A regional airliner is a small airliner designed to fly up to 100 passengers from point to point on short-haul flights. This class of airliners are typically flown by the regional airline divisions of the larger international airlines, although they perform cargo duty and even transport troops for government militaries. The regional jet (RJ) is a jet-engined aircraft of the same class that has become the aircraft of choice for most domestic operations. Feederliner, commuter, and local service are all alternate terms for the same class of flight operations.
In the early days of aviation, most aircraft had a relatively short range so that all airlines were "regional" in nature. With the introduction of longer range aircraft, notably flying boats, these shorter range planes increasingly found their niche feeding the newer and longer range airliners by flying passengers to the mainline's airline hubs. Many of these smaller regional airlines were eventually bought by the larger flag carriers.
To keep these short routes economical, the airlines were generally unwilling to spend large amounts of money on new aircraft; they used what was available. Also, as new models slowly emerged, older aircraft were put into this service when they were replaced by progressively longer-range designs. In the immediate post-war era these were typically Douglas DC-3s, although even the De Havilland Dragon Rapide remained in service for some time. This "hand-me-down" process of supplying aircraft continued, with designs like the Convair 440, Douglas DC-6 and Vickers Viscount also serving in this role while the first jets were introduced.
By the mid-1950s, demand for even more economical designs led to the production of the first custom feederliners. These were almost always turboprops, which had fuel economy on par with piston engine designs, but had far lower maintenance costs. Often the time between engine overhaul periods was five times that of the best piston engines. Early examples of these designs include the Avro 748, Fokker F27 and Handley Page Dart Herald.
These designs were so successful that it was many years before newer designs bettered them enough to make it worthwhile to develop. There were a few exceptions, generally tailored to more specific roles. For instance, the Handley Page Jetstream (first flight in 1968) was intended for fewer passengers at much higher speeds, displacing smaller designs like the Beechcraft Queen Air. The Fairchild/Swearingen Metro (developed from the original Queen Air through a number of stages) filled a similar niche.
By the 1970s the first generation regional airliners were starting to wear out, but there had been little effort in producing new designs for this market. De Havilland Canada delivered its Dash 7 in 1978, but this was tailored more to the short-range and STOL (Short Take-Off and Landing) role than as a regional airliner. Feedback from the airlines was fairly consistent, however, and De Havilland responded with the Dash 8 in 1984, which had economic benefits over the earlier generation machines, and was faster and quieter as well. Dash 8 sales were so strong that the company was unable to fund rebuilding the factory in order to meet demand, leading to a takeover by Bombardier.
The Dash 8's success sparked off development of a number of similar designs, including the ATR 42, Saab 340, Embraer Brasilia and Fokker F50. Consequently there were a relatively large number of aircraft offered by manufacturers in this sector of the market, pushing older 1950s designs from Fokker, Vickers and others into retirement. Due to the high level of competition, production of a number of these types ceased. Saab exited the civil aviation market and wrote its debts off, Daimler-Benz Aerospace "pulled the plug" on Dornier, and British Aerospace ended production of their BAe Jetstream 41 after 100 delivered. In 2006 only the ATR 42/72 models and the Dash 8 remain in production.
Another reason for the downturn in the turboprop market was the introduction of the first regional jets. Although a number of small jets entered service in the 1950s and 60s, notably the Sud Aviation Caravelle, Fokker F28 and Yak-40, these could not compete in terms of cost of operation with the turboprop designs, and were suitable for routes with small numbers of passengers, as opposed to short routes where fuel economy was paramount. As engine technology improved, this difference continued to narrow, until the higher utilization factors due to higher cruising speeds erased any remaining advantage from lower operating costs.
The earliest example of a true short-range jet is the BAe 146, produced by BAE Systems. However, like the Dash 7 before it, the BAe 146 was tuned to a very specific market, city-center to city-center service where low noise and excellent takeoff performance were paramount. Like the Dash 7, the market niche for this design proved to be fairly small, and its four engines meant it had higher maintenance costs than twin-engine designs. Unlike the Dash 7 example BAe did not respond by producing a twin-engine design that filled the same range requirements but offering lower operational costs.
This was addressed by Bombardier's twin-engine Canadair Regional Jet, which became a best-seller. The CRJ's range is enough to fill mid-range routes as well, routes previously served by larger aircraft such as the Boeing 737 and DC-9. These aircraft were originally intended to be used for direct airport-to-airport flights, bypassing hubs, and led to industry-wide discussions about the decline of the hub-and-spoke model. Although not as economical as the turboprop, by flying directly to and from smaller airports, they reduced the need for low-cost regional airliners. And although turboprops are quiet to outside observers, propwash makes them very noisy inside. Passengers greatly preferred jets, both for real and perception reasons.
As had happened with the turboprops of only a few years earlier, the success of the CRJ led to the introduction of a host of competitors. The only successful example is the Embraer ERJ 145, which has seen excellent sales and has competed strongly with the CRJ in most markets. Bombardier and Embraer have been locked in a series of counter-lawsuits over export taxes and subsidies ever since. The ERJ's success led to a totally new version, the Embraer E-Jets series, which Bombardier chose not to compete against.
