Recently, I posted comments about the Regional Airlines, Scope Clauses, and new regional aircraft. This post will provide some history for comparison purposes and specifically it will discuss aircraft that carry 50 to 76 passengers.
Of great concern is that the outlook for the regional airline market is dismal unless new regional jet aircraft are developed by the aircraft manufacturers. The regional jet aircraft that are used today are almost exclusively made by two manufacturers, Brazil’s Embraer and Canada’s Bombardier. This year, Embraer has entered into an agreement with Boeing wherein Boeing will buy 80% of Embraer’s regional aircraft division. This awaits Brazilian government approval. Also, Airbus has purchased Bombardier, meaning that any future regional jet developments will be determined by Airbus. That deal is settled and complete. At the present time, there is no publically known new regional jet of the 50 seat or the 76 seat size that is under development. This segment is headed for extinction, which means that many cities will inevitably lose air service.
To start, it is important to understand that the airlines try very hard to match the size of their aircraft to the size of the market. The term “market” in this sense means the city-pair of origin and destination of a specific flight or series of flights.
For example, if the city pair is Los Angeles (LAX) and Phoenix (PHX), the potential number of seats that could be sold is large. The result is that airlines such as Southwest operate in that market with the B737-700, with something like 17 daily flights. That aircraft has 143 seats. (Other models of the B737 have more seats.)
Another example is the city pair Los Angeles (LAX) and Reno (RNO). That flight is operated by, among others, Compass Airlines, operating as American Eagle, using the Embraer 175, which has 76 seats.
Still another is the city pair Los Angeles (LAX) and San Luis Obispo (SBP). This flight is operated by United Express using a Bombardier CRJ200, which has 50 seats. There are only a handful of flights each day in this market.
I am only writing about the US domestic market here, using narrow-body aircraft. International markets are even more complex, as they involve factors such as very large aircraft (the A380) and aircraft that have long range flight capability (the B-777ER)
The point is that markets that utilize aircraft of 50, 76, and 143 seats are quite different, one from another. Even though the origin might be the same, such as LAX, the destination determines how big an aircraft can be used economically. Issues such as the runway length at the destination are not normally the determinative factor. Rather, it is the potential number of seats that can be sold, i.e., the LAX-San Luis Obispo market is much smaller than that of LAX-Phoenix.
The Legacy and major airlines operate fleets of aircraft that are only suitable in large markets such as the LAX-PHX example. They do not operate regional jets themselves. While the 50-seat ERJ145 is still being produced by Embraer, there is no new development aircraft underway by the manufacturers to produce an entirely new 50-seat regional jet. It appears that the airline markets that can only support these small 50-seat aircraft are on a slow march to losing service altogether.
What seems clear is only the 76-100 seat aircraft has a good outlook for the next 20+ years in terms of new aircraft now being built or designed. But as previously discussed, the Scope Clauses have created an immediate roadblock for this market, with respect to new aircraft offerings for the 76-100 seat regional jet.
We can now ask the following questions:
Consider the markets such as Philadelphia (PHL)-Indianapolis (IND) or Philadelphia (PHL) – Milwaukee (MKE). Milwaukee is the 31st largest city in the U.S. with almost 600,000 people. Philadelphia is the 6th largest city in the U.S. with 1.6 million people. Indianapolis is the 16th largest city in the U.S. with 863,000 people.
IND is a base for FedEx and also a hub for the regional carrier Republic Airlines. IND has many daily flights, but only two per day to Philadelphia. MKE has more daily flights to PHL, operated by American Airlines through Republic/American Eagle, Piedmont Airlines/American Eagle. Also, United through its affiliate Air Wisconsin/United Express and Delta, through SkyWest/Delta Connection all fly regional jets to PHL. The American Eagle non-stops are served by the EMB145 (same as ERJ145). United Express does not fly non-stop to and from MKE in the PHL market and they use either the ERJ145, the CRJ200, or the EMB175 in multi-stop connections.
There are two issues here: one, the number of daily fights in the above two markets involving Philadelphia are relatively few. Second, the regional jet aircraft currently in use in these two markets are both too small (both the ERJ145 and the CRJ200) and getting long–in-the-tooth, meaning that they are likely on their final years of service in this market.
The only new regional jets that are being developed, such as the Embraer E175 E2 and the Airbus A200-100, will not be usable under the current schedules in these two markets (and many others) as just explained. In fact, unless the Scope Clauses get amended, the regionals are heading for a cliff. Importantly, the aircraft manufacturers that will design and build new regional jets have been reduced to just Boeing and Airbus, although Japan’s Mitsubishi and China are trying to get into the regional jet market. Still, there is no manufacturer that is working on a replacement for the ERJ145 and the CRJ200.
