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How Regional Jets Are Affecting Travel – The Good & the Bad

Across North America, regional jets (nicknamed RJs) are taking off—literally. With as many as 70 seats, wider aisles, decent headroom, and more overhead space, RJs are being heralded as a quieter and more comfortable alternative to turboprop commuter planes.

In addition to the comforts, RJs are providing fliers with more scheduling options, and in many cases, more competitive fares. RJs seem to be the darlings of the aviation industry right now.

People Pleaser and Money Maker

Passengers want to fly on jets rather than on turboprop planes, and airlines are responding enthusiastically to passenger demand. “It’s a lot quieter and smoother ride in the RJ,” said Mel Coffman, a senior industry manager from Augusta, Georgia, who travels weekly on business. “The seats are bigger, and there’s more space to stow your carry-on luggage. I just prefer the RJ to the turbo props—you get there a lot quicker and more comfortably.”

The likelihood that you’ll fly on an RJ on your next short flight is increasing. Currently, there are some 560 RJs in operation, with double that number expected to be added by 2003. RJ demand is expected to remain strong for many more years. In fact, German RJ manufacturer Fairchild Dornier forecasts that between now and 2020, nearly 8,000 RJs, seating between 25 and 110 passengers, will take to the skies.

Passengers aren’t the only ones loving RJs. Airlines love them for their efficiency and ability to open up new, untapped markets that couldn’t be flown by using turboprops. Because RJs are highly reliable and efficient, they are more likely to be operated in longer-distance markets that airlines markets where airlines aren’t making a profit with their larger and more expensive jets. The use of RJs enables the airlines to lower costs per seat mile and to keep a brand identity on those routes once flown by the big jets. All this has lead to substantial profits for airlines.

Pilots Not So Happy

The gain in profits has airlines salivating at the opportunity to buy more of the RJs. However, pilots fear that airlines will use RJs to replace larger planes, which pilots are paid more to fly. Nonetheless, pilots at certain major carriers have a lot to say about how many RJs can join a fleet. Some pilot contracts contain restrictive “scope clauses,” which are tough rules limiting the number and size of aircraft the pilots are allowed to fly, and in some cases, the terms under which pilots fly. Because of scope clauses, RJ manufacturers have had a hard time selling RJs that seat over 70 passengers. To get around the various scope clauses, manufactures have had to configure them to hold fewer passengers.

No Room in the Skies

Selling the planes is one thing; finding room in the skies is another. According to reports published by the Center for Advanced Aviation System Development (CAASD), as RJs replace turboprops, airline traffic that normally flies at lower altitudes (below 20,000 feet) has moved higher up into the increasingly crowded airspace where the larger jets fly. Because they are jets, RJs operate most efficiently when flying at higher altitudes. Moreover, some traffic flows are disturbed because RJ models fly at slower speeds than larger jet aircraft. To top it all off, some turboprop runways are too short for RJs to use, which again puts RJs in the mix with big jets.

Nevertheless, RJs still represent a small portion of the total airline fleet and are no more accountable for congestion and delays than any other aircraft flying. Clearly, their presence has only strengthened the argument
that our air traffic system is greatly in need of drastic support.

Passengers Pay the Price

More than 655 million people traveled on U.S. planes last year, a number expected to hit one billion within a decade. Each time you fly, you pay a tax that goes into the Aviation Trust Fund, a fund set up specifically to maintain and improve aviation infrastructure. Unfortunately, for many years, the tax revenues generated by the airline industry were being diverted to non-aviation spending, tax relief, or debt reduction. Only last year did former President Clinton release the necessary funds to start the improvements. The current challenges for both the government and the airline industry is to find ways to allow for the improved service benefits that RJs provide and to work to correct the beleaguered air traffic system.

For Additional Information:

Department of Transportation's Inspector General

Air Travel Consumer Report

Center for Advanced Aviation System Development (CAASD)

Regional Airline Association

Air Transport Association

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