Record jet-fuel prices are reversing one of the biggest trends in domestic air travel over the last 15 years, and that could leave some smaller cities with fewer daily flights — or none at all.
In the past eight years, hundreds of small regional jets with 50 or fewer seats, called RJs, replaced both smaller turboprops and bigger commercial jets on dozens of routes between big hubs and midsize airports.
The RJs were never huge profit makers in the best of times. Rather, they were promoted as economical substitutes for 110- to 140-seat jetliners on thin-demand routes because their ownership and operating costs were lower per mile flown. They were also marketed as more consumer-friendly than smaller, noisier, slower and less comfortable turboprop planes. Airlines invested heavily in them starting in the late 1990s, primarily to feed more travelers from small markets into their hubs and onto their more profitable mainline flights.
As a result, one in four commercial takeoffs today is made by a 50-seat or smaller RJ.
But the number of small RJs in service has begun to drop as the big airlines under whose brands most regional flights are sold recoil from jet-fuel spot market prices now averaging $3.79 a gallon.
There were 1,333 such planes flying in the USA on April 1, down from the peak of more than 1,350 a year ago, OAGback Aviation Solutions says. By Christmas, that number will be near 1,200, if all the service cutbacks announced and recently hinted at are implemented.
Cutbacks planned for fall
An announcement by Delta Air Lines this spring indicates how business judgment has turned against the RJs. Delta, which early this decade committed itself to operating the biggest fleet of them in the nation through its regional affiliates Comair and ASA, said it will dump 70 of those planes out of its Delta Connection operation by fall.
On Wednesday, American said it will remove from service 35 to 40 RJs flown by its regional airline affiliates. That's on top of grounding 40 to 45 of its mainline jets and a small number of turboprop regional airliners.
Continued high oil prices are likely to cause the nation's fleet of RJs to shrink faster and further than even the harshest critics of RJs originally anticipated.
"We think now that something like 835 RJs now in service in the USA will come out by 2013," says consultant Michael Boyd of the Boyd Group in Evergreen, Colo.
That would represent a 60% shrinkage of the USA's fleet of 50-seat and smaller RJs in just six years.
Boyd, an early proponent of RJs in the early 1990s, was one of the first to sound the alarm, in 1999, about the coming RJ glut. By 2007, with oil threatening $70 a barrel, he was predicting that about 1,200 RJs with 50 or fewer seats would be removed from service worldwide by 2018. That's out of a total of nearly 2,300 in service.
Now, with oil selling above $130 a barrel, Boyd estimates 1,700 of them will be gone by 2013.
"Airlines don't throw these big pieces of aluminum across the sky because it's fun," he says. "If the cost of operating a plane exceeds the revenue that can be put on board that plane, as it does now with the small RJ, it should be parked."
Parking 50-seat and smaller RJs will mean less service for many of the smaller cities where they are the primary or only vehicles of commercial air transport. Carriers have begun the gradual process of shaving markets back from five to seven flights a day to four or five, or even fewer.