The Beginning of the End of Small Jets in Springfield

The post Labor Day season begins with an event of some note at our airport: a legacy airline will bring big jet service back to Springfield: barring a schedule change Delta will bring a Boeing 717 here Tuesday evening about 7:45.

The event is noteworthy because it likely marks the beginning of the end of regional jet service in Springfield.

Regional jets (RJs for short) are those little jets that everyone loves to hate. In our market they generally have 50 seats. They’re cramped. They’re stuffy. Airlines started using RJs in the late 1990s and their use grew into the new century. At their peak they flew over 50% of the nation’s air travelers. Now, airlines are getting rid of RJs as fast as they can …

Image of Boeing 717.

Why the change? In a word: economics. Back in the 1990s RJs were cheaper to fly than bigger jets. Today, it’s the other way around. By some estimates most RJs will be grounded within the next five years.

That’s the Big Picture overview of RJs. Now, let’s bring it down to the local level …

We expect most RJs to leave this market within the next five years (for all the reasons mentioned above). Having said that, it’s possible that RJs’ will exit this market sooner due to strong demand. The number of people using the Springfield airport is up 12 percent over last year. We believe this strong demand is the main reason Delta is bringing the 717 to the market now.

The airline currently has five daily Atlanta flights on 50-seat regional jets. On Tuesday a 717 will serve one of those flights. That means four flights a day on 50-seat planes, and one on a 717, which has 110 seats. The addition of a 717 adds more seats per day to Atlanta. That’s important because the 50-seaters are frequently sold-out. More seats per day means fewer customers turned away.

All-in-all, the return of bigger jets is to be applauded … but there is a downside.

As more regional jets go away we will likely see a decrease in the numbers of daily flights — with bigger jets it takes fewer flights to move the same number of people …

Example: today we have seven flights to Dallas on 50-seat RJs (that’s a total of 350 seats). Having that many flights per day gives travelers a lot of flexibility when it comes to trip planning. Let’s suppose the airline replaces those seven flights with big jets that have 150 seats a piece (that’s a total of 450 seats). That’s right — the airline would need just three flights a day to move the same number of people.

Bottom line: there’s an upside and a downside to bigger jets: more comfort vs. number of flights. That’s the tradeoff we’ll face in the next few years.


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