Expert Flyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway
It’s been a rough few years for smaller cities when it comes to air service. For the most part, they’ve seen the number of flights cut with the flights that do remain being less frequent on smaller aircraft. Why is this happening? Here’s a look.
The 1990s looked like there would be a renaissance for small city travel. The introduction of the 50 seat regional jet meant that airlines could upgrade their older turboprop aircraft and offer faster jet flights to cities that couldn’t support them before. That turned out to be a short-lived win.
Throughout the 1990s, airlines ordered regional jets in droves and replaced entire fleets of turboprops. Travelers liked the jets because they could fly faster and could go above the weather. In Chicago, when American opted to go all jet in its regional fleet (partially out of necessity, but that’s a different story), United felt compelled to follow for fear of losing its passengers.
As the regional jets ramped up in the latter half of the decade, fuel prices fell to record lows. That combined with high demand led airlines to think they could thrive forever. They were clearly wrong.
The year 2000 saw the bursting of the DotCom bubble, and that more than anything began the downfall. As demand dropped, airlines realized that they couldn’t fill airplanes with high enough fares to stay profitable. The events of September 11, 2001 only made things worse for demand. Around 2004, fuel prices started to creep up.
There was a brief flash of hope around the middle of the first decade of the new millenium when ExpressJet decided to start a point-to-point model between smaller cities, emulating the Southwest-style of service with 50 seat jets. The timing couldn’t have been worse. As fuel spiked ever higher, this model using this type of aircraft was doomed to fail, and fail it did.
Flash forward to today and fuel prices have steadied at five or six times more per gallon than they were back in the 1990s. That created a completely different dynamic for the airline industry. Those hot rod 50 seat regional jets quickly became viewed as massive fuel hogs.
Airlines raced to get rid of 50 seaters as quickly as they could in favor of their new darlings, the larger 70 seat regional jets. These airplanes have a lower cost per seat than the 50 seaters, but they’re also too big to serve many smaller markets. That again put those smaller cities out in the cold.
Could the airlines go back to turboprops? They could, but there simply weren’t many options. The days of the 19 seat turboprops had come to an end long before when they were forced to operate under the same rules as the bigger jets. That brought their costs up to a point where they weren’t sustainable without government support (which we’ll talk about in my next installment).
The larger 30 to 40 seat jets still had a place, but there were very few being made anymore. The fleet size of these aircraft have been shrinking as the fleets have aged and an appropriate replacement was found.
The only part of the turboprop market that’s showing signs of life is the 60 to 75 seat market. Both Bombardier and its faster but more expensive Q400 along with ATR’s slower but more economical ATR72 have done well over the last decade as airlines have looked to find more economical ways to serve cities. But even this hasn’t worked out very well for small cities.
These airplanes have a large seat count and have only found limited success within the US market. The biggest success is in the Pacific Northwest where Horizon Air flies a large fleet under the Alaska Airlines brand. But these are again larger airplanes that aren’t meant for the smallest cities in the country.
What can be done to keep service to smaller cities? The government has a couple of programs in place, but they don’t really solve the problem but in some cases make it worse. We’ll talk about that next time.