Ask the pilot

As delays hit record levels, a closer look at how airline scheduling practices are killing travel.

Published July 13, 2007 10:35AM (EDT)

I know, you were hoping I'd have something to say about last Sunday's rollout of the Boeing 787. According to Boeing, the plane will reintroduce passengers to the glamour and excitement of air travel. As if bigger windows and improved cabin lighting will win the public's heart. I'm sure it's a swell plane, even if they insist on calling it "Dreamliner," but it strikes me that the marketers at Boeing aren't fully in tune with the things people hate about flying. More on that in a moment.

To be honest, I find rollout ceremonies boring. Not that I've ever been to one, but they sure look boring on television. Or maybe I'm just jealous, since I never get invited. Doubtless the big-name writers were in Seattle for the curtain pull: Joe Sharkey from the New York Times, Scott McCartney from the Wall Street Journal, Alan Levin from USA Today. Why not me? First the A380 rollout, and now this. No respect.

But there are bigger things going on, frankly. Speaking of Alan Levin, maybe you caught his front-page story earlier this week on the nightly tarmac gridlock at Kennedy airport. The situation at JFK has reached a breaking point, and it is symptomatic of a nationwide crisis. Maybe Levin was distracted by 787 fever, but like almost everyone else who has written about the worsening problem of congestion and delays, he neglects to acknowledge the elephant in the room: the hundreds of small regional planes -- those "Express" and "Connection" code-share flights -- that are jockeying for space, both on the ground and aloft, with larger planes.

These code-share arrangements have been around for decades but have spread tremendously in recent years thanks to the advent of fast and efficient regional jets, or RJs. Their small size and large numbers add up to a disproportionate impact on traffic flow. From an airspace point of view, a plane is a plane is a plane, regardless of how many chairs are on board. At some airports, regionals make up half of total traffic while carrying only a quarter of the passengers. Not to hammer this topic more than is due -- we gave it a good going over back in June -- but with summer delays at record levels it's worth reiterating, particularly since neither the carriers nor the FAA seem interested in taking the matter seriously, choosing instead to blame "weather" and air-traffic-control equipment shortcomings for what in truth is an airline scheduling issue.

I recently returned to airline flying after a nearly six-year hiatus. Obviously the business has been transformed since 2001, from security to salaries, but two unpleasant changes have jumped out at me.

First is the weather. This is wholly anecdotal and by no means a scientific observation, but the number and strength of thunderstorms and convective activity seem drastically worse than in years past. This is especially true in and around the crowded Northeast corridor. I spent several years based in New York and Boston in the early and mid-1990s. Summer thunderstorms were at worst an occasional, maybe weekly occurrence. Now they are hitting almost every afternoon, with lines of majestically sculpted cumulonimbus clouds ripping through New England as if it were tropical Africa.

Regardless of what is or isn't causing this climatic weirdness, its impact wouldn't be half so bad if not for the staggering volume of air traffic attempting to navigate through and around it. I've never seen anything like it. Long waits and holding patterns are routine now, even on clear sunny days. And an ever-growing percentage of that traffic is made up of regionals. Check out those evening conga lines at Kennedy, and you're liable to spot a 500-passenger Boeing 747 sandwiched between four 50-seaters. Elsewhere it's similar. At LaGuardia and Washington-National, the number of RJs and, to a lesser extent, turboprop feeder craft, is astonishing, often outnumbering the Boeings and Airbuses of the majors.

At least in theory, regional aircraft provide a valuable service, connecting small, outlying markets with major cities. Passengers in Madison, Wis., or Bangor, Maine, can step aboard a sleek, sophisticated RJ and be whisked to Chicago or Boston in a matter of minutes, be it as their final destination or a place to make an onward connection. One problem is, airlines have taken to using these planes on longer trunk routes. Today you can fly from New York to Dallas, Chicago or Miami in what used to be called a "commuter plane."

During a 90-minute ground delay at LaGuardia a couple of weeks ago, I watched 14 regional jets taxi toward the runway in a row. Granted some were headed to Binghamton or Buffalo, N.Y., or Columbus, Ohio, but just as many were destined for Boston, Detroit and other major cities. Over at the U.S. Airways terminal that afternoon, the tails of 23 RJs and Dash-8 turboprops could be counted amid four or five Airbus A320s and a couple of 737s.

To be fair, RJs aren't the only culprits, and admittedly there's a certain chicken-or-egg aspect to the whole mess. One could easily argue that this isn't an RJ problem so much as a scheduling problem in general. Southwest Airlines has been advertising hourly 737 service between Manchester, N.H., and Philadelphia. That's 12 Boeings daily -- 12 -- from Manchester (population 110,000) to Philly. Keep that in mind next time you're supposed to be in PHL, but find yourself sitting on a tarmac hundreds of miles away, waiting out a two-hour ground stop. Airlines sell frequency. And, right or wrong, passengers buy it. Twelve daily flights between cities A and B is always a stronger selling point than five -- no matter if those 12 flights seldom arrive on time. Heck, when the storms move in and everything goes to hell, blame it on "the weather."

Your attention please: With scattered exceptions, there is no such thing as a weather delay. They are traffic delays. Your flight was not late because of the weather. It was late because there are too many small airplanes carrying too few people, end of story.

