Passenger complaints over RJs don’t compute

 - October 4, 2007, 10:02 AM

Regional jet salesmen must have cringed at the recent negative press surrounding passenger complaints about the lack of room in RJ cabins. What with all the good news about profits and traffic growth, the traveling public’s recognition that comfort must often take a back seat to seat-mile costs tossed a sour note into the industry’s chorus of praise for the anointed saviors of small- and medium-sized communities.
But after 9/11, the domain of 50-seat regional jets began reaching well beyond the one-and-a-half-hour flights generally accepted as the boundaries of their comfort zone. Today, of course, they more often fly half-way across the country, on routes once reserved for full-size mainline jets–often to the irritation of frequent travelers accustomed to what they once considered a minimum standard of space.

A March 22 Knight Ridder article published in a number of local U.S. newspapers documented a frequent business traveler’s experience on a Continental Express Embraer ERJ-145 flight from Indianapolis to Houston. “Less than an hour into the flight, I’ve got my knees in somebody’s back. The guy’s trying to recline, but can’t and thinks the seat is broken,” said 26-year-old Nate Geurkink. “I mean, I can literally feel my knee in the guy’s back. There’s nothing in between except two aluminum rails, a little padding and some cloth.”

Airlines often rebut the criticism with claims that the RJs’ typical seat pitch of 31 inches equals or exceeds that of many mainline narrowbodies. Of course, they tend not to mention the narrow seats (roughly 17.5 inches) and the resulting lack of personal space, the narrow aisles, the lack of shoulder room at window seats and a generally claustrophobic atmosphere.

But as long as regional airlines continue to earn for their mainline partners, all of the griping won’t really matter–at least until customers gravitate to competitors that perhaps one day offer an alternative in the 50-seat class. Unfortunately for passengers, that day appears far off, as Embraer ERJs and Bombardier CRJs remain relatively young designs and no new competition has managed to crack the market.
Until recently, even the 70-seat class offered little relief despite Bombardier’s efforts to improve the CRJ cabin in the stretched version of the 50-seater known as the CRJ700. The new Embraer 170, however, features visibly more cabin space and overhead capacity than either of the 50-seaters on the market. Pittsburgh-based MidAtlantic Airways became the U.S. launch customer last month and Indianapolis-based Republic Airways plans to take its first example later this year. Still, as long as passengers continue to base their buying decisions on price, flight frequency and choice of destinations, why should airlines consider cabin comfort the top priority when their customers don’t?

Just ask Mesa Air Group, which experimented with business-class seats in its new Bombardier CRJ900s. Less than a year after taking delivery, it returned the airplanes to standard configuration. As always, ticket prices trump comfort, particularly as companies pare travel budgets in a sluggish economic environment. So passengers, complaining will get you nowhere, unless you let your wallets do the talking. That’s a language everyone understands.