The above image shows the ERJ145 in United Nations livery.
Last week, 29 year-old Richard Russell stole a Horizon Air Q400 airplane and took off from SEA-TAC airport where he worked as a ground service operator. Before fatally crashing more than an hour later, he went on a joyride complete with impressive acrobatic maneuvers. It has been reported that his only prior experience was playing videogames.
In the aftermath of the incident, there has been much discussion in the media about possible courses of action to remedy such a situation, i.e., where the bad actor is enabled by experience, sufficient knowledge and privileged access. Without that convergence, an average person would not have been able to pull off the theft, flight, and crash.
Some of the proposals have been draconian, others merely impractical. To evaluate them and come up with an appropriate but measured response, it’s instructive to review analogous incidents.
In the past, serious and even murderous events have taken place with similar elements to the Richard Russell case. This blog will lay out some of them.
EgyptAir Flight 990, October 31, 1999. The flight involved a Boeing 767-366ER, enroute from JFK to Cairo. There were 247 people on board. Approximately 62 nautical miles South of Nantucket, beginning from an enroute altitude of 33,000 feet, the First Officer, alone in the cockpit (the Captain was in the lavatory), pushed the aircraft’s nose down into a near-vertical dive, shut off the engines, and crashed the B767 into the Atlantic Ocean. All on board perished and the aircraft was completely demolished on impact with the sea. Nothing significant was recovered, only small pieces of debris. No bodies were found, only small body parts that allowed some limited forensic identification. The final “Probable Cause” was a suicidal act on the part of the First Officer. He murdered 247 people.
Germanwings Flight 9525, March 24, 2015. This is so recent that likely many readers will remember the accident. The flight involved an Airbus A320-211 that was enroute from Barcelona to Dusseldorf. Flying in a mountainous region some 62 nautical miles north-west of Nice (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence), the First Officer was (as in the EgyptAir case) alone in the cockpit with the Captain having left the cockpit. The First Officer locked the Captain out of the cockpit, started a descent from an enroute altitude of 38,000 feet, and crashed the aircraft into a mountain. The investigation concluded that the First Officer was suicidal. He murdered all 50 people who were on board the aircraft.
August 21, 2015 Thalys Train 9364 Attack. Train 9363, traveling from Amsterdam to Paris, having just crossed the border from Belgium to France, was attacked by a 25-year old Moroccan man armed with an AKM assault rifle and 9mm Luger pistol. He also had a bottle of gasoline and a box cutter in his possession. He carried a total of 270 rounds of ammunition. In an almost miraculous fortuity, the attacker was encountered by two young male passengers with military training who intervened. There was an initial struggle and some gunfire, but the attacker was finally subdued. There were no fatalities, but 3 train passengers were injured. The attacker was also injured and he was apprehended.
The Bastille Day Truck Attack. On July 15, 2016, a 31-year old French Tunisian man drove a truck down a crowded seafront street in Nice during a festive event on Bastille Day. He mowed down and murdered 84 people. In addition to the fatalities, another 202 people were injured in the attack, including 25 on life support and 52 in critical condition in the aftermath. This attack followed two earlier terrorist attacks within a year’s time in France, i.e., the Charlie Hebdo killings and the Bataclan massacre of 130 people in Paris.
Venice California Boardwalk Attack. On August 3, 2013, a young man was able to evade roadblocks and drive his car onto the Venice Beach “boardwalk”, a place where cars aren’t permitted. It was during a typical summer afternoon, and there were hundreds of people walking lazily on the boardwalk and attending the café’s there. The aftermath was horrifying and very bloody. At least 12 people were seriously injured, 10 of them hospitalized. Although only one death resulted from the attack, it could have been much worse.
Cessna 525 Crash, Payson, Utah, two days ago. At 2:30 AM in Payson Utah, a city some 60 miles south of Salt Lake City, the pilot intentionally flew a Cessna 525 into his own home, where his wife and a child were sleeping in the home. The pilot, Duane Youd, died in the crash but his wife and child were uninjured. Youd had just hours earlier been arrested for assaulting his wife, but had been released from custody before going up in the plane.
The above examples are by no means complete. For example, recall the October 31, 2017 attack on the West Side Highway bicycle path of New York where a man drove a truck into a crowd and killed 8 people.
After these disasters, a number of responses have been tried. For example, many airlines forbid its pilots to exit the cockpit, leaving behind just a single person. (However this restriction did not find its way into US Federal Regulations.) Police security has been increased, and some screening equipment has been installed in public places such as train stations. There will be much discussion coming in the next weeks and months. However, it is important that we all remember the past as we try to construct new remedies.
