Regional aircraft cabins are undergoing extreme makeovers to look and feel more like their mainline brethren. Dual-class and triple-class configurations, thoroughly refreshed interiors with new LED lighting, and lightweight slim-line seats are only some of the features emerging on regional jets and turboprops manufactured by ATR and Bombardier and industry newcomers.
Even in-flight connectivity is making its debut in the regional sector. Some 223 regional aircraft operating as Delta Connection are being fitted with Gogo's air-to-ground-based airborne internet system, as part of Delta Air Lines' broader plan to fit its entire domestic fleet with the system.
A confluence of factors is driving the transformation of regional cabins. As pilot scope clauses have loosened, regional aircraft have grown in size. With 70-plus seaters now a fixture in the skies, airlines have more leeway in configuring their aircraft.
At the same time, major carriers have accepted they must offer a seamless in-flight product across fleet types if they want to meet the demands of their most exacting customers, frequent flyers and business travellers.
"With regional aircraft, historically we didn't have the ability to deliver a [multi-class service] economically so, for example, it's not really easy to get a first-class seat into a 19-seat turboprop without losing a whole lot of economy class seats. But as regional aircraft have evolved [and grown] over time, the tube has gotten bigger, and that means you can configure them in different combinations," says Mark Bergsrud, senior vice-president of marketing at United-Continental, which offers first class, an economy plus product, and economy class on all Bombardier CRJ700 and Embraer 170 regional aircraft operating under the United Express banner.
"As a marketing person, these [regional] partners of ours are extensions of our products and our brands and we need them to adhere to our product specifications and standards because our customers expect that. Getting on a United Express airplane with a livery that looks like United, with a United ticket bought with Mileage Plus [frequent flyer] miles, they need to have their product expectations matched," adds Bergsrud.
United-Continental is extending its upgrade strategy to large turboprops. During the coming months, the 30 Bombardier Q400 turboprops operated by Colgan Air on behalf of United-Continental will be retrofitted to include a three-abreast first class cabin with 36in (90cm) seat pitch, as well as an economy plus section offering 34in pitch and economy with 30in pitch, says Gordon Pratt, director of Q programme management at Bombardier. "It spells seamless service big time."
However, a refurbishment plan has not been defined for the 50-seat regional jets operated for the Star Alliance member. SkyWest, together with the ExpressJet operation it acquired last year, flies a great many 50-seaters on behalf of United-Continental, but "has not heard a lot about what is going to be delivered on the regional level yet", says SkyWest vice-president of in-flight Sonya Wolford, noting that United-Continental has been focused on its own merger integration.
Wolford stresses that SkyWest's 50-seaters are impeccably maintained, and in-flight service ultimately plays "a vital role" in the customer experience aboard these smaller jets.
"If that 50-seater becomes a first-class experience, the customer - even if not crazy about the [idea of] a 50-seater initially - leaves happy."
Even as SkyWest awaits direction from United-Continental, the company is nonetheless busy accommodating a retrofit of the regional jets it operates on behalf of Delta.
"We're currently in the process of updating the Delta interior with their newest colour scheme so that is happening right now, and we're preparing to introduce 'economy comfort' that Delta will hopefully launch in February, 2012," says Wolford.
"Over time [Delta has] heard back from their customers that they want that consistency, if flying Delta they want a Delta experience. They don't want a fluctuation."
Delta already offers two-class service on the E-170/175s, CRJ700s and CRJ900s operated by its regional affiliates, and it has begun installing Gogo on these aircraft. "We've heard really good things about [the Gogo service]. It has been very well received on the handful of [SkyWest] aircraft equipped," says Wolford.
Gogo says the RJ installation for Delta is "moving along at lightning pace", with the modifications to be completed in early 2012.
Delta's decision to offer connectivity on regional aircraft has made other carriers - and airframers - take notice. Bombardier has been looking at offering connectivity as a linefit option to its CRJ and Q400 customers.
"Our objective is obviously to give a cabin experience that is equivalent to any aircraft environment that a passenger can fly on, so clearly in-flight connectivity is the direction that the industry is going and so there is no reason for us not to think the Q400 is a great opportunity for that," says Pratt.
"The successful provider will be able to provide a system that is scaled for the size of the airplane, so cost is a factor. Refining that cost structure to fit a regional aircraft solution is what we're starting to achieve today."
Bombardier CRJ programmes director Jean-Guy Blondin adds: "Wireless in-flight entertainment is something interesting to the CRJ product line as well. We [Gordon and I] will be talking about that."
