2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
Domestic Departures Performed by 37-50 Seat RJ at Smaller Airports in the U.S.
While the number of smaller regional aircraft has
declined, the number of large regional aircraft being
flown nearly doubled, from 446 in 2007 to 877 today.
In fact, there are actually more large regional jets being
flown today than small regional jets. The trend is clear
— smaller aircraft are being parked to pool pilots to fly
the more economic larger regional jets.
Delta is the network carrier most aggressively cutting
domestic departures performed by 37-50 seat jet aircraft
at the smallest U.S. airports. Since 2010, Delta has
cut nearly 200,000 annual departures. American and
United have been slower to cut, but each accelerated the
reduction in small jet departures in 2015. In fact, the
Big 3 U.S. network carriers reduced 37-50 seat aircraft
departures by an additional 18 percent in 2015 versus
what was flown in 2014.
The clear and pronounced trend in reducing small
regional jet departures at small U.S. airports has been
complemented by an increase in 51-76 seat aircraft.
Delta, by far, is the most aggressive among the Big 3
network carriers in its use of larger regional jets in
smaller U.S. markets, followed by United and American.
The use of the larger aircraft has masked the reduction
in departures, as seats have largely been replaced. This
trend cannot go on forever. That is, and should be, the
fear for the smaller U.S. airport markets, as 2015 showed
the largest year-over-year decline in city pairs flown by
regional aircraft since 2004.
WINNERS AND LOSERS
Simply put, not all airports can support the larger
regional equipment being deployed today. Large airports
will feel only an indirect effect; virtually all large hub,
medium hub and small hub airports have 70-seat plus
service today. The fear is what happens to domestic air
service in the 296 non-hub and Essential Air Service
(EAS) airports in the contiguous 48 states. Can they
support and retain what they have today? In some cases,
the answer is most likely yes. Yet many of the smallest
airports in the U.S. do not have the traffic to support
larger regional jet service.
Today, only 97 of the 296 non-hub and EAS airports
in the contiguous 48 states receive daily service from
at least one carrier using a large regional jet aircraft.
However, only 22 of these airports have O&D traffic
per capita below the average of their peers — this
means that 187 small markets likely do not have the
population or traffic base to support the trend toward
larger aircraft. All signals point to a smaller network
tomorrow than what is being flown today. The average
airport market that can support larger regional aircraft
has at least 500 passengers per day each way.
As InterVISTAS has followed this issue, we said in
March that 2015 would be the first year in which it
will be difficult for the industry to replace seats at the
same rate it is reducing departures. That prediction is
playing out. It was confirmed on July 27, 2015, when
Republic Airways informed the stock market that it
was in discussions with American, Delta and United to
possibly reduce flying the rest of the year and into 2016.
Republic cited that it is suffering from a dearth of pilots
“after the FAA boosted the required flight experience
for first officers by six fold to 1,500 hours and set new
limits on duty times.”
Some say that it is a pay issue. That is partially
true. Some say that it is the working conditions at the
regional level. And that is partially true. Some say
that it is the 1,500-hour rule. And that is partially true
as well. Two things are total truisms: 1) labor has to
change the way they compensate pilots and without
leveraging regional pilots, so that mainline pilots can
make more; and 2) airports are the losers in this battle.
Many say that this issue is an airline issue and not
an airport issue. The learned will say that it is the
airports that have the most to lose — access to the air
transportation grid. Airlines will find a way to fly
a smaller network. Lost service will only mean that
the highway will be the first access point to the air
transportation where regional service for many is today.
The issue is real, and it will prove severe for many.
William Swelbar is an executive vice president with InterVISTAS
Consulting Inc. and a research engineer in MIT’s International Center
for Air Transportation. He may be reached at william.swelbar@
2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
Domestic Departures Performed by 51-76 Seat RJ at Smaller Airports in the U.S.
DL - Up 9.3%
UA+CO - Up