The U.S. airline industry last month felt the opening tremors of what could become the biggest shakeup in the business since the introduction of the regional jet. On August 15, US Airways announced a plan to fly 50- to 69-seat RJs within its mainline system, using mainline flight crews as part of a far-reaching reorganization effort.
Bombardier landed the first regional jet sale to a U.S. carrier this year when Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines subsidiary Atlantic Southeast Airlines converted options to firm orders on three 50-seat CRJ200s last month. The order, valued at some $68.7 million, brings to 237 the number of 50-seat CRJs ordered by ASA and fellow Delta subsidiary Comair, of which 191 have been delivered and another 46 remain on backlog.
As the air transport industry slowly recovers from a sagging global economy and persistent geopolitical unrest, regional airlines have recast themselves as agents
for change in a business often criticized for its inflexibility and lack of fiscal discipline.
The May 1 deadline for the Allied Pilots Association to convince the other employee groups to accept pay cuts to allow the transfer of American Eagle’s 25 Bombardier CRJ700s to the mainline has passed without an agreement. As a result, Eagle will continue to fly the 70-seat jets and likely begin exercising options for the final 25 allowed under its scope clause.
Under pressure to help their employer meet financing conditions set by regional jet lessor GECAS, the pilots of US Airways voted to ratify a new agreement that will allow the troubled airline to transfer delivery positions for Embraer 170s and Bombardier CRJs from wholly owned subsidiaries to independent US Airways Express carriers. Only 74.1 percent of the eligible active pilots cast ballots.
As more signs of air transport recovery rise out of a global economy still hampered by geopolitical unrest, regional airlines continue to parlay their cost and flexibility advantages into steady gains in traffic and profits, even while their mainline counterparts struggle to reverse the near disastrous effects of 9/11, the invasion of Iraq and the outbreak of SARS in the Far East.
Regional jet salesmen must have cringed at the recent negative press surrounding passenger complaints about the lack of room in RJ cabins. What with all the good news about profits and traffic growth, the traveling public’s recognition that comfort must often take a back seat to seat-mile costs tossed a sour note into the industry’s chorus of praise for the anointed saviors of small- and medium-sized communities.
What started as an annoyance three years ago appears to have turned into a legitimate threat to the essence of the Air Line Pilots Association’s long-held strategy for protecting mainline pilot interests.
The September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon set the stage for an upheaval in the U.S. airline industry unseen since the dawn of deregulation. But while virtually no one besides the enemies of America welcomed the negative economic effects, some airlines may very well emerge from the crisis in a stronger competitive position.
Delta Airlines’ Comair Jet Express, hoping to expand its global presence as an on-demand charter and aircraft management provider, has changed its name to Delta AirElite Business Jets.