Future of Air Travel: Regional Service, but on Smaller Jets ; in the Current Industry Shakeout, Mid-Size Cities Are the Winners. Small Markets, Though, Are Losing Service

By Alexandra Marks writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 21, 2001 | Go to article overview

Future of Air Travel: Regional Service, but on Smaller Jets ; in the Current Industry Shakeout, Mid-Size Cities Are the Winners. Small Markets, Though, Are Losing Service


Alexandra Marks writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Bits of glue that once secured the Midway sign to the wall behind the ticket counter are all that's left of the low-cost carrier's presence at the Buffalo airport.

Without notice or ceremony, the sign was removed he night before Midway declared bankruptcy and pulled out of nine cities last week, becoming the first airline casualty of this year's economic downturn.

Midway's primary problem, a sudden and dramatic plummet in business travel, is plaguing all airlines. But most are weathering it better. They're restructuring routes, using smaller planes, and pitching specials to attract passengers.

Still, an economic shakeout now under way is producing some unusual winners and losers, as well as a glimpse of what air travel may be like in the future: more people flying on smaller jet planes.

Ironically, mid-size cities like Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y., long dogged by high prices and limited service, are on the winner's list even with the loss of Midway. The reason: The introduction over the past five years of small regional jets, known as RJs, has given airlines more flexibility and incentive to fly into medium- size cities.

"The airlines are still in an expansion mode in their use of small and regional jets, and carriers like Southwest and JetBlue are regularly adding new cities," says Doug Abbey of AvStat Associates, an airline consulting firm in Washington. "So while travel is down somewhat in terms of absolute numbers, airlines are still filling up a very large percentage of their seats."

But there are losers in this tighter economic marketplace: rural communities and small cities from Topeka, Kan., to Alamogordo, N.M., where airline service is disappearing, in part, because they can't support service from even a regional jet.

"It's really a disaster out there," says Jonathan Ornstein, CEO of Mesa Airlines and head of the Regional Airline Partnership based in Phoenix, an airline advocacy group. "People do not at all appreciate what's coming down the pike here."

Several factors combined to bring about the crisis for small communities, which traditionally have been served by 19-seat turbo props, once known as the workhorses of the regional airline business. First, was the Federal Aviation Administration's well- intentioned move to improve safety.

In 1997, it decreed that small commuter airlines had to adhere to all the safety regulations that the major airlines do. That meant the same paperwork is required to fly a 19-seat turbo prop from Albuquerque to Alamogordo as it takes to fly a Boeing 747 from New York to Chicago.

"Our costs have increased 70 percent since them," says Mr. …

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