Unlike the USA, where a dedicated air-to-ground network supports Gogo, carriers in Europe, parts of Asia and the Middle East must turn to far costlier satellite-supported connectivity if they want to offer the service.
Even so, European Regions Airline (ERA) association director general Mike Ambrose believes airlines, including the intra-European regional operators that comprise ERA members need to offer some form of connectivity to passengers within the next five years. He believes innovation in the cockpit, such as real-time applications on Apple iPad-based electronic flight bags, will ultimately drive connectivity equipage into the cabin.
"What's happening now? Some guys are saying, 'To hell with [paper], we'll just give guys [pilots] an iPad. It's got all the flight bag in it.' I don't know whether you bought a new car recently with a navigation system in it? You probably paid €2,000 [$2,700] for a navigation system built into the car," says Ambrose. "[But] you can go out and buy a €140 TomTom that does actually more than your navigation system in the car because TomTom provides web upgrades and that's what's happening with the iPad.
"So I see that we're going to be putting lower-cost [connectivity] systems in to allow people to carry on working. But it won't be fancy things. It will be the connectivity is there if you've got the piece of equipment [your own personal electronic device (PEDs)]."
However, some ERA members are yet to be convinced they will require even basic connectivity. Berne-based SkyWork Airlines is among the more forward thinking among its European peers in terms of in-flight entertainment. The carrier distributes free iPads to passengers on a first come, first served basis, but SkyWork chief executive Tomislav Lang says there are no plans to offer connectivity for the iPads or passengers' own PEDs.
Aeroconseil, which handles engineering and certification of connectivity systems, says the market for connectivity outside the USA is starting with widebodies but moving to single-aisle and then regional aircraft.
"It is now not the biggest part of the market but it will come in the coming years. It will be a very big market. You just have to count the number of jets flying and [the fact that] airlines give the same service on any kind of route," says Aeroconseil sales director Stephane Bollon.
European turboprop manufacturer ATR says it is seeing no significant demand from airlines to provide in-flight connectivity as a linefit option on its turboprops, but will study connectivity should the need arise. Noting its customers largely operate flights up to 1h 15min, ATR customisation director Pierre Tiefenbach says: "So far, I would say this [connectivity] is not a priority for ATR."
The manufacturer has, however, focused a lot of attention on improving the interiors of its aircraft. For its new Series 600 turboprops, it turned to Italian design house Italdesign Giugiaro to develop the "Armonia" cabin, which features cleanly-styled, slim seats that have been ergonomically designed to ensure greater knee clearance, in addition to new side panels, overhead bins and LED lighting.
"Meeting passenger expectations was also a main point in developing the Armonia cabin. Passengers are increasing [their] expectations. They are familiarised with comfortable environments when flying. It's important that when they get into a regional aircraft, they find the same level of comfort as they had on their original [long-haul] flight, " says Tiefenbach.
"When developing the ATR -600 cabin, we took into account the needs of the airlines around the world. For the USA, it was very important to have the possibility to provide the cabin in dual-class configuration. Airlines can choose the different colour of the seats, select leather or fabric, different carpet."
ATR enjoyed a record year in 2011, securing 148 firm orders. "This new design, this comfort, this Italian touch, is providing additional selling reasons for ATR," says Tiefenbach. "Airlines are definitely not buying this because we have a beautiful cabin, but it's an additional point for airlines and passengers."
Fabrizio Giugiaro, styling director of Italdesign Giugiaro, says: "The main idea was to confer an emotionally and stylish charged atmosphere to the cabin, trying to reinterpret the technologically advanced aeronautic components traditionally featured in a rational and unemotional way." He says the design tries to conceal the technical parts for a warmer ambience, adding this is "supported by a singular and distinctive lighting project", with colour changing LEDs.
Feedback from passengers on Royal Air Maroc, the launch customer of the ATR 72-600, has been "really good", notes Tiefenbach.
Clearly, modern cabins will "become part of the standard package" for regional aircraft, be they "sophisticated, advanced turboprops" such as the ATR 72 and Q400, or new-design regional aircraft such as the Sukhoi SuperJet or Mitsubishi MRJ, says Regional Airline Association president Roger Cohen. "So many regional aircraft are now operating on what would be considered mainline routes," he says. "The majority of flights are on regional aircraft. These passengers expect every amenity they are going to be getting on the mainline carrier."