02/28/13

Are These Model Airplanes?

Recommended Reading from The Wall Street Journal
By SCOTT MCCARTNEY

People are feeling the frustration of living in RJ Nation. 

The small regional jets once loved because they replaced rickety, noisy, slow turboprops have multiplied into the majority of domestic airline flights in the U.S., and are now seen as some of the least desirable airplanes. Travelers accustomed to riding in a full-size jet instead find themselves on planes with tighter seating, lower ceilings and fewer amenities for flights as long as four hours. 

Regional-jet service has grown over the last 10 years to be the backbone of much of domestic air travel, even if it is impossible to stand up straight in the bathroom. Passenger traffic on "RJs"—small jets with 30 to 90 seats—has more than tripled since 2000, according to Department of Transportation data. Passenger traffic on mainline jets, planes from major carriers with 100 seats or more, is up just 10%, with international flying accounting for a good chunk of that increase. RJs are logging longer flights, too. The average flight distance has grown 50% over the last decade, according to the Regional Airline Association. 

Airlines like the small jets so much because they can efficiently match demand with seat capacity and avoid flying empty seats. Small jets allow nonstop flights in small markets and fill schedules with lots of flights on busier routes. Historically, business travelers have gravitated to the carrier with the most options for convenient scheduling. In addition, it's cheaper for airlines to outsource small-jet service to regional airlines with lower-paid pilots, flight attendants, ground workers and managers. 

At United Airlines, regional jets with 50 seats or fewer don't offer the same perks as other United trips—no first-class seats or hot meals, no "Economy Plus" extra-legroom rows in coach. But they sometimes fly routes of nearly four hours from as far west as Oklahoma to Newark, N.J., offering "a nonstop option to those people to go to New York without connecting in some Midwest hub," said Brian Znotins, a United vice president who oversees the airline's route planning. "We just design our network to what passengers want to fly.''

Regional airline flights average 56 seats per plane. American Airlines is among the carriers planning to fly bigger planes. 

And it isn't just small towns relying on the small jets. Regional airlines fly 64% of the takeoffs and landings at Chicago's O'Hare International, 74% at Seattle-Tacoma and 52% at New York's LaGuardia Airport. They also suffer from being so ubiquitous at big airports: Regional airlines have some of the worst on-time and baggage-handling records among airlines and highest rates of canceled flights. When bad weather forces airlines to thin flight schedules, regional airlines get whacked first because carriers would rather used limited landing slots for larger airplanes with more people.

Least favored by travelers are the smallest varieties of regional jet. Still, the 50-seat jet, which is less fuel-efficient per-seat than bigger regional jets, remains the backbone of regional airline service and 43% of the entire regional airline fleet, according to RAA. 

Bob Cortelyou, senior vice president of network planning at Delta Air Lines, says that since the turboprop-replacement honeymoon in the 1990s, travelers have grown to want more. Bigger regional jets like 70- and 90-seaters have first-class cabins and extra legroom rows, but not the 50-seaters. 

Over the next few years Delta will stop using hundreds of 50-seat jets. Delta has also limited 50-seat flights to trips no longer than 700 miles, or under two hours. 

In place of the 50-seat jets, Delta will use larger planes: 100-seat jets that it is leasing from Southwest Airlines and additional new 90-seat Bombardier CRJ900 jets with more spacious cabins and first-class seating. The airline has already returned mainline flights to some communities such as Augusta, Ga., Chattanooga, Tenn., and Roanoke, Va., after serving those communities with only regional carrier flights for 15 years. In some cases, Delta is reducing the number of flights per day but increasing the size of the plane, bucking conventional airline wisdom that held business travelers preferred schedules with very frequent flights. 

"Frequent fliers would rather get on a mainline aircraft than a 50-seat plane," said Delta's Mr. Cortelyou. 

American Airlines and United Airlines both have recently negotiated new contracts with pilots that allow use of greater numbers of 70-seat and 90-seat jets flown by regional-airline partners, likely trading out 50-seat jets. 

Still, regional airlines say without small jets, many communities wouldn't have air service or would have fewer options. Some say they've moved to standardize service with their mainline partners, who hire them to fly routes and bring connecting passengers into hubs. Their flights also have some benefits: no middle seats, for example, and faster boarding and deplaning with fewer passengers. 

More than half of the top 15 airports in the U.S. are majority regional-airline flights. "That says to me that's the perfect airplane to serve those markets,'' RAA President Roger Cohen said. 

The safety record of regional airlines has improved: Between 2008 and 2012, there was only one fatal crash involving a regional airline in the U.S., while over the previous five years there were eight fatal regional accidents. 

The one recent crash, which killed 50 people near Buffalo, N.Y., in 2009, triggered a congressional mandate to increase minimum training and experience of airline pilots. Over the last 10 years, major U.S. passenger airlines have had just one fatal accident, a Southwest Boeing 737 that ran off a runway in Chicago in 2005 during a snowstorm, killing a 6-year-old boy in an automobile. 

To really see the impact of regional airlines these days, just fly the longest flight in miles on a regional jet in the U.S. That's a 1,501-mile United flight between Austin, Texas and San Francisco, which takes about four hours going west into the wind. United hires SkyWest Airlines flying a Bombardier CRJ700 with 66 seats and a 6-foot-tall cabin that's a few inches taller than Bombardier's original 50-seat CRJ. 

On a recent trip, passengers scooted sideways down a 16-inch aisle, some slumped over so their shoulders didn't hit the small overhead bins and their heads didn't scrape the ceiling. A 6-foot-tall man couldn't possibly stand up straight in the one lavatory in the back. 

Leila Bulling Towne, an executive management coach, was happy to be on a nonstop flight home from a business meeting in Austin and liked the RJ practice of checking and retrieving carry-on bags at the jet-bridge, since regular roll-aboard bags don't fit in purse-sized overhead bins. 

But overall, "this plane is not really made for four-hour flights. We're crossing many regions, so it's not really a regional jet," she said. "I'm 5-foot-2 and it feels cramped.''

Austin musician David Utterback goes to San Francisco a couple of times a year and started flying United exclusively because of the nonstop RJ flights. "I used to have to go through Denver or Dallas,'' Mr. Utterback said. "I just like to get on and get off.''

Russell Huffman, a tech company sales vice president on the flight, joked that airlines have "done a good job figuring out the right amount of misery people will put up with." 

Mr. Huffman paid to upgrade to first class on United's CRJ700 on his flight to Austin. He said he wouldn't pay for first on an RJ again. "I got a snack box and free booze. There was no Wi-Fi, no amenities at all," he said. "I think beyond two hours is getting to be too long for those planes."