Europe's regionals meet in Italy on8-10 October, with much to be satisfied about

Embraer's EMB-145, in British Regional Airways livery, is a direct rival for the Bombardier Canada

Julian Moxon/PARIS

Each year, it seems that the European regional-airline industry has better news to report. Traffic growth, modern aircraft and new alliances all add up to a good reason for celebration at the Baveno, Italy, location for this year's European Regional Airline Association (ERA)general assembly.

The ERA members saw an average growth of 12% in the number of passengers carried in the half-year to June. While it is clear that such growth cannot be maintained forever, the good performance is linked to what appears to be a long-term structural change which should leave the ERA members well placed to cope with the changes taking place in the airline industry following European air-transport liberalisation.

Perhaps most strikingly, the European regionals, like their US counterparts (reporting record results) are now ordering jet-powered aircraft in unprecedented numbers. "Our predictions last year about the gain in the 50-seat market share have more than come true," says ERA director-general Mike Ambrose.

Much of this follows pressure on European regionals to increase the size of their aircraft, not only because of the longer average route lengths being flown, but because the continuing shortage of infrastructure means airlines are looking for larger aircraft to handle the growth.

As a result, thoughts have been turning to the need for a 70-seat regional jet, and Bombardier and Embraer are positioning themselves with plans for stretched versions of their current 50-seaters. The European Aero International (Regional)consortium also hopes to launch its first product, the Air Jet 70. Most agree that three contenders in the market are too many, however, and the ERA meeting will see plenty of talk about the need for the manufacturers to continue the painful process of rationalisation which, according to most observers, must result in further disappearances to follow that of Fokker in 1996.


Higher-level co-operation

Ambrose welcomes what he calls "co-operation at a much higher level" between regionals and major airlines. Such alliances, he says, leave regionals operating routes profitably which have been given up by the majors as they fight to reduce costs and improve competitiveness.

The trend to extend partnerships has been demonstrated clearly, with France's Air Liberté recently announcing a co-sharing deal with Regional Airlines, American Airlines, and three smaller European regionals, Air Normandie, Air Toulouse and Flandre Air. This provides American with access to Paris Orly, connecting through to Air Liberté's extensive network in France, and now to southern France and Spain, through the Regional Airlines network and a new hub at Bordeaux.

The success is not without its problems, however. Ambrose points to the failure of many ERA countries to restructure their institutions and infrastructure to adapt. "Airlines have adapted to liberalisation much better than some of their member states," he says. Most of the problems are linked to the lack of adequate airspace and airport infrastructure to accommodate the phenomenal growth.

The ERA, along with other airline-industry associations, is forever lobbying international bodies such as the European Commission, Eurocontrol and national authorities for improvements. Ambrose is adamant that more needs to be done, particularly when new rules are brought in without proper consultation on timing and implementation. The lack of harmonisation is a particular bugbear, with national authorities often acting independently to introduce new European regulations, and with no international body powerful enough, as he puts it, to "-bang heads together".

National authorities which hold out against harmonisation initiatives should "-put up or shut up", says Ambrose. "Are we going to harmonise or not? If not, the costs will increase, and will have to be passed on to the passenger. Regional airlines will then face financial collapse."

Examples of bad planning and lack of harmonisation abound, but Ambrose selects the planned introduction of Mode S transponders as one. He cites three deadlines - 1 January, 2000, for the introduction of collision-avoidance systems; 1 January, 2003, for the Enhanced Mode S (enabling the transmission of aircraft dynamic behaviour); "-and the middle of 1998, when the Eurocontrol states have to commit to Enhanced Mode S".

Airlines not meeting that deadline "-will have to open up their cockpits twice - once to install the standard Mode S, and again for the enhanced system", he says, adding: "What we want from the member states is a decision to commit in 1998 to an agreed specification, and not to change it at the last minute."

Source: Flight International