Julian Moxon/HANOVER

The European Regional Airlines Association (ERA) has good cause to celebrate. In the year since its last annual meeting, the industry has seen strong passenger growth and the beginnings of the long-awaited shake-out among the aircraft manufacturers.

The disappearance of Fokker, the sale of Dornier and the creation of the AI(R) consortium all reflected the overriding need to solve the excess capacity which was plaguing the manufacturing sector. In what could only be seen as a sensible move, CASA also ditched its 3000 regional turboprop project, leaving the Spanish company open for alliances elsewhere.

ERA director general Mike Ambrose says the rationalisation process is "not yet finished- we're still oversupplied with aircraft types". He adds that a further element of change surrounds the supplier industry, which is going through what he describes as a "huge internal reorganisation-in ten years the industry will be supplied by a different set of manufacturers and suppliers", he says.

While many infrastructure issues remain to be addressed, Ambrose is confident that things are moving in the right direction. "We have a much more solid base now than before," he says, adding that, with 62 members today against 53 at the end of 1985, the ERA has also gathered strength as a lobbying organisation, with, he says, "totally open access to Brussels".

He welcomes the arrival of small regional jets on to the market "-because it gives the airlines more choice", although he adds that huge orders such as those now recently seen from Continental Express in the USA (for 25 Embraer EMB-145s, plus 170 options) are unlikely to be seen on this side of the Atlantic. "It will be far more gradual here," he says. The trend is evident, however, with reporting airlines revealing that the turbofan-powered fleet in the newly created 40- to 74-seat category grew dramatically from just two aircraft to 14 in the year up to March 1996.

Regionals have become a real force in Europe as the major carriers restructure in an effort to reduce costs and be more competitive. They are better placed to operate thinner routes, through franchising or codesharing deals. "You can liken our approach as being the difference between a rifle and a blunderbuss," says Ambrose. He adds that European regionals have "quite a bit of growth left-there are still a number of markets that have yet to be exploited".

According to Ambrose, the main issue facing the industry is that of airspace capacity. He notes that the fact that the major airlines, regionals and charters have maintained a united front to battle for improvements only reflects the urgency of the situation. "It is absolutely fundamental to our future - we must have more capacity". He says that the current efforts by the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC) and the European Union (EU) to increase capacity do not go nearly far enough. "A lot of air traffic control shortcomings have been identified, but the ECAC and EU programmes do not oblige states to develop a more integrated and economic system."

Another major issue is the planned creation of a European air-safety authority. While Ambrose welcomes the recent European Commission paper criticising the Joint Aviation Authorities' (JAA) proposals for such a body, he adds that it stopped short of recommending ways of making it cost-effective. "There must be a requirement for minimising costs by sharing functions across the board-we support the principles, but it must not become burdened by bureaucracy."

The issue of flight-time limitations remains firmly on the ERA agenda, with further criticisms of the consensual approach taken by the JAA. Ambrose wants the JAA document to contain an annexe specifically directed at regionals, whose pilots have completely different working conditions to the majors. "Why should we increase our crew resources by between 10% and 15% and shoulder the extra costs when the proposed measures will not lead to any improvement in our safety record?". He is particularly concerned about the danger of a supposedly independent incident reporting system being subject to political pressures.

The air traffic control and air-safety authority proposals "-will be decided in the next 12 months", says Ambrose, "but will affect the way we operate for at least the next 20. We have to get the institutional arrangements right."

The location of the Hanover general assembly allows for a substantial static park for aircraft, and there will be opportunities for test flights in some of the aircraft present without the need to travel several kilometres to the nearest airport. Ambrose says that, if successful, Hanover may become the permanent venue for the ERA general assembly every other year.

Source: Flight International