Regionals take their ‘seat at the table’ in Nashville

 - May 31, 2011, 6:10 AM

                  For the first time in the 36-year history of the RAA a sitting DOT Secretary visited the association’s annual convention, as Ray LaHood made the trip to Nashville last month to deliver one of the most upbeat keynote addresses heard by delegates to the spring get-together in several years.

Indeed, at this convention, held May 16 to 19, it seemed the regional airline industry could turn the proverbial page in a chapter of its history indelibly stained by the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in February 2009. Since then, every airline member of the RAA has adopted the voluntary safety programs known as ASAP (Aviation Safety Action Program) and 98 percent now use FOQA (Flight Operational Quality Assurance). People can debate whether or not the industry has gotten safer as a result, but there seems no doubt that a group that once seemed to exhibit a “tin ear” to public perception now shows a keen sensitivity to it.

                  At least it appears that the RAA and this Administration now read from the same page when it comes to delivering a safety message to the traveling public. In fact, since NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman declared regionals members of the “big leagues” at last year’s convention in Milwaukee, the RAA apparently enjoys an even more prominent position among the transportation industry’s most influential voices.

                  “My message is simple,” said LaHood at the opening of his keynote address. “As long as I’m Secretary of Transportation you’ll have a seat at the table when we make aviation policy.”

                  Rather than scold regionals for a lax safety culture, LaHood proceeded to praise the association’s 30 airline members for their contributions.

                  “The success of the aviation industry hinges on the confidence of the American people that they will fly from one origin to their destination as safety as possible,” said LaHood. “Thousands of people got up today, went to an airport, got on a regional jet, got to their destinations safely, and didn’t think that much about the safety, because all of us are thinking about it–all of you are thinking about it… We have the safest form of transportation right here in the United States, thanks to all of you and thanks to the dedicated people that work for you.”

                  LaHood also praised the RAA for its help with the new Supplemental NPRM issued last month addressing crew training. The SNPRM, published May 11, attempts to answer concerns that the original NPRM, issued in January 2009, understated the rule’s economic effects on air carriers conducting training under voluntary, FAA-approved alternative programs, such as the Advanced Qualification Program (AQP), and underestimated the number of flight simulator periods required to meet flight crew member training and evaluation requirements.

                  “After initially proposing it in January 2009, we sought input from many of you–from the industry–and we’ve made major changes based on what we’ve heard,” said LaHood.  “RAA is a leader, RAA has stepped up, and we look forward to working with you on similar efforts.”

                   Notwithstanding the generous accolades he showered on the delegates, LaHood stressed a need for “heavy lifting” to continue as experts predict air travel to grow by 50 percent during the next decade. He cited Republic Airways CEO Bryan Bedford’s service to the Future of Aviation Advisory Committee, which, he added, supplied 23 consensus recommendations. Although LaHood didn’t elaborate on the substance, he promised the audience it would “hear more in the months ahead.”

                  Perhaps LaHood got more specific during his meeting with the RAA board, during which he spoke about implementation of the so-called NextGen future navigation system and “committed” to helping the airlines prepare for it in their airplanes. “We’ve been testing ADS-B capability in airspace around the country and we’re seeing consistently improved taxi times,” said LaHood.

Manufacturers Weigh In

                  While LaHood and the board discussed some of the weighty policy issues of the day, representatives from the industry’s manufacturers issued some varying interpretations of the trends they undoubtedly hope bode well for their respective products. ATR, for one, promotes its line of turboprops as a flying hedge against rising fuel prices. Preparing for the imminent certification of the new 600 series, the company now considers North America a growth market for its products, particularly given the view that hundreds of 50-seat regional jets appear headed for retirement or to service in developing regions of the world.

                  “In the U.S., three quarters of these short-haul routes (less than 300 nm) are still operated by smaller regional jets,” noted ATR head of sales John Moore, who presented statistics showing that U.S. regionals have pulled from service more than 170 RJs since 2007 and a forecast predicting the removal of 700 more through 2015.

                  The ATR, he asserted, burns considerably less fuel than its main competitor, the Bombardier Q400, making the Franco-Italian turboprop even more attractive at a time of $130-a-barrel jet fuel prices. “We’ll get a customer in the U.S.; I’m not concerned about that,” said Moore. “Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. There’s absolutely no reason we wouldn’t have some success here.”

