US Airways sees rebalancing of RJ cost equation

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US Airways sees a "rebalancing" in the economics of 50-seat regional jets as more of the aircraft are parked, says senior vice-president of marketing and network Andrew Nocella.

The ownership costs of 50-seat jets will come down as an increasing number are removed from the regional fleets of other US mainline carriers, he says at a media event in Tempe, Arizona, on 24 April. This will change the economics of operating the small jets, which are known for high operating costs, he adds.

"The economic equation is always rebalancing," says Nocella.

When asked about the high per passenger operating costs of the small jets, he says that it is up to regional airlines to determine how to pass on costs.

Mainline carriers are upgauging their regional fleets. Delta Air Lines is reducing its 50-seat aircraft fleet to about 125 by 2015 from 313 at the end of 2012 while adding 88 110-seat Boeing 717-200s and 70 76-seat Bombardier CRJ900s, and American Airlines is removing 21 37-seat Embraer ERJ-135s and three 44-seat ERJ-140s from its fleet while adding 15 76-seat Embraer 175s this year.

United Airlines has said that it plans to look at ordering additional large regional jets in 2014.

"We're looking to do more and more of that," says Nocella, referring to US Airways decision to replace nine 50-seat Embraer 145s with nine CRJ900s earlier this year. He says that the economic equation of small jets will determine how quickly and the number of large regional aircraft it acquires.

Nocella says that two-thirds of the capacity purchase agreements for the US Airways Express fleet will expire in the next four years, which will allow for changes in the mix of small and large regional aircraft.

US Airways will have an equal number - 119 aircraft - of small and large regional jets in its Express fleet by the end of the year, according to an investor update on 23 April. It will also have 41 Bombardier Dash 8 turboprops in its fleet.

The proposed merger with American could change US Airways regional fleet mix. Under a memorandum of understanding reached with American, US Airways and their respective pilot unions, the combined airline could add about 95 large regional aircraft for a total of 200 to its fleet based on their anticipated fleets at the end of 2013.

Engine maintenance costs could hamper the changing economics of 50-seat jets. The General Electric CF34-3B1-powered CRJ200s hit an "engine maintenance hurdle" once they have reached a certain number of cycles, says Nocella. This must be overcome and included by regional airlines in the economic equation of the aircraft, he adds.

SkyWest Airlines manager of network planning Brad Rawson said in September 2012 that the cost of airframe maintenance on the CRJ200s becomes significantly more expensive after about 40,000 cycles. He said that the airline and Bombardier were working together on a solution to address the issue.

A shortage of spare General Electric CF34 engines for the CRJ200 family aircraft is also an issue facing the aircraft, says Nocella. However, he agrees that there will be an increasing number of opportunities to part out engines from retired aircraft as they are removed from regional fleets during the next few years.

GE did not respond to inquiries about whether there is a shortage of spare CF34 engines.