While we have seen a proliferation of regional jet routes on legacy airlines the last few years, have you ever noticed that the jets replacing mainline service are often the larger regional jets such as the CR7 or ERJ-170?
While smaller jets like the CRJ and ERJ-145 still represent an important presence in the regional market, the days of 50-seat jets in America may be drawing to a close.
This year, about 1,200 commercial aircraft with 50 or fewer seats are in operation in the United States. By 2015, that number is expected to drop to 200. The reason (contrary to what I always thought about these small planes): they are not fuel efficient and are untenable to operate in an era of $75/barrel oil prices.
Look at Comair, a regional affiliate of Delta, who announced plans last week to axe 75% of their CRJ-100 and CRJ-200 fleet (53 aircraft). Comair has been dealing with a lot of problems lately, but high fuel costs from their smaller regional jets has played a notable role in dampening their balance sheet.
What will take the place of these smaller aircraft? After all, many smaller airports cannot fill larger planes with enough fare paying customers to justify a larger aircraft. I predict there will be service cuts if these planes are phased out as predicted, but the elimination of these planes gives Bombardier and other makers of jets (I don’t call them regional jets) that seat 100-149 people a tremendous opportunity for growth.
These "not too big, not too small, but just right" jets (a mainstay of the Air Canada fleet) will grow and unfortunately for legacy airline unions, will likely be added to the fleets of regional jets.
With oil prices fluid, there’s no telling what will happen in the months and years to come. Barring any massive fluctuations in prices, however, the days of smaller regional jets are numbered. While I don’t look forward to route cuts, I can’t say I’ll shed a tear over the retirement of CRJs in the United Express fleet.