THE CURSE OF THE REGIONAL JET
By Joe Brancatelli
May 31, 2007 -- If you want to know why the nation's airports are going to be a nightmare of delays and disappointment this summer, all you need to know are two words: regional jets.
Regional jets! Say it loud and there's a frequent flyer screaming. Say it soft and it's almost like cursing. Regional jets. It's the ugliest sound I've ever heard on the road.
There are, of course, a bazillion contributing causes to the inevitable meltdown we will face at the big airports this summer. We don't have enough runways in a few cities. The big airlines are overscheduled and understaffed. The nation's air traffic control system is understaffed, too, and controllers work with equipment that might not be as sophisticated as your average PlayStation.
But more than anything, the reason why we're gonna run late all summer is that the Big Six are stuffing the nation's airports and blackening the nation's skies with tinny, tiny RJs. They hog as much gate space and airspace as full-size jets like Boeing 737s or Airbus A320s, but they carry just 37 or 50 passengers a flight.
The Big Six have been "downgauging" for three decades, of course. Routes that used to be flown with big widebodies are now operated with smaller, narrow-body Boeing 757s or Airbus A320s. Routes that once had 757s are now served with Boeing 737s or Airbus A319s. Boeing 737 routes have been handed over to RJs. To make up for the resulting shortfall of seats, they fly more flights, thus paralyzing the system.
We talked about all of this before 9/11, the last time we faced a summer this bad. As I explained in a column that ran in March, 2001, the big carriers had literally doubled the number of flights between New York/Kennedy and Los Angeles in the years after deregulation. But despite that massive increase in flights, they were actually flying fewer seats on the route in 2001 than they were operating in 1978.
But downsizing using RJs is much worse. Do the math: You need to fly about three 37-seat RJs just to match the 114-seat capacity of one Airbus A319. Three 50-seat RJs don't even match the seating capacity of a 167-seat Boeing 737-900.
Don't think this swarm of RJs is gumming up the works? Okay, then, you explain the chart below. It shows the nation's ten least-timely major hubs.
As they always do, the big airlines blame this scourge on us, the paying passengers. They claim that business travelers want frequency and the only way to give us the frequency we want is to fly small planes like the RJs more frequently.
Of course, we want frequency. But we don't want frequent flights that run off-schedule all of the time. We'd all gladly trade frequency for on-schedule flights. We'd all happily make do with fewer flight options if it meant that we flew on-time on larger, more comfortable jets which, by the way, also have first-class cabins, something that the 37- or 50-seat RJs don't offer.
But the Big Six' frequency excuse is a bald-faced lie anyway. They don't use RJs for our convenience, but for theirs. And their idea of competition.
Raise your hand anyone who asked Delta Air Lines to fly five 50-seat RJs a day between O'Hare and Kennedy. While you're at it, raise your hand if you were the one who asked American Airlines to fly those four 37-seat RJs each day between Kennedy and Washington/National. The big hub airports are choked with RJs that destroy our ability to fly with anything like confidence in the schedule.
But there's more. It's not just that flights are horrendously delayed thanks to the injection of thousands of RJs into the nation's skies, it's that the flights are horrendously delayed even given the outrageous schedule padding that has been built into the system in the last 30 years.
Take that JFK-LAX route I mentioned in my 2001 column. The downgauging to narrowbody aircraft from widebody jets on the nation's premier route comes with some nasty sidebars. Back in 1978, American Airlines Flight 10, the red-eye from LAX, was scheduled for 4 hours and 55 minutes. Today Flight 10 is scheduled for 5 hours and 13 minutes. Even with that 18 minutes of padding, however, FlightStats.com says that Flight 10 operates on-time just 64 percent of the time and the average delay is 22 minutes.
As they did back in the summers of 2000 and 2001, the airlines will respond to this summer's cascade of late flights by claiming that we need more runways and more airports. They'll repeat it over and over as their on-time performance sinks, delayed travelers fume and politicians bellow.
But we all know the reality: There is neither the national financial wherewithal nor the physical and environmental ability to pour more concrete. Nor should we bend to the whims of the dysfunctional Big Six. We shouldn't be building more airports. We should be requiring the airlines to make better use of the airport and airspace capacity we have. Every new Airbus A320 they fly could eliminate three 50-seat RJ flights. Two large, late-model Boeing 737s could replace nine 37-seat RJ flights.
Flying 37- and 50-seat jets is not a wise way to maximize the capacity we have. And, honestly, it isn't even a financially sound way for the Big Six to make money. The first Canadair CRJ-100, the very model of a modern regional jet, went into service in 1991. How much money have the Big Six made since they started ramming RJs down our throat?
If you answered "none," you get to stay home this summer and avoid the delays that these cursed RJs have rained down upon us.
In the year 2000, what we might consider the last "normal" year for business travel, 665 million passengers flew on 8,991,000 flights. In 2006, passenger traffic had grown 11.8 percent to 774 million flyers. But the number of flights had grown 25.3 percent to 11,267,000 flights.
Why are the number of flights growing twice as fast as passenger traffic? Again, the curse of the RJs. The big carriers are overwhelming the system with small jets. It also explains this number: Even as Big Six load factors (the percentage of seats per flight filled) have soared from the mid-60s to the low 80s, the average number of passengers per flight has actually dropped. In 2000, each flight in the system carried an average of 74 passengers. In 2006, that number had dropped by more than 10 percent to an average of 66 passengers per flight.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.
This column is Copyright © 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.