The photo above shows a Horizon Air Q400 of the same type as the stolen and crashed aircraft.
Aircraft manufacturers are doing everything that they can do to reduce fuel consumption while at the same time reducing GHG emissions without increasing the cost to operate their passenger aircraft.
In the United States, only three airlines are referred to as “Legacy Airlines.” They are American, Delta, and United. Other airlines such as Southwest Airlines are termed “Major Airlines” but do not carry the “Legacy” distinction. One distinguishing characteristic of the Legacy Airlines is that they exclusively have Collective Bargaining Agreements (“CBA’s) with their pilots that incorporate provisions termed “Scope Clauses.” The Scope Clause provisions limit the Legacy Airlines in their ability to contract with independent regional airlines for cooperative services to and from the smaller airports. It is also important to understand that fundamental airline economic factors create a direct link between the size of the aircraft and the airport it serves. Smaller airports require smaller aircraft. Small airports cannot economically support large aircraft. Thus the Legacies want to “contract out” small airport services to the regional airlines that operate smaller aircraft. Importantly the regional airlines pay their pilots significantly less money that the Legacies pay their pilots.
Scope Clauses limit a significant number of parameters that are defined within the contracts between the Legacies and the Regionals. For example, Scope Clauses restrict the number of seats that the regional partner aircraft can sell in each particular aircraft. Also limited are the number of aircraft in total that can be covered by these contracts. Another limitation involves the total number of hours contracted and the percentage of contracted flights that exceed certain distances. (There are other limitations as well, described later in this blog post.)
Regarding seat limitations, they are placed on the number of seats that any individual aircraft is scheduled to fly. For example, the regionals operate aircraft such as the Bombardier CRJ 900. It is actually certified by the regulatory authorities to carry up to 90 passengers but the Scope Clauses restrict the operation of this aircraft to 76 seats. This specific example is in place with SkyWest Airlines’ contract with Delta Airlines for the “Delta Connection.” The SkyWest Airlines CRJ900 therefore operates with 14 empty seats in its Delta Connection contract.
The seat limitation is trifurcated into the following seating limitations:
Not to exceed 50 seats. SkyWest Airlines operates the Bombardier CRJ100 and the CRJ200 for American Airlines’ “American Eagle” and for Delta Airlines’ “Delta Connection.” These two aircraft are certified for just 50 seats.
Between 51 and 76 seats. Skywest Airlines operates the Bombardier CRJ700 for American Eagle, The Delta Connections, and also for United Airlines’ “United Express.” The CRJ700 is certified for up to 78 seats. However, the Delta Scope Clause places restrictions at both 70 seats and 76 seats. The American Airlines Scope Clause has restrictions at 65 seats. United Airlines’ restrictions exist at a total not to exceed of 255 aircraft between 51 and 76 seats and not to exceed 153 aircraft at specifically 76 seats.
Specifically, at 76 seats. SkyWest Airlines operates the Bombardier CRJ900 for the Delta Connection, with the seating configuration “blocked out” at 76 seats although the aircraft is actually certified to carry up to 90 passengers. Thus the Delta Connection operates the CRJ900 with 14 empty seats. SkyWest also operates the Embraer 175 for The Delta Connection and United Express. The EMB175 is certified for up to 88 passengers but both Delta Connection and United Express operate it in a dual class configuration, certified at 76.
There are many more Regional Airlines other than Skywest Airlines that contract with the Legacies through their Scope Clauses. For example, American Airlines’ American Eagle contracts with Compass Airlines, Envoy Air, Express Jet, Mesa Airlines, Piedmont Airlines, PSA Airlines, Republic Airlines, and Trans State Airlines.
The Delta Connection includes Compass Airlines, Endeavor Air, Express Jet, Go Jet, and Republic, in addition to SkyWest. The United Express includes Air Wisconsin, Commutair, Express Jet, Go Jet, Mesa Airlines, Republic Airlines, Trans State Airlines, in addition to SkyWest.
The collection of all these Regional Airline operations under the three Scope Clauses are very similar to what is described above in the seating limitation trifurcation.
And now we come to the 86,000 pound question. In addition to the restrictions on number of seats, total aircraft fleets, hours that can be contracted, and geographical/distance limitations, there is one remaining limit that has become a significant issue, and that is an upper limit on the “Maximum Takeoff Gross Weight” (“MTOGW”) of any aircraft that can be contracted out to the regionals. The mystery is “why” this additional restriction was interjected into the Scope Clauses and why the original restrictions were not fully determinative. What was missing? This restriction has now become a major international problem as well as hampering future regional jet sales.
