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Regional flights fewer at JWA

Number of commuter flights drops by half as low-cost carriers trump the competition, aviation consultant says.

February 23, 2010|By Mike Reicher

When Virgin America started flying its stylish jets from John Wayne Airport to San Francisco, some of the no-frills commuter planes operating at JWA just couldn’t compete.

American Eagle canceled its flights to the Bay Area in November, and JWA has seen its commuter flights — the regional hops on planes with fewer than 70 passengers — drop by half.

But Southwest Airlines and Virgin America added larger planes to the same route, and travelers were actually left with more flights going to and from the Bay Area — at low fares and with more in-flight entertainment.

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“It’s simply a matter of competition,” said Jack Keady, an aviation consultant based in Playa del Rey. He said American Eagle had more profitable places to deploy its planes. “Eagle just didn’t want to waste its time slugging it out with inferior equipment.”

The commuter jets, or regional jets, are the ones with either one or two seats on either side of the aisle and with lower ceilings. They’re often operated by smaller carriers such as SkyWest Airlines or Mesa Air for larger “legacy” airlines such as United.

Regional jets aren’t necessarily quieter than the larger ones like Boeing 737s or Airbus 320s, which hold between 120 and 150 passengers, the Federal Aviation Administration website says.

In other parts of the U.S., legacy carriers have stepped up their use of commuter jets, flying them on longer routes.

They can be more economical for airlines, especially when jet fuel prices skyrocket like they did in 2008.

But at Orange County, American decided its San Francisco and San Jose flights weren’t full enough and the fares were too low to justify flying the routes. Flights to the Bay Area on “low-cost carriers” Virgin and Southwest can be as cheap as $120.

“The reality is that the Eagle flights were not as profitable as they needed to be,” said Tim Smith, spokesman for American Airlines.

Eagle has shifted its assets to other routes. It just announced a new route from Los Angeles International to Reno, for example.

“It comes down to trying to do a better job matching capacity with actual demand,” Smith said.

For almost 10 years, the number of regional flights at JWA averaged between 9,265 and 16,255 per year. Now, 2010 is on track to have 4,800 regional flights per year.

At JWA, commuter flights are still operated by SkyWest Airlines, for Delta Connection and United Express. Delta flies to its hub at Salt Lake City and United to its hub at San Francisco.

Neither Virgin, which has live satellite TV, nor Southwest, fly to Salt Lake. So Delta may be safe for now.

“They created a pretty bloody battlefield,” Smith said.


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