One of my favorite reporters is Joshua Freed of the Associated Press. Based in Minneapolis, he is one of the best when it comes to covering the airlines beat. He proved that yet again with a great story on how as major carriers slash their regional jet fleets, small cities are losing their air service. The version I linked to was from the Washington Post, but the story was picked up by media outlets across the country.
I was the editor of Commuter/Regional Airline News from September 1993 to June 2001. As such, I had a front-row seat to the launch and integration of regional jets into the global aviation system. Manufacturers including Canada’s Bombardier, Brazil’s Embraer and the U.S.-Germany builder Fairchild Dornier fought tooth and nail to sell 50- to 70-seat jets to regional carriers. Even Boeing tried to get into the game with the 717.
The major airlines used the small jets mainly to expand their route networks into new markets, according to a Government Accountability Office report (see chart, right). They also used them to replace larger aircraft or to upgrade existing turboprop aircraft routes. And most importantly, most large airlines had scope clauses with their pilot union groups that limited the number and size of jets that could be operated by their regional airline partners.
So between 1993, when Cincinnati-based Comair became the first regional carrier to start using the Canadair Regional Jet (at one point, being the largest RJ operator in the world) and 2000, there was a virtual feeding frenzy to buy RJs and add new routes. We saw service launched on city-pairs including: Chicago O’Hare-Columbus on American Eagle; Dallas Love Field to Cleveland on Continental Express; Denver to Fargo, N.D. on United Express; Washington Dulles to Nashville, on US Airways Express; and Phoenix to Monterey, Calif., by America West, to name a few.
But the regional jet craze started to slow down back in 2001 when the price of jet fuel began to rise. “They’re at $3.16 per gallon today, up from 78 cents in 2000. That’s changed the economics of small planes,” Freed writes. Back on July 22, I blogged about Delta’s announcement that it was cutting service to 24 small communities. At one point, the Atlanta-based carrier had the world’s largest RJ fleet. But between October 2008 and the end of 2012, it will shed 124 of the jets. And they’re not alone. United, Continental, US Airways and American Eagle continue to shed the small jets from their fleets too.
So it will be interesting to watch as 50-seat RJs continue to exit mainline and regional airline jet fleets. Airline route maps will look drastically different by the end of 2012 than they did in 2000, the peak of the RJ craze.