In three years, RJs dominate scene

 - February 2, 2007, 7:05 AM

New airline industry statistics released last month by the office of DOT inspector general Kenneth Mead revealed that regional jets now account for one-quarter of all departures in the U.S. In absolute terms, RJ frequencies increased 140 percent (from 88,474 to 212,126 departures) since December 2000, when the small jets accounted for just 10 percent of all departures. Meanwhile, flights involving mainline jets declined 19 percent and turboprop movements dropped a staggering 41 percent.

That RJs have assumed a vital role in the nation’s air transportation system should come as no surprise; but the extent and speed with which they’ve taken responsibility for routes within mainline networks have surprised many observers. New service to destinations rendered economically feasible by regional jets has contributed to the sector’s growth as well, while major carriers continue to stagnate as they wait for the so-called economic recovery to translate into a need for more larger airplanes.

During the three-year span the IG report examined, overall capacity declined 11 percent, while regional airlines saw a 4-percent increase and low-fare carriers experienced a 6-percent jump. But while the nation’s hub airports benefited from the jump in regional jet traffic, non-hub and regional airports, particularly in the Northeast, suffered. Even though RJ traffic into those airports increased by 161 percent from December 2000, turboprop capacity–traditionally the lifeblood of the smallest airports–fell 30 percent, and large jet traffic dropped 36 percent. As a result, non-hub airports saw a 17-percent drop in total service over the past five years. Airline schedules for last month show a 19-percent decline in air service at non-hub airports compared with January 1998, while big airports experienced a 1-percent increase in ASMs.

The IG traffic report came just two weeks after the Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported that regional airlines enjoyed the highest domestic operating margins of any carrier group, including the low-fares segment, during last year’s third quarter.

The group of seven regional carriers–Air Wisconsin, Comair, Skywest, Atlantic Coast, ExpressJet, American Eagle and Atlantic Southeast Airlines–reported a domestic operating profit of 15.4 percent for the third quarter, well above the margin of 11.2 percent reported by seven selected low-cost air carriers and the 1.6-percent loss reported by the seven largest network carriers. While JetBlue reported the top operating profit margins in the industry, Atlantic Coast Airlines and Air Wisconsin followed close behind in second and third, respectively.

Although the regional carriers reported the lowest total domestic revenue of the three groups, they showed the highest unit revenues– 15.2 cents per available seat mile–due mainly to their relatively short stage lengths. And while they also reported the highest unit costs–12.8 cents per available seat mile–their combined yields of 24.2 cents per revenue passenger mile were more than twice those of the network and low-cost carriers.