Feared trend now a reality

 - May 6, 2008, 6:51 AM

US Airways’ June 27 announcement that it would replace Boeing 737-300s with de Havilland Dash 8s on its Charlotte to Asheville, N.C., route not only illustrated the continuing plight of the nation’s sixth-largest airline, it reinforced a trend long feared by mainline pilot groups. For years major airlines recognized the potential of their regional affiliates to fly more efficiently between city pairs once considered the exclusive domain of mainline operations. But not until the traffic declines following September 11 forced major airlines to reevaluate their presence in marginal markets had regional airlines taken such an active role in replacing or supplementing mainline service.

The move by US Airways came after the market produced an average load factor of 33 percent. Starting September 8, three new round trips flown by Piedmont Airlines with 50-seat de Havilland Dash 8-300s will replace the four daily Boeing 737 flights. Piedmont already provided complementary service on the route with five daily flights using a mix of 37- and 50-seat Dash 8s.

The Regional Air Service Initiative, a Washington-area-based industry advocacy group established early last year with funding from major suppliers, tracks traffic trends among U.S. regional airlines as part of its mandate to promote the interests of regional airlines. The last time RASI published its summary of regional airline service changes, from the period starting January last year and ending this past January, the number of routes transferred from major to regional control totaled 111. Its latest study, covering the period from January last year to this May, shows that regional airlines assumed exclusive control of 51 more routes previously served at least partially by major airlines since the start of this year. US Airways Express carriers again proved the largest beneficiaries, as they took complete control of another 25 markets formerly served by US Airways. 

Another parameter illustrated the continuing trend away from turboprop service, as regional airlines shed prop-driven equipment from another 62 routes since January. The United Express carriers, which include Atlantic Coast, SkyWest, Air Wisconsin and Great Lakes Aviation, led the exodus as their turboprops disappeared completely from another 36 routes from January to May this year.