Feedback: Blaming the victim

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Regional airlines in the USA may have grown in their importance, but are now facing blame for everything from flight delays to airport congestion. Here, Roger Cohen, the head of the Regional Airline Association, issues a call for reason, not bar-room brawling

America's regional airline industry probably feels like the guy who walks into a bar, offers to buy a round for the house, and when a brawl breaks out, gets the blame for starting the fight.

That metaphor might seem a bit of a stretch, especially to those of you who don't have the time or inclination to try and unscramble the peculiarities of American politics.

But it's how we in US regional aviation feel since we've been taking unwarranted cheap shots for the past few months that regional aircraft are the cause of this summer's delays.

In all fairness, most American travellers and government leaders across the country recognise and appreciate that the regional aviation sector has been the biggest success story in the post 9/11 period. Today, America's regional airlines:

  • Carry nearly one in every four US passengers, some 154 million nationwide last year
  • Fly one half of the scheduled flights, and operate about 40% of the commercial fleet
  • Most importantly, regional airlines serve more than 600 communities across the USA - and in 442 of them - a full 70% of the nation - regionals provide the only scheduled flights.

But instead of being praised as the saviour of US aviation, the regional industry - especially the growing fleet of regional jets - finds itself the innocent victim of a bar-room brawl it didn't start. How did this happen?

First, a confluence of politics and bad timing. This year the US Congress has been debating how to pay for the future satellite-based air traffic control system - and each interest group has been aggressively defending its turf.

Major airlines want the US Federal Aviation Administration to adopt a cost-based system, since currently commercial aviation users pay for 94% of the system, but use less than 70%, while general aviation pays less than 7% of the costs. Business and corporate aviation has grown exponentially in the USA, with the private jet fleet now more than twice the size of the nation's airlines. Many of these private jets are flying into and out of the biggest and busiest metropolitan centres.

Owners of small private piston aircraft, whose lobbying influence far exceeds their overall numbers, fear that if the user fee-based systems used in Europe are adopted here, it will restrict their ability to fly when and where they want - at little or no cost.

The FAA's air traffic controllers, perhaps the nation's highest paid civil servants, claim they are overworked and underpaid, and they view the political debate over air traffic control funding as a way of gaining a better labour contract.

Unfortunately, this political debate over funding air traffic control occurred over the summer when travel delays regularly made front page headlines and led the TV evening news. And in these high-tech times, the smallest takeoff delay or routine baggage mix-up can immediately be broadcast over the internet.

Popularity at its best breeds envy, and at worst, contempt. With half the flights on regional aircraft, and Americans flocking to regional airlines in record numbers, the regional industry finds itself caught in the crossfire, a victim of its own success. Success at building safe, fast, cost-effective and customer-friendly aircraft that have overcome decades of passenger misperception about regional aircraft. Success by sharp executives at designing savvy business models. Success by 60,000 committed employees to deliver efficient, friendly passenger service - with fast enplaning and deplaning, gateside bag check-in, and best of all, no middle seats.

Pointing the finger
So in looking to lay blame for delays, air traffic controllers claim they would be able to process flights more efficiently if they didn't have to deal with regionals. Corporate aviation and some government bureaucrats charge the airlines with "overscheduling" regional jets (as if airlines weren't scheduling to satisfy customer demand). Long security lines? Summer thundershowers? Freeway traffic getting to the airport? Must be those darned regional jets.

Hopefully, the squabbling, punching and finger pointing will end soon. The US Congress will craft an equitable funding plan. The FAA will continue to make real-time improvements while evolving. Airlines and general aviation will split the cheque fairly for the big sky they share.

Then, instead of continuing the bar-room brawl, we can all sit down together and enjoy that round of drinks on the house.