Some airlines seek an advantage with plush, roomier regional jets

Friday, July 6, 2007

Cape Girardeau's new airline won't be following a trend to add new regional jets with first-class seats, roomier cabins and, in some cases, hot food.

Many carriers are hoping business travelers tired of a cramped 50-seat jet will pay extra for a flight experience closer to what they get on a mainline jet. The addition could help airlines turn a profit on flights that have been a loss-leader feeding traffic into long-haul flights, although rising fuel prices could complicate the plan.

But Cape Girardeau's service will be on 19-seat Beechcraft turboprop airplanes with only a single class of service, said Fred DeLeeuw, president of Big Sky Airlines. Big Sky won the contract to provide service to Cape Girardeau in March, but delays in hiring pilots mean the date service will start is still in limbo, DeLeeuw said.

"We do have some meetings scheduled within the next week to 10 days, and we are hiring pilots as fast as we can," DeLeeuw said.

Airlines that recently went through bankruptcy -- Northwest, Delta and United -- are the freest to add such jets because of relaxed restrictions in their pilot contracts.

Northwest Airlines Corp. is adding 72 new 76-seat jets through next year. Half will be Bombardier CRJ-900s flown by its Mesaba subsidiary and the other half will be Embraer 175s flown by its new Compass subsidiary. Both include a dozen first-class seats, and the cabin is roomier than on Northwest's other regional jets. Delta Air Lines Inc. plans to fly 77 dual-class regional jets by the end of 2008, and United regional partners now fly about 115 70-seat jets with coach, first-class and an Economy Plus seat with extra legroom.

Delta spokeswoman Betsy Talton said business customers have been asking for the regional first-class seats for years. The aim with the new jets is "to make it all more seamless and more like the mainline jet experience," she said.

The size of the Cape Girar-deau market means those bigger jets won't be making an appearance here, DeLeeuw said. The bigger jets are being added by carriers with larger passenger loads flying out of larger cities, he said.

First-class seats on Northwest's new jets will include the same level of meal service as on regular flights. Northwest said it helped design its version of the Bombardier CRJ900, which has 6 feet 2 inches from floor to ceiling in the aisle, and windows that are 25 percent bigger than an earlier version of the CRJ900.

That's a big improvement over the 50-seaters often used on regional routes, even if doesn't quite match mainline flying, said aviation consultant George Hamlin of Airline Capital Associates Inc.

Brad Ness has flown United-affiliated smaller jets from Fargo, N.D., to Denver several times. "They certainly work," said Ness, who is president of S&S Promotional Group in Fargo. "But the bigger ones would be nicer."

Southeast Missourian reporter Rudi Keller contributed to this report.

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