Of all the changes that have overtaken the airline industry in recent years, one of the most dramatic has been the rapid transition to regional carriers, as "mainline" airlines outsource more and more flying to their regional "partners." You may be surprised to learn that 53 percent of all commercial airline departures in the United States today are operated by regional airlines.
The number of passengers carried by U.S. regional airlines nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010, reaching 159 million at the end of the decade. Despite a slight downturn recently, the Federal Aviation Administration predicts passenger enplanements on regionals will rise by 3.5 percent through 2031.
Regional service grew as the airline industry's hub-and-spoke model expanded, with smaller commuter carriers operating on "thin" routes, often to small and rural communities. In fact, regional airlines provide the only air service at 484 airports nationwide. But today, regional aircraft also operate on some of the nation's densest routes and clog some of the most congested airports.
At the U.S. Department of Transportation's Future of Aviation Advisory Committee meetings in 2010, I raised the issue of booking transparency. That's because I hear constantly from readers who are confused over which airline they've booked, and many don't realize when they're buying tickets on the majors' partners and not on the majors. Last year the DOT responded by tightening rules that provide transparency for code-sharing flights, particularly with regional affiliates.
Unfortunately, as regional flights become more ubiquitous, consumer confusion increases. Every day, tens of thousands of passengers book flights branded by major airlines but operated by regional partners. And even seasoned travelers are sometimes surprised by the differences.
Far from seamless
Major airlines insist there are no significant disparities when passengers fly on regional rather than mainline aircraft. But a brief rundown of some of the most pressing issues casts some doubt on such claims:
•Safety. In recent years the U.S. airline industry has posted a strong safety record. But while the industry notes there hasn't been a fatal "major" airline accident since 2001, there have been five fatal crashes of regional carriers operating on behalf of five different majors since then, resulting in 135 deaths:
•2003: Air Midwest doing business as (dba) US Airways Express
•2004: Pinnacle Airlines dba Northwest Airlink
•2004: Corporate Airlines dba AmericanConnection
•2006: Comair dba Delta Connection
•2009: Colgan Air dba Continental Connection
In the wake of the Colgan Air accident near Buffalo, the Airline Safety Act was passed to strengthen pilot hiring and training standards for regionals and to provide one level of safety among mainline carriers and regional partners. Yet a recent Senate hearing underscored that problems remain, with the Inspector General of the DOT testifying that the FAA "has not met timelines for raising pilot training standards, implementing mentoring programs, providing enhanced leadership skills to captains and increasing minimum pilot qualifications."