Wake-up Call for 50-seat RJs
There is an interesting article over on Swelblog in which Bill Swelbar gives us a run down on a recent report, Regional Jet Analysis: a Look at Profits per Plane, by analyst Glenn Engel. (Disclaimer: unfortunately I haven’t actually read Engel’s report, so I’m mainly reacting to Bill Swelbar’s commentary.) Unsurprisingly, 50-seat regional jets just aren’t good money makers, and several major US airlines would actually be losing money on their RJ network if it wasn’t for the fact that the RJ traffic feeds a lot of the profit-making mainline traffic. A lot of the focus of the Swelblog analysis of the report is on pilot scope clauses and restrictions of one airline vs. another, and other cost benefits and impacts of regional vs. mainline airline operations. For the purposes of my own article however, I want to take another look at the aircraft itself.
A fundamental problem with the 50-seat regional jet is operating cost relative to capacity. I did some digging on the internet and came up with an unexpected source for comparable trip fuel consumption values for regional and mainline jets – UK airline flybe’s eco labels.
The chart below shows trip fuel consumption for certain aircraft operating over a given route length (see flybe’s eco label PDF for methodology behind the numbers - I can't speak for their validity, but it's the best I have for now). I’ve shown the consumption on a per-seat basis. Unfortunately I don’t have comparable data for a 70-seat RJ. One consideration to note is that flybe operates their aircraft in a high density configuration, but the small ERJ-145 has essentially the same all-economy cabin configuration whether it’s being operated by a low-fare carrier or a full-fare/legacy carrier. So in the interest of fairness, I’ve also recalculated the values for a typical mixed-class seat count and included that chart as well.
In all cases, surprise surprise, the ERJ-145 comes out as the least fuel efficient per seat, even in the more favorable legacy carrier chart. And in the case of legacy carriers, remember that the business class seats in the larger mixed class aircraft generate higher revenue, which can more than make up for the cost increase in fuel per seat, something the ERJ-145 cannot do since it doesn’t have a business class section.
A bigger plane however is only more efficient and potentially more profitable if you can fill the extra seats. A switch from regional jets to mainline jets therefore isn’t an option for every market, and when a market can’t fill a 737 or even an E-Jet, a 50-seater ERJ or CRJ is the only option that makes sense. But since 50-seaters aren’t going to make a lot of money (if any), as Bill Swelbar sums up, it may make more sense for the airline to actually cut those routes from its network entirely, causing a lot of smaller communities to lose their commercial air services.
One subject that was only briefly touched on in the Swelblog article was that there are no 50-seat RJ replacements in the pipeline. Right now, it appears that the venerable CRJ-200 and ERJ-145 represent the pinnacle of 50-seat regional jet technology. With all the advances the industry has made in recent years with GTFs and composite airframes, why is the future of the 50-seat regional jet in limbo? Orders for 50-seat RJs have plummeted to nil in the last few years. Is this order drop-off acting as a deterrent to new development, rather than a wake-up call to get something new onto the market?
These days, it seems that bigger is better. Bombardier and Embraer made their names on the 50-seat CRJ and ERJ respectively, but now their focus is on bigger aircraft like the CSeries and E-Jets.
Perhaps we shouldn’t look to existing manufacturers for a new 50-seater however. After all, for both Bombardier and Embraer, the 50-seat RJ was really their breakthrough product. Maybe we should look to a new upstart or second-tier airframer to come up with the next generation 50-seater RJs, as more efficient engine and airframe technologies being developed today have started to mature a little bit.
But then again, isn’t the more efficient replacement for the 50-seat RJ is already here, and always has been: the turboprop? From the same flybe eco labels, I pulled some comparable data for the 50-seat Q300 and 78-seat Q400 turboprops for comparison with the regional jets.
I was actually surprised how similar the Q300 and Q400 numbers look on a per seat basis, and both offer a big improvement over the ERJ-145, and even over the much larger E-195 on short routes. Turboprops are making something of a comeback of course, but in saying that, I don’t foresee a like-for-like replacement of CRJs and ERJ for Dash-8 Qs and ATRs. The reason RJs made such a great impact on airline networks a decade ago was their speed, and the frequency which that speed allowed. Today’s turboprops have great operating economics, but are just a bit too slow to fill the gaps left by the CRJ-200 and ERJ-145 when you consider the large distances that many RJs are used on, particularly in the US. But if just a little bit of that fuel burn advantage can be traded off for some more speed, we could be onto a winner for props flying 1000km and maybe even 1500km routes.
I’m thinking of course of the same concept that launched the poor-selling Saab 2000. With the 2000, Saab wanted to offer near-jet speeds for turboprop costs. Ironically though, it was the rise of the regional jet that killed it off along with a lot of other turboprop designs out there.
Was the Saab 2000 a great concept that was just a little ahead of its time? There are a lot if differences between the 2010’s and the 1990’s that could make a new aircraft designed to that same concept look much more promising today. Fuel prices are the obvious one that will ultimately make or break the turboprop trade-off, but also consider the work done over the last two decades on engine and propeller technology, cabin noise suppression and of course airframe materials. These will all work towards making a new turboprop design more airline-friendly and more passenger-friendly too.
So maybe we shouldn’t be looking out for a new regional jet after all - we should be on the lookout for a new turboprop. And if it’s feasible to re-launch the Fokker 100, would a new Saab 2000 be such a bad idea?