Comair cutbacks head Delta plan to cut domestic capacity 5 percent

 - February 8, 2008, 8:33 AM

Comair last month said it would ground 14 of its 50-seat Bombardier CRJs by the end of the year in step with a plan by parent company Delta Air Lines to cut its domestic capacity by 5 percent. The move will see the Cincinnati-based regional’s CRJ200 fleet shrink from 100 to 86 and its total complement of airplanes cut from 131 to 117. All told, Delta plans to slash flight hours among its Delta Connection affiliates by as much as 15 percent by early next year, a rate that translates into a total of 35 fifty-seat jets leaving the network within the next year or so.

Lease expirations will account for eight of the 14 CRJs marked for grounding at Comair and Delta will try to sell the remaining six. Comair has already dropped direct service to Baton Rouge from Cincinnati and cut frequencies to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Richmond by one flight each. Although Delta hasn’t released comprehensive plans for the rest of its Delta Connection partners, SkyWest Airlines, for one, has said it expects a 1- to 2-percent cut in system ASMs to result from a loss in business at Salt Lake City.

In fact, Delta plans to cut its total capacity at its Salt Lake City hub by 3 percent this year. Delta has already ended SkyWest’s nonstop service from Salt Lake City to Birmingham, Ala.; Sioux Falls, S.D.; Fayetteville, Ark.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Des Moines, Iowa. For its part, Delta mainline has ended service from the Utah capital to Milwaukee and has cut service frequencies to another 12 destinations served by either itself or SkyWest.

The cuts come as 50-seat regional jets turn even less efficient with rising fuel and maintenance costs, the U.S. economy continues to cool and Delta prepares to increase its more lucrative international service by 15 percent. They also coincide with Delta’s recent decision to defer an attempt to divest itself of Comair until it finishes a review of a possible merger with either United or Northwest Airlines.

Although Delta’s plans to contract its domestic network imply a disproportionate effect on regional jet service, already last year’s fourth quarter saw the elimination of Mesa Air Group’s de Havilland Dash 8-200 operation based at New York JFK Airport. That draw-down involved 12 airplanes, five of which Mesa returned to their lessors by the end of the year.

More disruption to Delta’s domestic network occurred just last month with the January 7 closure of Big Sky Airlines’ Eastern network. As a result, five cities in upstate New York and three others in Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri will have no scheduled air service until new Essential Air Service providers establish operations, a process that will likely take at least three months.