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Regional jet fleets set to shrink, leaving some Charlotte Douglas flights up in the air

Regionaljets
JEFF WILLHELM - jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com
A small CRJ regional jet taxis for departure recently at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

A pilot shortage, tougher training requirements for new pilots, and high fuel prices are challenging the nation's web of regional airlines.

And while small airports are expected to bear the worst cuts, trims to the regional airlines could mean fewer flights to small markets and higher ticket prices at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

American, which merged with US Airways in December, accounts for about 90 percent of all daily flights at Charlotte Douglas. The majority of those daily departures are on regional jets, operated by an array of airlines flying under the name US Airways Express.

Some airports have already begun to see the effects of less regional flying. United Airlines recently announced it would no longer keep a hub at Cleveland, cutting 60 percent of its daily departures there. Almost all of those were regional flights operated as United Express. And Republic Airways, which flies many regional routes for major carriers, said it would ground 27 of its jets because it can’t find pilots to fly them.

At Charlotte Douglas, about 340 daily flights are operated by various regional carriers under the US Airways Express name. That compares with 270 daily US Airways mainline flights.

Although there are more regional flights, mainline jets are larger than their regional counterparts and carry more passengers. For example, an Airbus A321 operated by US Airways seats 187 passengers, while a DeHavilland Dash-8 (300) seats 50.

Companies are also shifting more flying from the 50-seat planes that are now common to larger regional jets that seat about 70 passengers.

“I think what you’re going to see is an increase in mainline flying, although you may see a decrease in flights” at Charlotte Douglas, said Helane Becker, an aviation analyst with Cowen & Co.

Bill Swelbar, an aviation consultant with interVISTAS, said major shifts in the regional airline model are just starting to become apparent, and the effects on individual markets are hard to predict.

“It is too early to tell the exact geography that is going to be impacted,” said Swelbar. But he said one thing is certain: “Networks are going to be smaller tomorrow than they are today.”

Charlotte Douglas is American’s second-busiest hub, and more than three-quarters of the airport’s passengers are connecting to another destination, rather than starting or stopping their journeys in Charlotte. That means Charlotte is especially reliant on connecting traffic and its service network to smaller, “feeder” markets.

American Airlines said it hasn’t had to change its flying because of the regional airlines’ troubles yet. Republic’s decision to ground jets didn’t have an appreciable impact on the company’s operations.

“American Airlines and our regional partners are adequately staffed to support our operations,” said spokesman Davien Anderson.

Low pilot salaries

The three remaining legacy carriers – United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and American – contract with a complex web of subsidiaries and small airlines to operate their regional, or express, fleets.

Approximately 108 daily departures at Charlotte Douglas are operated by PSA, and 59 are operated by Piedmont Airlines, both of which are wholly-owned subsidiaries of American. Across the nation, experts say that regional carriers account for about half of all daily domestic departures.

Pilots at regional airlines typically make far less than their counterparts at mainline carriers, often starting with salaries less than $20,000. That’s one reason the major airlines contract with them.

Labor is the airlines’ second-biggest expense after fuel, and many analysts agree that pilot salaries at the regional airlines aren’t enough to attract enough new aviators. One consequence could be higher airfares.

“Wages do need to come up,” Swelbar said.

Another pressure regional airlines face is the price of fuel. With jet fuel above $3 a gallon, where it’s been for years, 50-seat regional planes are far less efficient to operate.

New federal rules on pilot training implemented last year mandate new passenger pilots have 1,500 hours of flight time, up from 250 before. The rules were passed in response to the crash of a 2009 Continental Connection flight operated by Colgan Air that left 51 dead.

And pilots at the mainline carriers are starting to hit the mandatory retirement age of 65 in larger waves. Capt. James Ray, spokesman for the union representing US Airways pilots, said about half of the new American’s more than 14,000 pilots will hit mandatory retirement in the next 10 years.

That means the mainline carriers will be hiring more pilots away from the regional carriers at the same time the regional carriers are having more trouble finding replacements.

“The impending pilot shortage is a real concern,” Ray said. “The airlines that are going to suffer first are the regionals.”

The shortage will be felt most acutely by small communities, some of which depend completely on regional flights. But experts warn major hubs such as Charlotte won’t be insulated.

“It definitely will have an impact on large hubs,” Matt Barton, co-founder of FlightPath Economics, said of the pilot shortage and resulting regional airline cutbacks. “It’s certainly going to affect connections to some locations.”

Fewer flights, fewer options

Some routes could see cutbacks while not actually losing seats, experts say.

“If you have seven 50-seat flights a day and you replace them with five 70-seat flights a day, it’s still 350 seats,” said Becker. American recently announced plans to purchase 90 new 76-seat regional jets to replace 50-seat planes.

But fewer flights on larger planes means fewer times for travelers to choose from. Take a small market such as Lynchburg, Va. The city’s air service consists of six daily US Airways Express flights to Charlotte. If those were replaced by two mainline flights carrying the same number of passengers, the route’s capacity technically wouldn’t change.

That means fewer options for the top-dollar business travelers that make many routes profitable. Bob Mann, a New York-based aviation consultant, said that would mean many routes to smaller cities would no longer work because fewer parts of the day would be covered.

“It’s not as if you can take a market that’s served by six 50-seat jets and put in two mainline jets, because the ‘day-part’ coverage is insufficient,” said Mann. “A business customer really wants four, five, six frequencies.”

That could mean some small communities lose their scheduled air service. “There are going to be some markets out there that just can’t sustain service from a 76-seat plane,” Swelbar said.

At American, the carrier has been wrestling with the issue of how to deal with its legacy regional carrier, American Eagle. The company and its Eagle pilots have been unable to reach a contract, and American now plans to shift more regional flying to other carriers.

While that could affect some American hubs where Eagle operates a large number of flights, such as Dallas/Fort Worth and Chicago, Mann said the effect on Charlotte should be minimal.

Mann said the question of what happens with regional flights will ultimately come down to whether the airlines are determined to keep flying to even the smallest markets.

“Do the network carriers want to preserve the ubiquity of ‘anywhere to anywhere’ service?” he said. “Or are they going to collapse into the size of market that a mainline aircraft can economically be deployed on?”

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo
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