The Regional Airline Association (RAA) is working with manufacturers, airports, operators and the US Federal Aviation Administration on a range of initiatives to combat capacity and cost problems threatening to stifle regional jet industry growth.

RAA president Deborah McElroy says the chief problems include the constrained air traffic system, airport capacity limitations, labour and staffing issues and increasing regulatory costs. "The controllers' unions are saying regional jets are slowing down the whole system...we have to educate them on the performance of the regional jets," says McElroy. The constrained air traffic system "continues to hinder growth and does not allow the industry to take advantage of the faster aircraft".

Speaking at the recent Speednews regional conference, McElroy said regional jets have become a "convenient scapegoat" for "last summer's delays, because all of a sudden there were more than 200 aircraft in service."

Delays at US airports were the third worst in history last February, the previous worst months being June and July 1999. "We need larger holding and gate areas for the major airline partners. Funding is not an issue. The issue is trying to build new airports and runways. The FAA needs to exercise more leadership."

McElroy says the RAA is fundamentally opposed to the concept of "peak hour pricing" which has been proposed at several airports. "A 'price mechanism that clears the market' are words that chill me," says McElroy adding: "We will have the same spring and summer next year unless something is done."

Emphasising the growing importance of regionals to the US system, McElroy says one in eight domestic airline passengers now travel on regional airlines. They operate 34% of the commercial airline fleet and provide 49% of weekly US departures. By 2005, the US regional fleet is expected to grow to 2,800 units, with RJs carrying the majority of passengers.

The RAA is working with the FAA on its evaluation of new procedures to ease the flow at 11 of 21 "choke" points identified in the US system. It is also evaluating proposals to restrict regionals to maximum altitudes of 24,000ft (7,300m). Although this is aimed at reducing congestion, regional operators are worried about the effect on fuel consumption.

Source: Flight International