by Michael Lowrey
Got a column out for Carolina Journal on some changes in the airline industry. Here’s it is in it’s entirety:
CHARLOTTE — Local business leaders, economic development types, and government officials reflexively think of air service in terms of the number of flights handled by their airports daily. For most North Carolina airports, that number will drop significantly over the next few years.
Technological innovations greatly influence how we travel. And that’s especially true in air travel. Ten to 20 years ago, a new class of planes — regional jets, seating up to 50 passengers — radically transformed how the airlines operated. Today, another wave of change is shaking up the aviation business, with 50-seaters being replaced en masse by larger aircraft.
Twenty years ago, you had two basic types of airlines: those flying jets seating 100 or more passengers and commuter carriers flying turboprops generally seating only 19 passengers. Communities that could attract 10,000 airline passengers annually typically could justify scheduling service at their airports — in other words, three flights daily on 19-seat turboprops that are half-empty.
Fast forward to 2014, and 19-seaters are only slightly more common in American skies than passenger pigeons. Industry economics changed beginning in the mid-1990s, as commuter carriers, operating at the major airlines’ behest, acquired 50-seat regional jets and used them to replace both smaller turboprops on feeder routes to airline hubs and bigger jets on routes with limited demand.
Along the way, communities including Hickory, Rocky Mount, Winston-Salem, and Kinston that couldn’t generate enough passengers to fill these 50-seat regional jets simply lost all their scheduled air service.
But the economics of 50-seaters leaves a lot to be desired, especially given today’s high fuel prices. As a result, the regional carriers that fly for American, Delta, and United are starting to dump 50-seaters. The planes replacing them are larger, seating at least 76 passengers and sometimes as many as 110.
This would represent a huge increase in capacity if the aircraft replacement were on a one-for-one basis. That’s not how things are working out, though, with Delta, the airline that’s the furthest along in the process, aiming to keep the amount of capacity it has available about the same.
For most smaller communities, that will translate into fewer flights but on bigger planes. For those cities that just barely are holding on to any scheduled air service at the moment, it can mean a future with no flights at all — there’s a minimum number of flights a day to keep an airport attractive for business flyers, and without those traveling on their employer’s dime, service in such markets just isn’t viable.
It isn’t a question of merely having air service. Having air service to more hubs, especially those in distant locations — in a North Carolina context, think Dallas, Detroit, Houston, or Minneapolis — offers a competitive advantage in business recruitment for a smaller community.
The move to larger aircraft will affect more distant hubs. Indeed, here is where the shift to larger planes will happen first, as the economic viability of relying on 50-seaters may not work on longer routes.
Fewer flights with larger planes also will affect airport operations. Most obviously, it can place a bigger burden on screening operations by the Transportation Security Administration if several larger planes are scheduled to leave roughly at the same time. But the challenges extend beyond that — is there enough room at the gate and bathroom capacity to accommodate passengers at smaller airports if several 110-seaters (or even larger jets, which sometimes get mixed in) are all getting ready to depart?
For some airports, this won’t be a problem. For others it will require significant changes. In all cases, though, how people, especially civic leaders, in smaller communities think of aviation will have to change.