Other competitors have not been successful. Fairchild Dornier introduced the Fairchild Dornier 328JET to compete, but went bankrupt soon afterwards and the type did not enter large scale production. Their bankruptcy also ended development of the more competitive Fairchild-Dornier 728, which had attracted strong airline interest. The CRJ/ERJ also resulted in the end of the BAe 146 line.
The CRJ and ERJ success also played a minor part in the failure of Fokker, whose Fokker 100 found itself squeezed on both sides by new models of the Boeing 737 and Airbus A319 on the "large" side and the RJs on the "small side". Bombardier turned down the chance to purchase Fokker's assets, feeling that the 100-seat market was already saturated by designs like the A319, a decision that looked foolish with the successful introduction of the E-Jets.
The Antonov An-148 is still being certified, it remains to be seen if it will have any success in a market that has been fairly hesitant to adopt aircraft from the former Soviet Union. The Sukhoi Superjet 100, a 60 to 95-seat jet developed by the Russian aerospace firm Sukhoi with assistance of Ilyushin and Boeing, is expected to make its maiden flight in September 2007.
In 2005, the "regional jet" boom suddenly collapsed, as increasing fuel prices and airline bankruptcies led to a rethinking of route structures. The high per-seat operational costs of the classic 50-seat regional jet have been exacerbated by an environment of ever-lowering fares. Furthermore, RJs increasingly were assigned to operate flights of two hours or more. This led to angry passengers, as their comfort and ergonomics compare unfavorably to the larger "mainline" jets which they replaced on these flights.
Further, the replacement of the hub-and-spoke model simply never took place. The economics and routing advantages of this mode of operation were simply too great. As the hub-and-spoke model has always been supported by low-cost regional airliners, turboprop designs once again became a major market. Improving their attractiveness in relation to the jets was the introduction of active noise-reduction systems, which reduced cabin noise to levels comparable, or even lower, than the RJ's. Bombardier, stung from competition in the RJ market, found their Dash 8 to be in high demand once again, and shifted production to their latest model, the Bombardier Q400.
In late 2005, Bombardier suspended its CRJ-200 production line, marking the end of an era for the regional jet. The new trend is for larger aircraft with better economics, exemplified by Bombardier's 70-seat CRJ-700 and the 70-110-seat E-Jets series. The E-Jets in particular blur the line between "mainline" and "regional," as their cabin comfort is comparable or superior to traditional narrowbody jets like the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 while offering ranges of over 2,000 miles. By comparison, the original DC-9 jet aircraft were designed to seat approximately 75 passengers.
Regional airliners are also being blamed for flight delays in the US. According to the Wall Street Journal, 30% of flights in June 2007 were late by an average of 62 minutes. The delays are being blamed on an increased number of smaller aircraft, which the airlines are using in order to fill out schedules and provide more flights per day. This has led to the grounding of 385 larger aircraft and the adding of 1,029 regionals over the period from 2000 to 2006. The downside to this approach is that airports are running out of gates, causing delays as aircraft queue up for this limited resource.
Seating on regional airliners tends to be narrow and tight, and passengers typically are restricted from bringing on board carry-on items which would fit without difficulty in the overhead bins of larger aircraft. Often carry-on luggage is collected immediately prior to boarding and placed in the cargo hold, where it can be quickly retrieved by the ground staff while the passengers exit. While designed primarily for medium stage lengths, RJs may now be found supplementing major trunk routes alongside traditional larger jet aircraft. RJs allow airlines to open new "long, thin" routings with jet equipment which heretofore did not exist, such as Atlanta to Monterrey, Nuevo León. RJs have also meant a return of jet service to cities where full-size jet service had departed over a decade ago, such as Macon, Georgia, and Brownsville, Texas.
The notion that regional jet aircraft are less expensive (per seat mile) than traditional jets is a common misconception. On a seat-mile basis the RJ's cost is in fact higher. Regional jets are operated in the USA under a fee-per-departure payment structure. In this payment structure, a traditional airline contracts with a regional airline company on a per departure or per flight basis regardless of the number of passengers or the length of the flight. The traditional airline gets to keep all the revenue from the ticket sale and only pays the regional partner the agreed to amount. These contracts tend to be long term agreements, typically 10 year terms. The regional airline partner can then be relatively sure of the revenue side and only has to control cost in order to earn a modest return. However, these "regional airlines," now really "small jet providers" of contracted aircraft, have been squeezed by U.S. airline bankruptcies, fleet reductions and increasing operating costs. U.S. Legacy carriers have no longer been willing to shoulder burdensome losses from guaranteed-profit contracts with their small jet providers, and accordingly have played carrier against carrier in a low-bid game that has left hundreds of RJs idle and others potentially on their way to being laid up.
The idea that regional jets would provide point-to-point service and bypass the hub-and-spoke system may not be materializing as it was expected. As of January 2003, 90% of all regional jet flights in the United States had a hub or major airport at one end of that flight, and this number has been gradually increasing since 1995.
Published in July 2009.
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