SkyWest Inc executives see long-term future for most 50-seaters

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The world's largest regional airlines expect to continue operating roughly at least 280 50-seat regional jets, or 70% of its existing fleet, for the next several years, as the fate of the aircraft type continues to be debated within the community.

"The 50-seat airplane is not going to go away anytime soon," said Brad Holt, president and chief operating officer of ExpressJet, a SkyWest Inc subsidiary, at the Regional Airline Association convention.

ExpressJet is the world's largest regional airline today operating more than 400 50-seat jets along with sister airline Atlantica Southeast Airlines. Another SkyWest Inc. subsidiary, SkyWest Airlines, also plans to continue operating the type for several years.

"The feedback in general from most of marketing departments we're seeing is that there is still a fair amount of interest in 50-seaters at the right cost," said Russell "Chip" Childs, president and chief operating officer of SkyWest Airlines.

Both executives emphasized that ExpressJet, ASA and SkyWest Airlines plan to invest heavily in larger regional jets, but the demand for 50-seat aircraft may not be as soft as some experts predict.

"I hear a lot about the reduction in 50-seat airplanes and although I buy [some] of that," Hold said, "and I really don't buy into all of it." As the 50-seat jet fleets age, regional airlines have the option of ordering larger aircraft when 15-year lease agreements come up for renewal over the next decade. The increasing cost of fuel have exposed the 50-seat category to higher operational costs, making them unaffordable for some carriers.

"As they come off lease, and the lessor wants to extend, then we can get into some very compelling economics that could drive something so that we could retain the 50-seat fleet as long as we can," Childs said.

Another aspect that could raise demand for 50-seat jets is the ability for airlines to access dozens of smaller markets around the US. Holt noted that no manufacturers are building 50-seat jets anymore, so there is nothing to replace the aircraft in many of those markets.

"Unless we were to pull out of 75-100 cities in the US those airplanes are just not going to go away real soon," he said.