wolf also said Continental approached him to perform the service. Already flying three ATR 42s from Guam, he said he would prefer to use ATR 72s, however. “[The Saab 2000] would be a good replacement for some of our RJs,” Zachary conceded. “We’ve looked at those…We would probably keep [them] strictly in the Houston area, out of our Houston hub, and we would probably continue to beef up some markets that I think would still be acceptable to props.”

Aside from resistance to Saab 2000s from the likes of Cape Air and SkyWest, other barriers stand in the way of more willing airlines such as Colgan and CommutAir. For Colgan, this year’s addition of 10 Saab 340s proved no insignificant undertaking; through at least September the airline registered some of the industry’s worst on-time arrival rates as it struggled to overcome growing pains associated with the Houston project.

Although Continental attributed most of the problem to ground transportation issues at Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport’s Terminal A, an immediate move by Colgan into 50-seaters seems both inadvisable and improbable until it settles into a pattern of acceptable on-time performance.

Still, in the context of Continental’s larger struggles lately–it posted an on-time arrival rate of 79.5 percent in September– Colgan’s early woes wouldn’t have ordinarily rung alarm bells if not for some vocal members of communities that depend on its Saab 340 connections to Houston.

In Cleveland, meanwhile, CommutAir doesn’t even command the financing muscle to replace its 19-seat Beech 1900s with 30-seaters, as Continental would like it to do.

“We would prefer a 30-seater as opposed to a 19-seater [from CommutAir],” confirmed Zachary. “That’s totally up to them; our contract is for 19-seat airplanes; that’s what they have for us, so unless something changes on their side we don’t really have negotiating room to get larger airplanes with them.”

At Newark, airspace and facility constraints limit Continental’s available seat miles and frequencies, so Zachary said she didn’t see a lot of room to add turboprops, at least during the next two years. Longer-term plans could include the 78-seat Bombardier Q400.

With the rapid jump in fuel prices, the past two years have seen turboprop departures rise to more than 15 percent of Continental’s offering, compared with 13 percent in 2003. Although it appears this year won’t see much more expansion, Zachary seems far from dissatisfied with the results of the turboprop experiment.

“We’re very pleased with it,” she said, referring specifically to Colgan’s Saab 340s. “They’re a really great airplane for some of the really small markets that wouldn’t be able to operate with a regional jet.”