Resilience on display at Salt Lake City confab

 - June 3, 2009, 7:27 AM

Although heartened by the turnout at last month’s Regional Airline Association Convention, held May 18 to 21 at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City, the RAA could do nothing to lift the pall that the NTSB hearings on the February 12 crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 and the generally gloomy economic environment would cast over the annual event. Indeed, far weightier concerns than exhibitor numbers and buyer attendance preoccupied the RAA and its airline members during marathon board and president’s council meetings, both of which lasted all day and well into the evening of May 19.

The fallout from the crash turned meetings where general housekeeping items would have normally dominated the morning agendas into far more focused affairs, where nearly all of the association’s 32 member airlines gathered to start formulating a strategy for confronting an inevitable grilling from Congress during hearings scheduled for this month.   

Still, RAA president Roger Cohen refused to characterize the mood in the daylong sessions as fearful or gloomy.

“I’d call it a heartfelt commitment to doing the right thing,” said Cohen, when asked to gauge the tenor of the closed-door talks.

Not at liberty to discuss the intimate details, however, Cohen would go only as far as to list the topics examined: training, fatigue, commuting and crew lifestyle issues, cockpit professionalism and pilot pay scales.

Asked whether the self-assessment led to any conclusion that the regional airline industry must examine whether or not a systemic problem might lie within its boundaries, Cohen issued an unequivocal rejoinder. “Whatever issues that are addressed are totally industry-wide issues,” he said. “So the answer is no. There’s nothing systemic in the regional industry… [The regional sector expanding to] 51.1 percent of the departures happened in a very short period of time, and it happened so successfully that, to the American public, it’s been invisible to them. That was the intention. It worked. And so it is one industry, and there is no more regional sector.
If you go in the [meeting] rooms and just look at the badges, I’d be willing to guess that at least a third of airline attendees are from mainline carriers.”

Cohen also flatly rejected the notion that because lower-paid regional airline pilots find it necessary to commute long distances to their domiciles, they suffer from more fatigue than their mainline counterparts. “I grew up at the original long-haul mainline airline, TWA, and there were pilots flying out of New York that were living in Hawaii,” he said. “The world’s most famous heroic American pilot, Sully Sullenberger, commutes from San Francisco to Charlotte, North Carolina.”

Cohen didn’t ignore suggestions for improvement, however, and hinted that automation and technology advancements might have led to airline employees’ “not keeping our heads in the game at all times.

“The advanced technology of our airplanes and systems has evolved to such a high point, become so sophisticated and incredibly reliable that perhaps everyone– from flight crews to line managers to the CEOs themselves–have become too reliant on them,” he said. “We need to consider the psychological factors: Why do highly trained professionals fail to follow their training and experience when faced with unusual situations?”

Of course, the health of the industry–and the commendable safety record it has registered despite catastrophes such as the Colgan crash–depends on the technological advances on display in Salt Lake City. So when one of the industry’s highest-profile companies–Brazil’s Embraer–failed to exhibit, the snub didn’t go unnoticed.

“I promise we’re going to remember who was here with us this year, and go the extra mile for you and your companies,” said Cohen in his opening remarks during the May 20 general session. “For the first time in history, regional airlines provide the majority of U.S. flights–more than the majors and low-cost carriers combined. So if you’re here, you’re selling to the bigger half, and we’ll remember who was in line first.”

Japan’s Mitsubishi, for one, stood front and center as it displayed a partial mockup of the cabin of its new MRJ for the first time in the U.S. That program, whose engineers finished preliminary design review in late April, remains on schedule for completion of critical design review by the end of this year and first flight of the 86- to 96-seat MRJ90 two years later. Development of the 70- to 80-seat MRJ70 lags behind its larger sibling by roughly a year. Launch customer ANA expects delivery of the first of 25 MRJ90s in 2013.

Mitsubishi Aircraft executive vice president Junichi Miyakawa reported that engineers have frozen the design of the outer mold line and decided on the sizing of the major structural elements. Powered by Pratt & Whitney’s new PW1000G geared turbofan, the airplane consists of some 30 percent composites by weight.

Meanwhile, a sizeable contingent from Superjet International and Sukhoi made the trip to Salt Lake from points as far afield as Venice, Italy, and Moscow, where both Superjet 100 prototypes fly in a certification program scheduled to welcome its third of four planned test articles “before or during the Paris Air Show,” according to Superjet International CEO Alessandro Franzoni. Projecting a global footprint that now extends to a new sales office in Washington, D.C., manned by former ATR executive John Buckley, the project continues to gather credibility in Western markets.

Making his first appearance at an RAA since leaving ATR for a fresh start at Superjet, Buckley expressed confidence that the program would attract a U.S. customer once it proves its mettle with the likes of Aeroflot, holder of an order for 30 airplanes and a candidate for a likely follow-up order for another 15.

Franzoni said that the company has turned its attention away from a smaller version of the 95-seat jet and that a more likely course now appears to involve a stretched variant that could hold as many as 120 passengers. “We think we can add at least 20 percent more seats and present a valid proposition for our customer base,” said Franzoni, who stressed the importance of maintaining commonality with the same Powerjet SaM146 turbofans that power the 95-seater.

For the time being, however, getting the first Superjet 100 ready for delivery to first operator Armavia by the end of this year and establishing a global support network have kept Franzoni and Buckley plenty busy. Some 20 support facilities involving “seven or eight” companies have already joined the program, and Franzoni said he expects support coverage to expand significantly this year. As things stand now, Italy’s Itali Airlines will serve as the Western launch customer when it takes first delivery in next year’s second half.

The program’s two prototypes have logged more than 500 flight hours during 160 test missions. Engineers completed flutter testing in just 15 flights instead of an originally planned 25, while icing trials required five flights rather than 18, said Franzoni. The prototypes have reached an altitude of 40,000 feet and a maximum speed of Mach 0.88, he added; the published maximum cruise speed is Mach 0.81.
The other big regional jet in the midst of flight testing–the Bombardier CRJ1000– has reached the halfway point in its certification regime, according to Bombardier vice president of commercial operations Rod Williams, who reported from Salt Lake City that the second CRJ1000 will join the test program in Wichita imminently. Bombardier also announced the first delivery of the first NextGen Q400 turboprop–featuring larger overhead bins, new ceiling panels, LED lighting and redesigned sidewalls–to Wideroe Flyveselskap of Norway.

Bombardier’s last Western competitor in the turboprop market, Franco-Italian ATR, continues to find difficulties selling in North America, but ATR vice president John Moore insisted the company would see more activity in the U.S., particularly as operators finally tire of losing money with 50-seat jets on short routes.

ATR has begun offering a forward passenger door as an option in both the -500 and the upcoming -600 series specifically to answer demand from U.S. operators for jetway access. The ATR 72-600, scheduled to fly this month, will come to market in the second half of next year, said Moore, who added that the company has begun offering a “true” first-class cabin in its airplanes, with a three-abreast seating configuration. “Personally, I still question [the wisdom] of taking out seats that generate revenue, but the airlines that are doing it [with their regional jets] are convinced it’s a revenue contributor. So who am I to argue with the experts?”

Exhibiting a remarkable resilience during a time of slashed travel and promotional budgets, this year’s RAA event attracted more exhibitors than last year’s record-setter in Indianapolis, thanks largely to some 70 first-timers, according to the association. It also attracted some 1,400 attendees–close to another record. However, approximately 30 companies that exhibited last year chose not to do so this year. Citing his company’s decision to cut 20 percent of its workforce, Embraer vice president of marketing and sales for the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean Bruce Peddle said his company simply couldn’t justify the cost of exhibiting this year.