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Thanks to years of conditioning and countless dollars spent on national ad campaigns, we know the names of the largest airlines (like Southwest, American, United and Delta) by heart.

The 65 or so smaller regional airlines in the United States don’t carry that same name recognition, but they do carry a large share of the US air-passenger load. In 2017, regional airlines accounted for 41 percent of all scheduled US passenger flights, according to the Regional Airline Association.

“Regional airlines play a key role in our nation’s transportation system,” says Faye Malarkey Black, president and  CEO of the RAA. In an email, she tells The Points Guy, “For passengers, especially those in smaller markets not served by larger airlines, regional airlines are a lifeline.”

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Many of these regional airlines fly under the brand name of a major carrier with whom they’ve contracted to provide regional service: American’s regional partners fly as American Eagle, United’s partners fly as United Express, and Delta’s as Delta Connection. Some of these regional airlines are completely independent of the major airlines they work with. SkyWest and Republic, for instance, each operate regional service for all three of the big legacy carriers.

And some of these regionals are owned by the big airlines themselves. Delta, United and American now partially or completely own at least one regional airline: Delta has Endeavor; United owns a piece of ExpressJet; and American Airlines actually owns three regionals — PSA Airlines, Envoy Air and Piedmont. Each of those major carriers continues to partner with independent regionals as well to operate some of their flights.

“There’s some interesting DNA in this industry and its relationships,” aviation industry analyst Bob Mann tells TPG.

The major carriers and their regional partners are bound together in relationships that are sometimes beneficial, sometimes awkward, and likely permanent. Here are some reasons why regional airlines have become such a crucial part of the US airline experience.

Service to Smaller Markets

Photo by Envoy Air
Photo by Envoy Air

ATL, LAX, ORD, DFW and the other major US airports get all the attention, along with the famous airport codes and frequent service from the mainline carriers. So it’s easy to forget that, according to the RAA, 63 percent of US airports that have regularly scheduled passenger service are smaller airports that can only be accessed by regional airlines. Many passengers who live near these smaller airports rely on regional airlines to get them to major cities and to connect to flights around the US and the world.

“Larger airlines operate aircraft that can only serve higher-density markets with enough passengers to fill large planes,” says the RAA’s Black. “But regional airlines use smaller aircraft that are right-sized for smaller airports with fewer passengers.”

Aviation analyst Bob Mann agrees, telling TPG the big guys simply can’t afford to serve all those small markets without help. “If I’m the network planning guy at a major carrier and I’m looking at a small market where I can’t economically deploy one of my own larger aircraft, I first look at the [regional] airline that can provide that type of aircraft or that quality of service,” he says.

Not only do regional airlines provide access to smaller markets, they help the big airlines beef up their service to medium-sized markets where they’d otherwise only be able to run a flight or two per day.

“This would mean passengers might have to endure long layovers, might not be able to travel into and out of markets quickly or conveniently, and may end up with overnight expenses added to their trips,” says Black. “A regional airline can come in with an appropriately sized aircraft and provide much more frequent air service and even add destinations.”

A Reliable Talent Pool

Photo by Endeavor Air
Photo by Endeavor Air

With experienced pilots retiring at a rapid clip — and flying losing some of its image as a glamorous career  — airlines are facing a severe staffing shortage. Boeing estimates that over the next 20 years, North America alone will require 206,000 new pilots and 174,000 new cabin crew members just to keep up with demand.

Enter the regional airlines. Much the way Major League Baseball teams develop talent from their minor-league farm systems, regional airlines provide a key talent source for mainline airlines. Pilots and flight crews who work for a regional carrier — especially one owned by a big airline — are often moved to the head of the line when a higher-paying and more prestigious spot with a major carrier opens up.

“One of the reasons for having a wholly owned subsidiary is to literally own the talent pipeline,” says Mann.

One might think that regional airlines fret about the big guys draining personnel, but the RAA’s Black doesn’t seem fazed by it. “Regional airlines are the career starting point for many aviation professionals,” she says. “[We] view this role as an honor.”

Quality Control

A look inside an American Airlines first class cabin.
A look inside an American Airlines first class cabin.

While regional airlines freely declare that they’re the ones operating a particular flight, many passengers often don’t distinguish a regional from the major airline it’s working with. Case in point: You probably remember that infamous 2017 viral video where passenger David Dao was dragged off a plane for refusing an involuntary bumping from a United flight. But fewer people remember that the flight was actually operated by Republic Airline, an independent airline that also operates flights for Delta and American in addition to United.

With independent companies often running flights under the name of major airlines, the mainline carriers have a huge incentive to strictly control the quality of their regional partners.

“[Regionals] have to operate a reliable, on-time, high-quality onboard service,” Mann explains. “There’s a monthly evaluation. If you are not one of the top two or three [regional] carriers in the portfolio that that major carrier contracts with, you are at risk of being excluded from future contracts.”

Because you have several regional operators competing for the business of only three or four mainline airlines, it’s very much a buyers’ market for airlines. And don’t think the regionals that are affiliated with a major airline are spared this white-glove scrutiny of their service. When Horizon Air, which is owned by Alaska Air, ran into a pilot shortage in 2017 that forced it to cancel hundreds of flights, its big sister, Alaska Airlines, responded by turning over some of its Horizon flights over to SkyWest — an independent regional that competes with Horizon (highlighting the pain of a family squabble, Horizon’s then-CEO called the move “disheartening.”)

“For a major carrier, it’s very easy to whipsaw all dozen [regional carriers] against each other,” Mann says. “Including, by the way, withholding activity from your wholly owned subsidiary if you find that they aren’t doing the job that needs to be done.”

The result: Airlines can enlist the help of regional carriers while exerting strict control over their quality, whether they own the airline or not. “You want everything about the regionally operated flight to be indistinguishable from a flight operated at the mainline,” says Mann, adding that applies to the cabin decor, crew uniforms and inflight announcements.

The Downsides

Photo by Eric Salard / Flickr
Photo by Eric Salard / Flickr

While airlines and passengers do see some benefits from the relationship between major carriers and their regional partners, there are some potential downsides. “Regionals cancel at a rate that is probably three to four times the major carriers’ rate,” says Mann.

Mann also notes that as the airlines have come to rely on regionals, passengers are flying greater distances on these smaller, less luxurious aircraft.

“I think over time some carriers have relied on regional operations to excess,” he says.

But the RAA’s Black points out, smaller isn’t always… smaller.

“I regularly cross the country on mainline aircraft with tighter seat configurations than you’ll find on most regional aircraft,” she says. (An economy seat in a United Airlines 787-10 Dreamliner is actually slightly narrower than an economy seat on a regional United Express Embraer 175: 17.3 inches versus 18 inches. And they each have 31 inches of seat pitch.) Plus, adds Black, “When I fly on regionals, I don’t miss the middle seat.”

Mann says that, overall, the regional flying experience has gotten better over the years, thanks to newer planes and a bigger emphasis on service.

“I can recall getting on a [regional] aircraft and inflight service was the Igloo cooler shoved down the aisle of the aircraft and you could pick out your own soft drink,” Mann says of the days of flying on piston-powered aircraft and small turboprops. “Now, it’s glassware in the first-class cabin. It’s usually plated meals. Some cases these aircraft have hot galleys.” Some of these regional aircraft even have bars!

Bottom Line

Smaller regional flights generally don’t come close to the luxury experience on mainline carriers, but the days when regional flights were no-frills, puddle-jumping afterthoughts are long gone. As their quality has improved, regionals have become crucial partners to legacy air carriers and lifelines to smaller communities.

H/T: Seattle Times

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