Regional JETS!!!!!

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Airlines big on smaller planes

Sunday, April 20, 2003

At a time when red ink has forced airlines to make massive cutbacks, passengers in Little Rock are seeing changes of a smaller sort.

As in smaller airplanes.

The use of regional jets, already on the rise before Sept. 11, 2001, has taken off at Little Rock National Airport, Adams Field, and other locations across the country. Major airlines have been handing a growing number of flights to their regional partners during the past year and a half.

The regional jets used in Little Rock range from 37 to 70 seats. They are cheaper to operate than bigger planes, largely because of lower labor costs. Small jets also burn less fuel and their size makes them easier to fill.

Experts say passengers prefer regional jets to the turboprops long used on some routes, citing comfort, less noise and a perception of greater safety.

Philip Launius, spokesman for the Little Rock airport, credits regional jets with enabling local service to remain fairly steady. He said Little Rock is lucky to have lost only 14 flights a day, on Mondays through Fridays, since May 2001. That counts arrivals and departures as separate flights.

Airlines have kept jet service and a high frequency of flights in Little Rock because of the smaller jets, he said. That’s a significant combination, Launius said, since airlines now take "hard looks at every market every day."

The increase in regional jets at Little Rock has been dramatic since Comair, a Delta Connection carrier, began offering three regional jet flights to and from Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1997. Little Rock now has 54 regional flights each day, Mondays through Fridays, including both arrivals and departures. That’s out of 134 total flights.

The smaller jets are replacing larger "mainline" aircraft for carriers such as American Airlines and Delta Air Lines that seat more than 100 people. They’re also replacing turboprops for some destinations.

The airline industry, which has recorded billions of dollars in losses the past two years, cites fears of terrorism, a weak economy and the war in Iraq as reasons air travel remains below numbers before Sept. 11, 2001.

Paul Nisbet, an aerospace analyst with JSA Research Inc. in Rhode Island, said the move toward smaller jets is a matter of business. "The business models of the [traditional] airlines have proven to be unworkable," he said. "And that is changing things." Of course, some people still prefer the larger, more spacious planes. There also are limits on regional jet usage because of agreements between pilots and the airlines. But John Mazor, spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, International, said the clauses have been liberalized some during recent concessions to airlines.

A DECADE AND COUNTING Regional jets typically are flown under familiar brand names by operators that either are subsidiaries of large airlines or have agreements with them.

From Little Rock, for example, Delta Connection has flights to and from Atlanta, Cincinnati and Dallas/Fort Worth that are operated by a combination of Atlantic Southeast Airlines and Comair, both subsidiaries of Delta, as well as SkyWest Airlines.

And starting July 1, Chautauqua Airlines is beginning a Delta Connection flight to and from Dallas/Fort Worth as Atlantic Southeast ends a turboprop flight to and from that market. That will bring the number of regional jet flights in Little Rock to 56.

Other regional jet carriers in Little Rock are American Eagle, which serves Dallas/Fort Worth; Northwest Airlink, which goes to and from Detroit; US Airways Express, which flies to and from Charlotte, N. C.; and Continental Express, which has service to and from Houston.

Launius said there has been an upturn in the number of regional jet flights at the airport since Sept. 11, 2001. He said passengers like the jets because they go as "high, fast and far" as larger models.

The Regional Air Service Initiative, a consortium of regional aircraft manufacturers and suppliers, says smaller jets were in the works for decades but that the "regional jet era" began in the early 1990s with 50-seat Canadair models. The Lufthansa Cityline began flying the jets in Europe in 1992, while Comair started using them in the United States in 1993.

An important moment for Canadair came in 2000, the Regional Air Service Initiative says, when Comair and Atlantic Southeast Airlines placed an order and options package of 500 regional jets.

Embraer of Brazil grew in the 1990s as well, with orders from American Eagle, Continental Express and others.

Bombardier of Canada, which acquired Canadair, and Embraer, dominate the market for regional jets. Both receive substantial subsidies from their respective governments, Nisbet said.

He predicted that the popularity of smaller planes that offer more convenient service will remain once the economy improves.

Darryl Jenkins, director of the Aviation Institute at George Washington University, said the jets make more sense in downtimes than larger planes. He said regional jets have a good business model with less risk and better fares than large planes on some routes. "It’s easier to fill that small plane and make money on it," he said. "It’s actually a very good option." Jenkins also said regional jets have higher operating costs but better passenger revenue than turboprops. One source of more revenue is that an additional passenger or two per flight will board a regional jet who wouldn’t take a turboprop, he said.

JET PREFERENCE Regional jets are particularly important at Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport at Highfill, southwest of Bentonville, which opened in 1998. Kelly Johnson, director of the airport, said regional jets will account for more than 70 percent of flights after scheduling changes in coming months. She said passengers like the airplanes and the number of flights offered with them. They’re also more convenient for people to get on and off of because of their size, she said. "It’s a great point-to-point piece of equipment," Johnson said.

At the Fort Smith Regional Airport, three regional jet flights to and from Dallas/Fort Worth replaced turboprops in October 2000, said Bob Johnson, the airport manager.

But Johnson said American Eagle went back to turboprops in Fort Smith after Sept. 11, 2001, as the airline shifted its regional jets to larger cities.

Then, earlier this year, Northwest Airlink began two flights to and from Memphis using regional jets.

Personally, Johnson said he likes flying on either type of plane, and that both are safe. But he agreed that people often prefer jets.

Some people at the Little Rock airport last week said as much. Steve Hendrich said he’ll get on a smaller plane, "just as long as it’s a jet."

He said he avoids noisy turboprops whenever he can.

Derek Myers, a student in Houston who flew into Little Rock last week, said he doesn’t like turboprops, but that he "didn’t mind" flying in on a regional jet from Continental Express. Still, he said a larger plane with more room would be nice on longer flights.

Southwest Airlines is the only carrier serving Little Rock with no regional jets. That’s consistent with the airline’s philosophy of using only variations of the Boeing 737 that have from 122 to 137 seats. "It boils down to one point, and that’s simplicity," said Christine Turneabe-Connelly, a spokesman for Southwest, which alone among the major airlines has remained profitable.

She said using the Boeing 737 is part of the company’s mission to keep costs down, to keep its fares low.

Southwest only has to train personnel and keep parts for one type of aircraft.

When asked if it’s hard to fill big planes and retain high flight frequency given the current market, Turneabe-Connelly answered quickly. "Not when you offer fares like ours," she said.

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