Regionals lead charge to industry recovery

 - July 11, 2008, 8:19 AM

For years major airline executives have recognized their regional affiliates’ potential to take a more active role in serving markets that until recently occupied the exclusive domain of mainline operations. But limited labor resources and influential pilot unions curbed efforts to penetrate the artificial barrier between mainline and regional flying. A robust economy helped maintain the status quo, sustaining traffic flow between marginally profitable destinations just enough to support the use of mainline crews in single-aisle airplanes.

Today, many of those aircraft in the seating category occupied by Boeing 727s and 737s sit idle in the Arizona desert, while their crews sit home on furlough. To the lament of mainline pilot groups throughout the country, the events of September 11 accelerated what many within the industry consider a natural and necessary outcome of a free market system. Emboldened by a newfound leverage over their employee groups during this lull in the economy, major airlines have recently exhibited less restraint in their mainline replacement tactics and, in some cases, a willingness to test the scope clause language in their pilot contracts, in essence challenging the unions to balk.

Seemingly random examples of mainline replacement and supplemental use of regional jets have occasionally surfaced ever since Bombardier introduced the first CRJ100 in 1992. But not until the precipitous declines in traffic following September 11 prompted 20-percent industrywide capacity cuts have regional airplanes played such a critical role in the air transportation mainstream.

Long sensitive to the political backlash such strategies engender from union leadership, airlines’ replacement of mainline airplanes with regional jets often goes intentionally unpublicized. As a result, building a trend analysis using data from individual carriers presents a challenge. Regional Air Service Initiative, a Washington, D.C.-based air service advocacy group established early last year by the RAA and industry suppliers, recently tackled the job, examining 1,500 U.S. routes flown by nine major airlines and their regional affiliates.

The study revealed that since September 11, regional airlines have modified their schedules at unprecedented rates, largely to assume the duties formerly performed by grounded single-aisle mainline jets. A year-over-year comparison of nonstop air service patterns clearly shows the ability of regional airlines to respond to rapidly changing industry conditions and to serve a wide variety of market segments.

Although a majority of regional routes received the same air service this past January as they received a year ago, 41.9 percent experienced major qualitative changes. Highlights of the analysis show the following:

• Regional carriers replaced all major carrier service in 108 markets. Nearly two-thirds of the total received some complementary (joint major and regional) service last year.

• Regional carriers introduced a total of 100 new routes in markets that had no nonstop service 12 months ago. Examples include Salt Lake City to El Paso, Texas (SkyWest), and Phoenix to Stockton, Calif. (Mesa Air Group). Seventy-seven of the 100 new routes gained new service from regional jets exclusively, while 20 saw new turboprop flights.

• Regional carriers introduced complementary (joint service with major carriers) schedules on nearly 90 individual routes served exclusively by major carriers a year ago. Examples include Detroit to Nashville (Express Airlines I) and Pittsburgh to Louisville, Ky. (Chautauqua Airlines and PSA).

• Regional carriers upgraded service from turboprop to either partial or full regional jet operations in 90 markets. Nevertheless, turboprops continue to serve 43.3 percent of all U.S. regional markets.

• Regional carriers ceased service in 128 markets (78 turboprop markets, 47 regional jet markets and three mixed service).