Next CRJ700 operator sets sights on April service launch

 - July 11, 2008, 8:17 AM

Atlantic Southeast Airlines accepted its first Bombardier CRJ700 during ceremonies that marked not only the Atlanta-based airline’s baptism as a 70-seat jet operator but the delivery of the Canadian manufacturer’s 600th CRJ–a 40-seat version that entered revenue service with ASA on January 31. Although post-September 11 financing delays forced Delta Connection and ASA to postpone the event from December to late January, the Atlanta-based airline’s first CRJ700 will enter service on schedule, when it begins flying from Hartsfield International Airport to six eastern and midwestern cities on April 7.

Bombardier’s 600th CRJ increased the size of the ASA jet fleet to 68 airplanes, nine of which fly in a 40-seat configuration. This latest 40-seat jet began serving Augusta, Ga.; Columbus, Miss.; Evansville, Ind.; and White Plains, N.Y., from Atlanta, flying a single daily round trip between each city pair in place of a repositioned 50-seat CRJ200. ASA’s first CRJ700 will also replace a 50-seater, when on April 7 it begins rotating between Augusta; Huntsville, Ala.; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Toledo, Ohio; Sarasota, Fla.; and Tallahassee, Fla. On May 1 ASA plans to introduce a second 70-seat jet on routes from Atlanta to Daytona Beach, Fla.; Islip, N.Y.; and Mobile, Ala.

Flying with France’s Brit Air and North American launch customer Horizon Air for more than six months, the CRJ700 on January 31 began service from Dallas to Oklahoma City and Houston with its third operator, American Eagle, which at press time had taken two of the airplanes. Meanwhile, a third Eagle CRJ700 sat in a Bombardier hangar in Mirabel, Quebec, undergoing final preparations for delivery to American’s Dallas headquarters. Horizon has taken 11 of the 70-seat jets for its Seattle and Portland operations, where the airplanes replaced a number of Fokker F28s. The Alaska Airlines subsidiary also recently announced plans to fly CRJ700s from a new base in Denver starting April 28.

ASA, slated to take 30 out of the 57 CRJ700s on firm order by Delta, would not yet disclose route deployment plans for the 70-seaters after May 1, but senior vice president Bryan LeBrecque stressed that the airplane’s improved field performance will allow it to enter markets not readily accessible by the CRJ200. Designed with leading-edge devices and flaps, the CRJ700’s more sophisticated wings are also seven feet longer than those on the CRJ200, while more powerful GE CF34-8C1 turbofans result in a better rate of climb.

Inside the cabin, Bombardier raised the windows 4.8 in. and lowered the floor one inch, giving passengers a more comfortable view of the outside, while redesigned sidewalls and overhead compartments offer more shoulder space and headroom. Theoretically, the improvements could translate into less reluctance by airlines to stretch a trip beyond two hours in duration, but in practice the CRJ700’s mission profile differs little from that of the 50-seater, which features the same fuselage cross-section.

Of course, the airplanes will serve many markets now served by the 50-seat airplanes that call for more capacity during peak hours. Now a major contributor to Delta’s Dallas network, ASA has executed more hub-overflight strategies with service from DFW to such cities as Columbia and Charleston, S.C. and Savannah, Ga. Such uses should prove just as well if not better suited to the larger CRJ700.

Out of Atlanta, ASA has used its CRJs to replace Delta mainline service and adjust its own flight schedules to changing demand since September 11. Scope clauses throughout the industry limit the number of 70-seat airplanes precisely because of their ability to enroach effectively on traditionally mainline routes. Delta, whose scope clause limits its regional affiliates to 57 seventy-seat jets, has shown no qualms about “rationalizing” mainline overcapacity with its CRJ700s just as it has done with the 50-seaters.

Meanwhile, both 50- and 40-seat CRJs continue to replace Embraer Brasilias flying from Atlanta, so far upgrading service on 11 routes. The 40-seat jets have proven particularly useful in markets such as Atlanta to Monterrey, Mexico, and Atlanta to Ottawa, where load restrictions and long stage lengths encumber the performance of the baseline CRJs, preventing the airline from filling the airplanes. ASA has also assigned the 40-seat jets to so-called soft markets such as Peoria, Ill., and Amarillo, Texas.

Although the Delta scope clause places no numerical restrictions on 50-seat jets, Delta Connection agreed to allow Bombardier to remove 10 seats in some of the airplanes in return for deep price discounts. Even though the airplanes use the exact same fuselage and engines, and show no appreciable benefits in operating economics, Bombardier in effect entered the 40- to 44-seat market by lowering the price on a CRJ airframe enough to overcome the operating cost benefits of a smaller airplane. Under its contract, ASA may not replace the 10 extra seats unless it pays Bombardier roughly the difference in the amount it paid for its 50-seaters. The arrangement protects the value of the 50-seat CRJ200 while it gives Delta Connection carriers ASA and Comair the flexibility to move from a 40-seat jet to a 50-seater with relatively little investment.

In fact, ASA president Skip Barnette said ASA would at some point replace the 10 seats in at least some of the 40-seaters. If history bears any indication, the introduction of regional jets into what now constitute “soft” markets will stimulate more demand, perhaps creating a need for more capacity. If ASA finds itself short of 50-seaters, its ability to add seats to its 40-seat CRJs could prove invaluable.

According to LeBrecque, the 14 forty-seaters allocated to ASA will continue to replace “a lot” of 30-seat Embraer Brasilia turboprops, particularly in Atlanta. Although ASA had planned to extricate its Brasilia fleet from Atlanta completely by August, new opportunities that arose as a result of Delta Connection’s realignment forced the airline to retain most of the turboprops for short-range markets. As conditions stand today, many of those airplanes appear likely to remain in Atlanta into next year.

Still in possession of 43 of the Brazilian turboprops, ASA had originally planned to shed most of its 29 Atlanta-based turboprops by August, leaving the remaining 14 for short-haul service out of Dallas. The plan now calls for the retirement of just 10 by the end of the second quarter. Before Delta asked it to retain most of the Brasilias slated for retirement, ASA cut short a refurbishment program originally planned for 30 of the airplanes. Today, a number of the Brasilias remain unpainted, labeled only by orange and yellow striping and the ASA logo on the tail. If Delta decides to keep the Brasilias flying for an extended period of time, ASA will finish the refurbs,
including exterior paint jobs in Delta Connection livery, said Barnette. Regarding the airline’s fleet of 19 ATR 72s, Barnette said that a serious evaluation of their future with the airline will happen over the next 12 to 18 months. He stressed, however, that their ability to fly profitably in low-yield markets continues to make them viable contributors, and that the airline will likely fly at least some for another five years.