                  ATR no longer considers 2011 a pivotal year for launching a new 90-seat turboprop, however, said Moore, despite the engine makers’ apparent determination to introduce a new powerplant by 2015 or 2016.

                  In Nashville, P&WC v-p of marketing Richard Dussault made a case for the NGRT, or next generation regional turboprop, the first raw materials for which have begun to arrive at the company’s Longueuil, Quebec plant. Dussault reported that the company would initially test the parts individually this summer as part of a schedule that calls for running of the compressor system by the end of this year or early next year and first flight aboard the company’s Boeing 747 test bed in 2014.

                  GE’s offering would involve a variant of its new GE38 turboshaft, dubbed the CPX38. GE general manager for regional and large business aviation engine programs Chuck Nugent said the company sees a strong interest in turboprops worldwide from both airlines and airframe makers. “We’re continuing to develop the GE38, which is allowing us to continue down a technology and capability development [path]; we’re also continuing to spend a lot of early engineering work on the integration of the propeller systems and nacelle to develop an integrated solution that brings more capability.”     

                   While Canada’s Bombardier also continues to weigh the potential for a larger turboprop, its immediate attention has turned to a new cabin layout for the existing Q400 to allow for a business-class section, typically seating seven in a two-by-one configuration. The new product will appear with an unnamed customer by the end of the summer, according to Bombardier Commercial Aircraft senior vice president Eric Martel.  

                  Bombardier also announced its intention to get the C Series narrowbody jet certified by the Chinese civil aviation authority almost concurrently with FAA, EASA and Transport Canada approvals. Industrial progress continues at a brisk pace, said Martel, who reported that the company has begun installing four semi-automated jigs at its Belfast plant for assembly of the airplane’s composite wings. Finally, Bombardier reported that its new CRJ1000 regional jet, in service with Brit Air and Air Nostrum since late last year, has registered 4-percent better fuel burn performance than originally advertised, along with 6 percent more range and a 99.9 percent completion rate.

                  Meanwhile, the CRJ1000’s rival from Russia, the Sukhoi Superjet, has registered an equally auspicious start to operations with Armenia’s national carrier, Armavia. The first production SSJ100-95 began scheduled service on April 21, only two days after delivery by Sukhoi, said Superjet International deputy senior v-p of sales Svetlana Issaeva during a May 17 press conference in Nashville. Scheduled to receive EASA certification in October, the Superjet was due for imminent delivery to Aeroflot late last month and entry into service on June 16. Sukhoi plans to build 14 airplanes this year, 10 of which would go to Aeroflot, two to Armavia and another two to Russian carrier Yakutia Airlines via Russia’s Finance Leasing Company.

                  Finally, fellow RJ builders Embraer and Mitsubishi Aircraft made the trip to Nashville to promote their respective regional jet lines. Perhaps most notably, Embraer executive vice president for the airline market Paulo Cesar de Souza e Silva talked about his company’s preference to enter the 130- to 150-seat market rather than re-engine the existing E-Jets, while Mitsubishi Aircraft marketing v-p Junichi Miyakawa sent his strongest signals yet that the MRJ line will eventually extend to 100 seats.

                   “If we want to expand the company, we definitely will have to move upwards,” Embraer’s Silva told AIN in an interview before the show. “By changing the E-Jets we’re not changing the size of this market…And we continue to have the view that the E-Jet is a modern product with up-to-date [systems].” 

                  Mitsubishi’s Miyakawa, who said he would visit Pratt & Whitney’s West Palm Beach, Fla., campus the week after the RAA Convention to see the first PW1217G for the MRJ90 running on its test stand, would tend to disagree with Silva’s assessment. Miyakawa’s data showed that the MRJ90, beginning to undergo assembly in Nagoya, Japan, will leave a 40-percent smaller noise footprint at takeoff, emit 20 percent less CO2 and burn at least 15 percent less fuel per seat compared with the E190.

                  In terms of building an airplane that can compete for business in the E190’s size category (100 seats), Miyakawa admitted to feeling “pressure,” particularly from European prospects, to move more quickly to launch the MRJ100X. “A famous guy [Air Lease Corp.’s Steven Udvar Hazy] also made some comment on it, and I welcome it,” said Miyakawa. “We are carefully examining when we are going to launch that project.” Miyakawa noted, however, that he awaits word from the company’s board and the MRJ’s various investors for launch approval. “I can say I will do my best to make it happen,” he said.