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The Landscape of Civil Aviation

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The rise of civil aviation has not occurred in a vacuum. It has coincided with the development of (among other things):

  • Better and faster aircraft.
  • More efficient service delivery systems.
  • Government regulation and deregulation.

  • A consumer-oriented economy and a public to do the air travelling and shipping that keeps the airlines growing.
  • The digital revolution.
  • And a pilot force to fly the planes.
Modern airliners are inherently faster than competing modes of transportation, and the airlines have been ingenious in finding ways to enhance this natural advantage and make sudden service a reality. Of current long-distance delivery systems, only the telephone, the telegraph, and other electronic media (e.g., radio, TV, facsimile transmission) are faster. And like these other methods of delivery, the airlines keep getting speedier, in part by capitalizing on technological advancements.

The last several years in aviation have witnessed the airlines' pioneering of both computerized real-time transaction processing and the hub-and-spoke system of service delivery; not merely by coincidence, they also have witnessed unprecedented growth of the U.S. airline industry. While other sectors of civil aviation have grown less rapidly than the airlines, the overall result of aviation growth has been an extraordinary market for flying skills and mounting pressure on various strata of aviation either to yield up their quota of pilots for major airline flying or to provide constantly enhanced pay and benefits for their aviators in order to keep them.

Flying is a booming occupation. It also is one of the few occupations, short of professional sports, that can make "a mere employee" rich passengers to a hub airport was developed by Delta, USAir, Piedmont, American, Federal Express and other large airlines. Today, this is far and away the dominant logistical system of service delivery in the airline industry.

Accompanying hub development has been commuter and regional airline growth and the absorption of these carriers into the major/national airline service systems. Quite a number of entrepreneurs recognized airline deregulation as a golden opportunity to develop a new kind of airline: the small carrier operating propeller-driven airplanes and serving little communities abandoned by major airlines as federal subsidies were discontinued (these subsidies were a casualty of deregulation).

The more visionary of the entrepreneurs saw that the most dynamic area of growth for these small airlines would be the feeder service. Atlantic Southeast Airlines (ASA) in Atlanta, for example, was set up from the start (1979) entirely as a feeder for Delta Air Lines. From the time of its creation from Sunbird, a small commuter, CCAIR in Charlotte was set up entirely as a feeder for Piedmont. And so on. (There were numerous commuter airlines set up for origin-and-destination service, not feed, but ultimately the vast majority of regional/commuter airlines were forced either to adopt the feeder strategy or die.)

The various types of airlines can be confusing without some definitions. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation:
  • A major airline is one with more than $1 billion in annual revenue.

  • A national airline is one with revenue from $100 million to $1 billion.

  • A turbojet airline is a jet carrier with less than $100 million in revenue.

  • And a regional airline is one (generally) flying turboprop or other propeller-driven aircraft and having less than $100 million in revenue.

  • Some regionals do fly turbojet aircraft as well as turboprop.
Special note: Some airline industry people feel a distinction should be made between very small origin-and-destination (O&D) carriers and similar airlines that have grown to substantial size by carrying feed traffic to a major or national airline at a hub airport. According to this distinction, the small O&D carrier would be called a "commuter airline".

The two types of propeller-driven aircraft in use by regional airlines are turboprop aircraft, i.e., planes with jet-type engines that drive propellers instead of sending a jet of hot air out through an opening; and reciprocal, or piston-engine, propeller planes. In the 1970s, the majority of aircraft in commuter airline fleets were piston-engine planes. By the mid-1980s, the vast majority of aircraft in these fleets were turboprops. The fleet makeup has continued to evolve with the introduction of small jet airliners by aircraft makers Canadair and Embraer. (See Glossary for a full definition of "turboprop" and "turbojet.")

Some industry listings do not exclude the $ 100 million-plus turboprop carriers from the group of turboprop airlines - or another way to say this is that the annual revenue figure makes no difference in some listings, e.g., those of the feed carrier, which almost invariably is able to outgrow an O&D rival, would be called a "regional airline."
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