Making a bad situation worse, the use of noncommercial business jets has surged since 2001. In addition to those owned privately, leasing companies and fractional ownership providers like NetJets and Sentient Jet operate as virtual airlines, with dozens or even hundreds of small, high-performance aircraft in their fleets, pumping yet more aluminum into already busy en route sectors nationwide. When storms constrict routings, those Gulfstreams and Falcons need to be sequenced among the jetliners. The coming wave of so-called VLJs (very light jets) isn't going to help. (Growth in the biz-jet sector has spawned some intense controversy, by the way, over whether noncommercial operators should foot a larger portion of ATC system funding.)

Corollary to all of this, you might have noticed that the "big" planes have themselves been getting smaller. Narrow-bodied jetliners like the A319, A320, 737 and MD-88 now make up the bulk of the majors' fleets. More and more people are flying (the number has doubled in the past quarter-century), while the planes carrying them have, on average, become smaller. Unfair as it might be, I have not yet been appointed U.S. aviation czar. When that day comes, I will do what I can to encourage consolidation, with a goal toward cutting flights by 20 percent at the worst-performing airports. Fewer flights using larger planes might reduce the consumer's flight options, but in many markets those options are a ruse to begin with since half of them end up late or canceled.

Until then, this systemwide downsizing has made it harder and harder to define what a regional jet, or regional airline, is in the first place. U.S. Airways, JetBlue and Air Canada, for instance, have added 70-seat and 90-seat Embraer jets -- types normally flown by code-share proxies -- to their mainline fleets. Aside from the impact on traffic, does it matter? U.S. Airways, U.S. Airways Express ... what's the difference?

The distinction isn't always important for passengers, and neither is it easy to notice. Regionals move through the system more or less incognito, decked out stealthily in the paint schemes of the majors. How many fliers pay attention to those little fuselage decals -- "Operated by Mesa Airlines," or "Operated by Air Wisconsin"? What might surprise you is that, with a few exceptions, these companies have only the thinnest associations with the majors whose liveries they're permitted to wear. The majority of regional aircraft are neither registered to nor maintained by any "parent" major. Their employees, too, are wholly independent. Look closely at crew-member uniforms and ID badges. In reality, a pilot with United Express has no closer a relationship with United Airlines than do the parking lot attendants in Terminal B. And he's probably paid no better. A passenger in Chicago steps off a United Airlines 757 and onto a United Express regional plane. It is mostly a seamless transition. Little does he know that although the pilots of that 757 might earn a decent living, it's a different story on the RJ, where the first officer might bring home as little as $17,000 yearly -- the captain a bit more, and the flight attendant less.

Justified or not, it is what it is: a form of domestic outsourcing. Where things are heading is tough to say, but code shares and outsourcing -- both the domestic and offshore kind -- have brought us to a point where the very notion of an airline is somewhat murky. Consider this scenario:

A passenger telephones a major airline to book a trip. He's connected to India, where a call center employee sells him a ticket. Later, when he shows up at the airport, the counter staff are contract workers from a local ground services company (this is increasingly common at international stations). He next boards the airplane, which through the magic of code shares (he hadn't read the fine print on his ticket) turns out to be that of an alliance partner or regional. Outside, notice the Aramark logos on the caps of the luggage loaders and marshalers. They too are subcontractors. In other words, it's possible to complete an entire journey without ever once encountering an airplane or employee belonging to the carrier you thought you were buying a ticket from.

Fact and fallacy

The two prominent builders of regional jets today are Bombardier and Embraer, of Canada and Brazil, respectively. Together they have delivered nearly 2,500 aircraft. (Say what you want of their impact on delays, Embraer's ERJ-135/145 is one of the sharpest-looking jets ever built.) The Dutch, Germans, Brits and Russians have produced them in the past. Although the United States is by far the largest market, there has never been an American-designed RJ. Similarly, on the turboprop front, the most successful models have come from overseas (Canada, Sweden, France, etc.).

Worldwide, RJs make up about one-fifth of the total industry jetliner fleet. Not bad for a concept that barely existed 20 years ago.

As travelers will notice, regional airline pilots are often strikingly young. You almost have to be, considering the wages, and truth be told, in many cases, they're also strikingly inexperienced. (Yours truly had just turned 24, with about 1,500 hours in Cessnas and Pipers, when I landed my first airline job, as a copilot on an unpressurized 15-seater.)

Is there a segue here to safety? You'd think so, but not really. On some impossible-to-quantify level, riding on a 50-seater is perhaps a riskier bet than on a 737. But in no way does that equate to unsafe. Regional pilots are trained to the same standards and put through the same tests, checks and regulatory hoops as their mainline counterparts. And though they might be small, modern regional aircraft are anything but quaint, running up to $20 million apiece, with levels of cockpit sophistication often surpassing that of larger jets.

They might be giants: America's biggest regional carriers, measured in fleet size (2006 data courtesy of Air Transport World)

1. ExpressJet (271)
2. SkyWest (264)
3. AMR Eagle (262)
4. Atlantic Southeast Airlines (162)
5. Comair (150)
6. Mesa Airlines (139)
7. Pinnacle Airlines (126)
8. Chautauqua Airlines Group (110)
9. Air Wisconsin (77)
10. Horizon Air (75)
11. Piedmont Airlines (58)
12. Mesaba Airlines (50)
13. Colgan Airways (49)
14. PSA (48)
15. Republic Airlines (38)

Affiliations vary. Some regionals, like Mesa and Chautauqua, fly on behalf of two or more majors. A few, such as AMR Eagle and Comair (dba American Eagle and Delta Connection), are wholly owned subsidiaries, albeit with separate operating structures and employee groups. And you'll notice that others, namely Piedmont, PSA and Republic, borrow the names of deceased majors. What's next, a commuter called Braniff International?

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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