Ramon Lopez and Guy Norris/WASHINGTON DC

Continental Express is set to be the first major US regional airline to switch to an all-jet fleet, with the confirmation of its move into the 30-seat market with a contract for up to 75 Embraer RJ-135s.

The deal includes a $315 million firm order for 25 ERJ-135s, plus options on a further 50, with deliveries starting in July 1999. The decision boosts sales of the 37-seater to almost 200 aircraft.

The wholly owned regional division of Continental Airlines is already a major operator of the 50-seat ERJ-145, for which it holds orders for 50, plus 150 options, and the new deal represents incremental aircraft. The carrier, which operates from hubs in Cleveland, Houston and Newark, will use the ERJ-135s eventually to replace the bulk of its current turboprop fleet, which includes 32 Embraer EMB-120 Brasilias, 25 Raytheon Beech 1900Ds and 38 ATR 42s. The fleet also includes three larger ATR 72s, although these are expected ultimately to be replaced by both regional jet types.

The airline says that the order and sequence in which the turboprops will be replaced has not been finally decided. Operations at its Newark hub, however, are set to be the first to convert away from turboprops to all-jet, by 2003 says the airline, while the timing for the subsequent transition of the carrier's other hubs is undecided. Continental Express president Dave Siegel adds that "-the big appeal of the ERJ-135 is that it appears to have jet-like revenues and turboprop operating costs".

The ERJ-135 order book now stands at 73 firm and 122 options, with other customers including US regional Business Express, US lessor Wexford Management and France's Flandre Air. Fairchild Dornier, Embraer's 30-seat jet rival, which was also in the running for the Continental order, has revealed only 38 firm orders and options for its 32-seat 328JET.

The first Allison AE3007A3-powered ERJ-135 was due for roll out on 12 May. The company says that deliveries of the shortened derivative of the ERJ-145 should begin in July 1999 to launch customer Flandre Air and to Continental Express, while first delivery to Business Express is planned for October 1999. Total ERJ-135/145 firm sales stand at over 240, while programme commitments exceed 560 units.

Source: Flight International