Found this interesting article in the Chicago Tribune
By Jon Hilkevitch
Tribune transportation reporter
Published February 18, 2004
The nation's two largest airlines are set to trim flights at O'Hare International Airport in March to ease delays, but the intense escalation of the use of smaller jets will make it difficult to notice any congestion relief, aviation experts say.
Regional jets, with 35 to 70 seats, account for more than 40 percent of the 1,400 daily departures at O'Hare, up from less than one-third of flights two years ago when flight caps at the airport were lifted, according to an analysis of data in the Official Airline Guide.
The number of daily regional-jet departures by United Express, United Airlines' commuter affiliate, has soared 111 percent at O'Hare since 2002, the data showed.
The small planes allow for more flights to mid-size communities while containing labor and operating costs. But they use the same runways as jumbo jets carrying 300 passengers, and they require parking gates and the same amount of air-traffic control. In some cases they require even more, because regional jets need extra spacing in the air to avoid turbulence from bigger planes.
In March, United and American, which account for 88 percent of O'Hare's flights, will reduce their schedules 5 percent during peak hours, including cuts in some regional-jet flights.
The swarm of regional jets buzzing in and out of O'Hare shoved the airport into last place in November for on-time performance in the U.S.
"The airlines are in a rush to get more small airplanes because more frequent flights help them dominate [travel] markets and they think it's giving the customers what they want," said David Aldrich, an American Airlines captain who is a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association.
"But it's a terrible way to utilize limited airspace and crowded airports."
Making things worse
The airlines have turned to the smaller aircraft to help solve their immediate financial crisis by lowering costs. But the move is exacerbating congestion and does not offer long-term strategies to deal with projected growth in air travel.
United Express saturated O'Hare with an average of 292 regional-jet departures scheduled each day through the first three months of 2004, compared with only 138 such flights in the first quarter of 2002.
The number of United Airlines departures using 737s and larger aircraft--which carry two to six times the number of passengers as regional jets--increased only 2 percent at O'Hare in the same period, according to the data tabulated for the Tribune by consultant BACK Aviation Solutions.
The number of daily regional-jet departures by American Eagle, a subsidiary of American Airlines, has grown 39 percent at O'Hare since 2002, the data showed. For American Eagle, it means 225 regional-jet departures a day now, compared with an average of 161 two years ago, the analysis showed.
American Airlines' average daily departures at O'Hare using large aircraft have increased 4 percent.
Airline executives say the move to smaller planes best serves business travelers going to small and mid-size cities. Costs are lower in part because regional-jet pilots earn less than pilots who fly the big Boeing and Airbus planes and only one flight attendant is needed.But some corporate fliers say four flights a day on larger aircraft would be adequate to some destinations now served by as many as eight regional-jet flights.
"The mantra that the business traveler demands frequency is a bit overblown by the major carriers," said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition. "What's needed are consistent, affordable fares and reliable on-time service."
American and United plan to reschedule or eliminate 62 daily flights next month to combat delays, but the number of flights at O'Hare has surpassed pre-9/11 levels.
"The delay problem will surely get worse as the airlines ramp up their operations," said Joseph Schwieterman, chairman of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University. "By expanding their small-jet schedules, the airlines are putting an enormous burden on the airport."
Officials at United and American said they do not plan to shift regional-jet flights to larger aircraft in response to the increase in travel.
"We looked at the [regional jet] markets, and additional seats were not required," said Peter McDonald, United's executive vice president of operations.
Mitchell said airlines are also motivated to use more small planes to protect their takeoff and landing slots from being taken over by a competitor. Reducing flight schedules by using more large planes would make some slots vulnerable.
He said business travelers object to the shift from 737s to smaller planes because the cramped quarters--the regional jets don't provide a first-class cabin--"kills productivity. You can't even use a laptop on a regional jet."
Schwieterman said one solution might be for Chicago to adjust airport-use and landing fees to encourage airlines to use more large aircraft. Regional jets pay substantially lower landing fees, based on airplane weight.
The fee structure spurs airlines to exacerbate the congestion problem at O'Hare by operating fewer wide-body planes that seat 200 or more passengers, he said.
"The airlines need to be given an incentive to ensure that scarce runway space is rationally used," Schwieterman said. "Congestion pricing has become the norm in other industries. But for too long, airports have used a one-price-fits-all fee structure."
City officials said they have no plans to alter fees or try to encourage airlines to shift the makeup of their fleets.
"The increase in regional-jet flights has no doubt contributed to increased delays, but I think the airlines are making a rational decision to reduce costs and maintain service," said Chicago Aviation Commissioner Thomas Walker. "The airlines are doing what the market is demanding."
Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune