The Regional Airline Association (RAA) has estimated that more than 61 million passengers a year will be carried by its member airlines (commuters and regionals) by 1997. Furthermore, not all of the airlines that fit into the category of small turboprop passenger or cargo carrier belong to the RAA. The total flying activity by small airlines is even greater, therefore, than RAA numbers would suggest.
The fleet for this segment of the airline industry has grown dramatically in both size and sophistication, and will continue to do so. There is an increased percentage of larger turboprop and smaller jet equipment being operated by the regional carriers. Many manufacturers are spending millions of dollars designing and producing aircraft specifically for the commuter market. The new breed of turboprop aircraft varies in size from the six-passenger Piper to the 50-passenger Boeing/de Havilland Dash 7 to the 68-passenger Aerospatiale-Aeritalia ATR 72. In addition, small jet aircraft, such as the Canadair RJ, a stretched 48- to 52-passenger derivative of the Challenger business jet, have hit the commuter and express package markets. All of these aircraft are fuel efficient and designed for short-haul, high-cycle service. And manufacturers keep adding more aircraft to the drawing board, each designed for a specific segment of the commuter field.
With these new aircraft comes better acceptance of the commuter airlines by the passengers. The new planes look more like airliners. Flight attendants are being added to improve the level of service and safety. Published schedules are adhered to by the carriers. Tickets are sold by agents at counters just as at major carriers. Flight crews are wearing uniforms and insignia. All of these things give the passenger more confidence in the commuters and increase public acceptance of air travel by regional/commuter airline.
From the pilot's point of view, these aircraft are increasingly the best of training grounds for moving up to the Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, and Airbus aircraft operated by major and national airlines. The "glass cockpit" (i.e., cockpit with all-electronic display systems), sophisticated aircraft systems, and the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder have come to all of the new-generation regional/commuter airplanes. A couple of major airlines have gone out of their way to make the cockpit environment of pilots at their feeder airlines consistent with their own cockpit environments, e.g., Texas Air has standardized equipment and cockpits on its three basic feeder aircraft (ATR 42, Brasilia and Beech 1900), spending close to $300,000 per aircraft on additional avionics for the Beech 1900s, to provide a true glass cockpit designed to ease a pilot's transition to jets. In addition, many of the regional/commuter airlines are flying under the same FAR Part 121 regulations as the majors. All of these factors add up to a major airline-style piloting environment except for aircraft payloads, length of flight segments, pay scales and a few other adjustments.
As noted, deregulation helped the commuter industry. When major carriers were al-lowed to pull out of their unprofitable short-haul markets, the commuters moved in to provide needed air service to smaller communities. Commuter aircraft are designed to be profitable in these lower-passenger-volume and shorter-trip markets. Thus, in commuter-to-major feed relationships, both carriers have benefited. For example, the commuter takes a passenger to a larger hub airport, where he can board one of the airlines for the long portion of his trip. A passenger arriving at a large hub can transfer to a commuter and continue to his final destination, which often is not served by a major carrier. Because of the efficiencies of this system, the concept of major-regional airline networks has taken off, and a major carrier either owns a commuter partner outright; owns a percentage of the company; or has a contract with the smaller airline. With the success of partnership hubbing, both ownership of commuters and feed contracts with commuters have spread to national airlines (e.g., both Alaska and Midway own commuter carriers; Braniff and overnight courier DHL utilize extensive contract feeder networks; and America West operates its own turboprop feeder flights to its jet hubs at Phoenix and Las Vegas).
The passenger carrier contracts take the form of code-sharing agreements that permit the commuter airline to operate under the major's two-letter designator, becoming a Delta Connection, Northwest Express, American Eagle, United Express, USAir Express, or other trade-named feeder. The contracts also provide for joint fare arrangements that give the commuter carrier a portion of the national or major's long-haul fare to compensate for the fact that feeder fares are lower than commuter O&D fares. The joint fares are equitable for the major carrier because the feeder arrangements make possible flights that otherwise could not be filled, as Piedmont Airlines was one of the first to recognize. When Piedmont decided to fly non-stop from Charlotte to San Francisco, there were many who scoffed. "Charlotte," they said, "is not a big enough city to support such a flight." "True enough," Piedmont said, "but it is not Charlotte alone that is filling up these airplanes; it is Charlotte PLUS all the little towns from which our feeders are bringing us passengers." Piedmont turned out to be correct.
The major-regional relationship has been an important contributing factor in the rapid growth of the regional/commuter airline industry. The major airlines also could be the best reason why the commuter airline industry will not go away: Such airline companies as Texas Air and AMR have substantial investments in regional/commuter airlines and have shown a willingness to recognize that the true value of their feeder networks is the protection they give against damaging incursions by other large airlines at hubs which they control. (The profits these small feeders are able to generate are negligible in the whole income picture for an AMR/American, and sometimes are nonexistent.) According to Regional Airline Management Systems of Golden, Colo., nearly every jet carrier in the United States has now built its entire foundation and staked its future on the operation of its hubs.