PARIS: SkyWest bets big on large regional jets

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SkyWest Airlines is betting that the future of regional flying in the USA will be on larger jets. With its Paris air show deal for up to 200 Embraer E-Jet E2 aircraft, the US carrier now has orders and commitments for up to 500 jets with at least 76 seats.

Chief executive Jerry Atkin says the majority of these jets are likely to be "net new" aircraft. Many of the retirements will be of 50-seat aircraft, he says, but he declines to go as far as saying that the small jets will be out of SkyWest's fleet by the end of the decade.

"It's probably the biggest restructuring of the [US] regional jet space since the 50-seaters came out," says Atkin, referring to the upgauging of 50-seat aircraft to 76-seaters.

SkyWest is the launch customer of the new 80-seat Embraer 175 E2 with a firm order for 100 aircraft and purchase rights for an additional 100.

The regional airline also has a firm order for 100 90-seat Mitsubishi MRJ90s and commitments for up to 200 76-seat current generation E-175s. Flightglobal's Ascend Online database shows this 200 figure to be comprised of 40 firm orders, a letter of intent covering 60, and 100 options.

Atkin says the E-175 E2 order has no impact on SkyWest's MRJ90 order. "We want [aircraft from] at least two or three manufacturers in our fleet," he says.

SkyWest plans to seek new business at American Airlines as the mainline carrier restructures its regional operations, says Atkin. This is expected after the Fort Worth-based airline exits bankruptcy and closes its proposed merger with US Airways in the third quarter.

The regional carrier will also compete to keep their existing business with Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and US Airways as its contracts come up for renewal.

The current round of regional aircraft upgauging is possible following last year's changes in US mainline carrier pilot scope clauses. These raised seating caps at American, Delta and United to 76.

Atkin would not speculate on future scope clause changes that would allow SkyWest to operate the larger E-175 E2 and MRJ90 for the mainline carriers, but notes that they have gradually been relaxed on a more or less continuous basis during the past two decades.

Ascend data shows that SkyWest and its subsidiary ExpressJet Airlines fly 752 aircraft, including 506 50-seat regional jets, with the balance split between Bombardier CRJ700s and CRJ900s, Embraer EMB-120 turboprops, and Embraer ERJ-135s.