Passengers hopscotching across the U.S. may book their trip on one of the major airlines such as United, but it's often smaller, regional carriers with such names as Colgan Air that do the flying.
Regional airlines operate half the nation's scheduled flights and are often the link between smaller communities and the national air service network.
But now, several of those carriers are being closed or are in bankruptcy court protection. They face significant challenges, as the big airlines they often fly for are phasing out smaller and costlier regional jets and cutting some low-traffic regional routes to focus on those that are more lucrative.
As a result, many smaller communities may lose some or all of their air service, and their residents will have to take longer drives to find a flight.
"We're going to see some airports go dark," says William Swelbar, research engineer for MIT's International Center for Air Transportation. "The highway is going to be the connection to the air network system."
Delta, the largest operator of 50-seat aircraft among U.S. airlines, will shutter regional carrier Comair after Sept. 29. Pinnacle Airlines, with subsidiaries such as Colgan that have flown for United, US Airways and Delta, filed for bankruptcy protection in April. AMR, the parent company of American Airlines and regional carrier American Eagle, filed for bankruptcy protection in November.
"Airlines are finding these smaller jets just don't make them any money," says industry analyst Mike Boyd. "That's why they're shutting down Comair. That's why Pinnacle is in bankruptcy. It's a sector of (the) industry that provides a type of aircraft that's rapidly becoming obsolete."
Fuel's volatility hurts
Regional airlines, which fly mostly for and under the brands of their bigger network peers, such as Delta Connection and United Express, have relied on 50-seat jets for the bulk of their trips.
But the volatile price of fuel and the high cost of maintaining aging aircraft are leading bigger airlines to shift away from smaller planes.
Delta has said the number of 50-seat jets that it flies will drop from almost 350 to 125 or less in the next several years. The airline says those cuts are a key reason for shutting down its regional subsidiary, Comair, next month.
"With the size of their fleet and higher unit costs of flying, Comair's operations are no longer sustainable in this environment," says Delta spokeswoman Kristin Baur.
Boyd says, "We think by 2016, virtually every 50-seat jet or smaller (plane) will be out of the system. … Those airplanes are getting older and more expensive, and as a result, airlines are culling them out of their fleets."
Communities could lose
The flurry of airline mergers in recent years — Delta's union with Northwest, United with Continental, and most recently, Southwest with AirTran — also is affecting the regional flight map, says Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association.
Airlines that have joined forces and no longer compete with each other can shed less profitable routes and funnel fliers from smaller communities through hubs, Cohen says.