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The Changing Role of Regional Airlines and Jets in a Shifting Aviation Landscape



The regional jet industry has been under significant pressure over the last three years. According to the OAG Schedule Analyzer, while airlines' total frequencies were reduced by 19.5% in 2022, regional planes experienced a 33.5% decrease. In 2019, regional jets accounted for 14% of all aircraft frequencies, which decreased to 11.6% in 2022. Narrow-body jets accounted for most of this share, with a growth of two percentage points during the same period. Airlines are beginning to question the viability of their regional route networks and are increasingly evaluating their environmental impact. However, there are signs of recovery in various markets, and different factors are influencing these respective markets.


North America is by far the largest user of regional jets, with 57% of all regional aircraft frequencies operated in this region during 2022. The next most significant user is Western Europe, accounting for 14.7% of all frequencies. Regional airlines and their jets have played a critical role in the US air transportation system, with most of the capacity feeding larger airlines such as American, Delta, or United. However, as buses replace shorter trips and low-cost carriers (LCCs) take more services from small cities with lower fares and non-stop services, the value of regional flights is decreasing, and there are fewer frequencies operated by regional planes.


Alaska Airlines, Air Canada, and Jet Blue are the largest regional aircraft operators in North America. Except for Jet Blue, which operates its Embraer 190 with 100 seats, other US airlines typically operate regional planes with an average aircraft size of 76 seats or less. This complies with the scope clause, which imposes restrictions on the number and size of aircraft a regional airline can operate, making the smaller regional jet more popular. The purpose of the scope clause is to protect pilot jobs at major airlines from outsourcing by limiting the passenger capacity of regional airlines.


Regional airlines and jets have traditionally been the training ground for pilots. However, due to the current pilot shortage in the region, salary increases, along with other inflationary pressures, are affecting the cost structure of regional airlines more substantially than larger airlines, especially with a smaller available seat-mile base. The long-term role of regional carriers facing these pressures will require close cooperation between regional operators and airlines that purchase their services.


In Europe, there are different dynamics at play, where airlines prefer to keep regional aircraft operations in-house. The Netherlands and Germany are the largest regional jet markets in terms of frequency. Although neither has recovered to 2019 levels, they have experienced considerable growth in the last year. The biggest declines by frequency have occurred in Italy and France, largely driven by domestic capacity, which has decreased by 92% and 67% respectively in 2022 compared to 2019. The reasons driving these changes are very different. The decline in regional aircraft capacity in Italy is largely due to the minimal use of regional planes by ITA since taking over Alitalia's operations. In France, domestic flights were banned in April 2022 for environmental reasons, leaving high-speed train travel, halving the demand for these air trips.


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