How a new breed of small jets is making air travel easier-and better

Bill Deering/FPG

Ever since now-defunct Ozark Airlines pulled its planes out of Dubuque in the seventies, anyone looking to get in or out of town had to hop on a small turboprop to connect at a nearby hub (Chicago, Minneapolis). But in November, American Airlines affiliate American Eagle plans to start flying jets there once again.

Dubuque is just one of many small to medium-sized cities benefiting from a hot trend in the airline industry: regional jets, or RJ's. They're relatively small planes (most have 30 to 75 seats) that regional airline affiliates of major carriers-American Eagle, Delta Connection, Continental Express, and others-have recently been buying in huge numbers. Although RJ's were virtually nonexistent less than 10 years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration predicts that the number of U.S. regional jets in operation will jump from 343 in 1999 to 1,546 by 2011.

The Pluses
Unlike turboprops, RJ's have many of the amenities of big jets, such as reasonably large overhead bins, full galleys, and a quiet ride. There's usually a single seating class, with one- or two-seat rows separated by an aisle. Unless you're over six feet tall, you'll have enough headroom to stand up straight in the aisle (no more crouching). They're also fast-by cruising at over 500 mph, as opposed to propeller-driven speeds of about 300 mph, RJ's can reduce flight times by as much as 40 percent. And, although there's no factual basis for the belief, many people consider small jets safer, says a recent poll of business travelers conducted by Frequent Flyer magazine.

What's Changing
Besides simply replacing turboprops at small airports, airlines are using small jets to add new route "spokes" to hubs, especially from cities that are too far to reach with turboprops and don't have enough passengers to justify full-sized jets. For example, Atlantic Southeast Airlines/Delta Connection now operates nonstop RJ service between Atlanta and White Plains, New York; Continental Express flies from Dayton, Ohio, to its Houston hub; and Atlantic Coast Airlines/United Express has nonstop flights between Chicago O'Hare and Savannah, Georgia. RJ's also allow the airlines to offer "bypass" routes, so you can travel directly between two cities that aren't hubs without the hassle of connecting. US Airways Express, for example, has new nonstop flights between Boston and Indianapolis, bypassing the usual transfer at Philadelphia or Pittsburgh.

Trouble in the Air?
The RJ trend has created some turbulence, though. Pilot strikes at American in 1997 and at Northwest in 1998 were based partly on union fears that the airlines would shift large numbers of flights from full-sized jets to RJ's, which are flown by lower-paid pilots at regional affiliates, thereby taking jobs away from senior pilots. The pilot unions have been fighting for contractual clauses that limit the number of small jets the airlines can operate.

And everyone-pilots, the airlines, even the FAA-worries that because RJ's use the same runways and fly at the same altitudes as larger jets, they could exacerbate the already serious problem of late departures and arrivals. "This means more aircraft competing for that same shrinking, finite resource-airspace," captain Duane Woerth of the Air Line Pilots Association told a congressional committee last October. Turboprops don't present the same problem because they fly at slower speeds and lower altitudes, keeping out of the way of larger jets.

Still, some observers predict that the regional-jet boom could bring a new round of competition to cities that have been forced to live with limited service and high fares. A 1998 study by aviation policy experts Robert Poole Jr. and Viggo Butler found that the proliferation of RJ's "offers the prospect of a new market for point-to-point service-whether by existing regionals or by new-entrant airlines." If so, the combination of greater passenger comfort and lower fares could make RJ's the best thing to come to small cities since cable TV.