Monday, August 27, 2007

Joining The Regional Jet Revolution

Sherman Oaks, California

RJs are everywhere.

“Regional jets,” the term for small jet or turboprop aircraft which carry 30 to 100 passengers for relatively short distances, have become a mainstay of the American air transport system.


They’re cheap.

They’re cheap to buy, with a new 37-passenger Embraer EMB-135 bearing a list price of $16 million, and a new 86-passenger Bombardier CRJ-900 pricing at $32.7 million, according to Airline Fleet and Network Management magazine. By contrast, a 110-passenger Boeing 737-600, a step up the aviation food chain, lists for almost $50 million. (Purchasers negotiate substantial discounts off the list price.)

But what really makes regional jets cheap is the fact that many of the RJs which feed into the Big Six’s hubs aren’t owned or operated by the major airlines at all. AmericanConnection, for example, is a trademark licensed by American Airlines to Chautauqua Airlines and Trans States Airlines – two completely separate businesses which agree to operate as an adjunct of the mainline carrier. Regional carriers such as these are like the Las Vegas 51s minor league baseball team, part of the Los Angeles Dodgers farm system but owned and operated by Mandalay Baseball Properties. (Some regional carriers are wholly owned subsidiaries of the larger airline.)

All of which is why I flew a round-trip the other weekend in which I booked a ticket on the United website, checked in at United self-service kiosks, was issued a United boarding pass, went to a United gate and flew between Los Angeles (LAX) and Sacramento (SMF) on . . . SkyWest Airlines.

What the heck is SkyWest Airlines?

One of the larger carriers in the United States, it turns out. SkyWest operates 275 planes across the country, averaging more than 1,800 departures per day. SkyWest principally flies under the United Express name, but also has agreements to provide service on certain routes under the names Delta Connection and Midwest Connect.

That’s the what. Here’s the how.

* * * * *

United Airlines Flight 6491 to Sacramento was scheduled to leave from LAX’s Terminal 8, a pier-like terminal which services many of United’s regional jets. Walking down the concourse, the destinations on the departure boards were pure glamour: Fresno, Boise, Modesto, Inyokern.

The United customer service desk near the entrance to the terminal was unmanned. A monitor above it displayed a real-time weather map of the country, which was a thoughtful use of technology. Better: No CNN Airport.

The passengers at the nearest gate looked miserable. Their 10:40 a.m. departure to Sacramento had been terribly delayed, and their flight was now scheduled to depart at 2:09 p.m. Passengers from the northern part of L.A. could have made comparable time driving.

All of the gates made an attempt to reward United elites. A short, separate line to the Jetway was reserved for Global Services, United First, 1K and United Business travelers, a short red carpet marking the lane. A small touch, but it showed that United was thinking of its higher-revenue passengers when they traveled on these predominantly single-class planes.

Unlike the flight of the damned next door, my flight was more or less on time. Scheduled to depart at 2:40 p.m., it pushed back at 3:01 p.m. and rotated into the sky at 3:10 p.m. The regional jet seemed to taxi at a palpably faster speed than the large commercial jets. (By the way, the end of the Jetway does not fit snuggly onto many regional jets, requiring passengers to cross a ramp to board (pictured).)

All 50 seats in the Bombardier CRJ-200 were filled. At six foot one, I found the cabin, with its 2-2 layout, cramped but acceptable for a one-hour hop. The sole flight attendant provided a beverage service as we cruised at 23,000 feet. A family of Japanese tourists – Dad, Mom and two teenage daughters – snoozed on the other side of the aisle. I flipped through the United and SkyWest in-flight magazines. The seats were blue leather with a jazzy SkyWest logo on the headrest.

Krunk! There was no mistaking when the landing gear dropped. We landed in Sacramento at 4:12 p.m. after a smooth, uneventful trip up the spine of the state.

Sacramento International Airport – it offers direct passenger flights to Vancouver and Guadalajara and is therefore “International” – is one of those fantasy small town airports. New. Clean. Easy to navigate. Short lines. All support services a free shuttle ride away.

Terminal A showcased a clever sculpture composed of discarded luggage. The airport hotel was directly across from Terminal B. I was sitting in my rental car within minutes, asking myself, “What on earth is a Pontiac G6?”

The next days’ flight back (also numbered Flight 6491, curiously) was the reverse mirror image, with a different flight attendant. I was able to watch the captain walk around the CRJ (tail number N916SW) for the pre-flight visual inspection. It may be a form of “safety theater,” but I like knowing that the guy at the controls gives the ship a personal once-over before departure. We pushed back at 4:49 p.m., rotated up at 4:59 p.m., flew down without incident, made the W-I-D-E turn over Los Angeles to line up with the runway, and landed at 6:10 p.m.

As usual, I wandered over to the Tom Bradley International Terminal to see what exotic birds had migrated to Southern California. A Mexicana A320 sat on the north side, a toy next to its massive relative, a Swiss Air International Airbus A340-300 (tail number HB-JMG). On the south side of the TBIT was a Singapore Airlines A340-500 (tail number 9V-SGB), preparing for its 8,770-mile non-stop journey home.

That’s not a route you can fly on a regional jet.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

SMF has nonstops to Vancouver, Guadalajara, Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta (December). Direct flights expand the Mexican options. Additional countries will likely be added after completion of the new terminal.

1:45 AM  

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