The parameter MTOGW incorporates the structural weight of the aircraft and its components, including engines. It also includes the weight of the passengers, their baggage, cargo, and the total weight of the fuel on board. So a limitation on MTOGW involved some limitations on or any of these measures. In any event, it limits the aircraft’s performance envelope.
There are some 15 discrete, existing aircraft that can be included within the “Regional Jet” category, with the additional categorization that they are all either close to or heavier than the 86,000 pound MTOGW limit. (For example, the EMB145 has a 48,500 pound MTOGW, although not really relevant here.)
Of these 15 “heavier” regional jets, only two can meet the 86,000 pound MTOGW Scope Clause restriction – the Bombardier CRJ900LR and the Embraer 170, coming in at 84,500 pounds and 85,098 pounds respectively. The AirbusA220-100, one of the Bombardier CS Series aircraft, a subject of one of my earlier blogs, has a MTOGW of 134,000 pounds. With no fuel on board, it has a maximum zero fuel weight of 100,000 pounds. The A220 is therefore totally excluded by the Scope Clause from the Legacy/Regional cooperative market. So, virtually all of the newer regional jets are being blocked out by the existing Scope Clauses. It is clear that Delta, in placing its order for the A220, intends to operate this aircraft within its own CBA. It will eventually replace the B717 that Delta currently operates.
At the moment, the single aircraft that is causing the biggest problem is the Embraer 175E2, which has a MTOGW of 98,767 pounds, thus being 6 tons “overweight.” Embraer cannot reasonably be expected to address this 6 ton problem through a reduction of fuel, passengers, or cargo/baggage. Therefore, it has to look to the aircraft structure itself, but that is not doable either. Embraer is therefore actually looking at the possibility of somehow getting a waiver or elimination of the 86,000 pound MTOGW Scope Clause restriction.
Epitomized by the Airbus A220 series and the Embraer E2 series, these new aircraft have greatly improved performance capabilities. They are significantly more fuel efficient, they have significantly better payload/range capabilities, and they have significant emission improvements compared to their derivative predecessors. As an example, the Embraer 175E2 burns significantly less fuel than its predecessor, the E175. To get that performance, Embraer made significant changes to the fuselage and the wing, reducing weight and improving aerodynamics. To get the reduced fuel burn, they changed the engine to an entirely new, highly advanced engine, switching from GE to Pratt & Whitney. But that engine added significant weight to the aircraft. Getting the improved fuel burn required design changes to the engine that added weight.
Will the Legacy pilots agree to relax or waive the 86,000 Scope Clause restriction? Stay tuned.
The photo above shows an American Eagle CRJ700. The aircraft is actually registered to and owned by American Airlines Inc.
The three images above show the Airbus A320 assembly line at Mobile AL and how these major assemblies are moved and joined. The assemblies arrive by ship and are moved by truck to the former US Air Force Base, Brookley Field, which is 4 miles from the harbor.
Airbus has been very open and public about their criticism that the production costs for the A220 are far too high to permit the survival of the program. Airbus wants at least a 10% cost savings in these productions costs. Openly stated, the Airbus plan is to achieve this cost reduction by means of its superior negotiating capabilities with the suppliers. This remains to be seen. Airbus does not clearly say that they will squeeze cost savings out of Bombardier, be that Belfast, Quebec or Montreal, but that might have to be the case for such a reduction to be achieved.
A key strategy in the Airbus acquisition of Bombardier and its CSeries aircraft was that Airbus will relocate the major fraction of A220 assembly to Mobile AL, where Airbus already assembles the A321. When Airbus opened its production line at Mobile, the company publically stated that the move was not intended to save production costs, rather the company said that the intention was not to increase costs due to the more costly logistics path. The trade-off was to be found in reduced labor costs with non-union labor in Alabama. The transportation costs would thus be offset by labor savings.
Similar to the highly distributed fabrication locations that exist for the A220, major assemblies for the A320 series are fabricated at many locations as well. The A320‘s wings are made in Broughton Wales. (Similar to the case with the Northern Ireland fabrication plant for the A220, this will bring Brexit complications.) The A320 front fuselage is made in Saint-Nazaire France, and the aft fuselage in Hamburg Germany. The vertical stabilizer is made in Getafe Spain. Airbus currently operates a total of eight final assembly lines: five in France, and one each in Germany, China, and the US.
If the construction of the A220 wing has to be removed entirely from Belfast and started anew somewhere in the EU, that will add at least temporary new costs. If the Chinese production of the A220 center fuselage has to be moved elsewhere for whatever reason, that will also be costly. Thus, it is hard to see where a 10% production cost will be found. What’s left are the engines (Pratt & Whitney), the avionics (Rockwell Collins), to a lesser extent, Parker Hannifin, and Liebherr Aerospace. That doesn’t seem promising.