Atlantic Coast Airlines (ACA) says it is on course to morph itself from a regional United Express feeder into the first US low-fares regional airline, while United Airlines says it is prepared to lose the carrier as a feeder.

United has enlisted three more carriers to prepare for the loss of ACA at two hubs, Washington Dulles and Chicago O'Hare. The three, Chautauqua, Republic Airlines and Shuttle America, are all owned by the Wexford investment group. To prepare for its expansion, Wexford has ordered 16 Embraer ERJ-145LR regional jets in a $320 million deal that will see delivery of the aircraft start in May, with two a month from June through October and the rest of the aircraft to be delivered by September 2005.

The three Wexford carriers will bring only 32 regional jets and 10 turboprops to the United Express fold, but with other new enlistments, United has filled in much of the ACA network. The final dissolution of United's relationship with ACA now depends on the approval of the bankruptcy court overseeing United's reorganisation, but its timing is uncertain now that United has delayed its exit from court protection past the expected June deadline.

ACA, under the name Independence Air, expects to have a 100-strong regional jet fleet flying 350 daily departures to destinations up and down the East Coast from Dulles, starting before the autumn. Officials have yet to announce their choice of routes and fares, but have made some important decisions. Almost all reservations will be booked though the Independence Air website, and Independence will use Navitaire's Open Skies reservations system.

Although this is the largest change in the US regional industry, other major changes are near: in a move that further blurs the distinction between a regional and a low-fare carrier, discounter AirTran Airways has decided to end a feeder agreement with Air Wisconsin for 50-seat Bombardier CRJ service. Instead, AirTran will replace the operation, dubbed Jet Connect, with its own Boeing 717 fleet, having found it can operate the routes more cheaply with its own economics.

Elsewhere, the first regional to invest heavily in regional jets, Comair, has lost to other Delta Connection airlines in its bid to operate 45 CRJs set for delivery by 2006. Delta picked its regional subsidiary, Atlantic Southeast Airlines, to fly 25 of the new aircraft, citing a better cost structure. Chautauqua and SkyWest will receive the other CRJs.

Comair corporate communications manager Nick Miller says that "obviously, we're disappointed that we're not receiving any of the growth jets". He says the company has cut costs and increased its reliability to position it for future Delta opportunities since its lengthy pilot strike in 2001. Under an earlier agreement, Comair is set to add six 70-seat aircraft to its 158-jet fleet by the end of this year, but has no further aircraft deliveries scheduled after 2004.

David Field Washington

Source: Airline Business