Smaller jets gain bigger role at O'Hare

-- Feb. 11--Smaller jets once reserved for short hops to cities like Des Moines, Iowa, are taking on a larger role at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, squeezing both passengers and city revenues. United and American...


Feb. 11--Smaller jets once reserved for short hops to cities like Des Moines, Iowa, are taking on a larger role at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, squeezing both passengers and city revenues.

United and American Airlines, the airport's two major tenants, schedule about two regional jet flights for every one flown on far-larger Airbus or Boeing jets at O'Hare, according to data compiled by OAG for the Tribune.

Ten years ago, the numbers were reversed: American operated two traditional jet flights for every flight by its American Eagle regional jet subsidiary. United flew three flights for every flight subcontracted to its United Express carriers. The airlines are making the changes mainly because the smaller jets are cheaper to fly, and experts say there is likely no going backward: In the future, domestic flights of two or three hours will likely be flown by smaller planes.

Most passengers aren't thrilled by the trend, especially as the smaller jets are increasingly deployed for travel to such big cities as Boston, New York and Miami that were once exclusively served by larger planes. Some travel Web sites even provide a box for customers to check if they want to avoid flying on small planes.

"The bottom line is that the regional jets are just not as comfortable," said longtime United customer Richard Fennessey.

Although an improvement over the turboprops of earlier eras, the smaller jets, which seat from 30 to 70 passengers, offer less room for passengers and their bags. In many cases, their flight crews aren't employees of the larger carrier, a fact fueling labor tensions at airlines and safety concerns among regulators.

The implications go beyond the surprise some passengers feel at the gate. The growing dependence on smaller jets by United and American is straining O'Hare finances.

Regional jets provide the city with lower landing fees, which are adjusted on a sliding scale according to a plane's weight.

The ascent of regional flying at O'Hare coincides with a sharp drop in passenger traffic at the airport, which is squeezing the airport's budget and contributing to heightened tensions between city officials and airline tenants.

About 20 million fewer people will travel through the airport in 2010 than in 2006, city budget projections show, contributing to a sharp decline in the revenue the city garners from parking and concession sales at O'Hare.

To compensate for this shortfall, as well as prepay some long-term debt, the city has imposed a 38 percent landing-fee hike and a 15 percent to 17 percent terminal rent increase. The higher fees would make O'Hare the second-most costly airport in the U.S. for carriers, according to the International Air Transport Association, an airline trade group.

The airlines are balking at the fee increases, which they claim are unnecessary and "fiscally irresponsible."

Chicago needs to find a way to postpone increasing costs that the airlines pay and put together a financing plan that would win airlines' support for the final phase of O'Hare's planned $15 billion expansion, said Mary Rose Loney, a former Chicago aviation commissioner who is an airport consultant.

"That keeps airlines at the table working with you," Loney said. "Right now, the two sides are colliding on how to fund major capital improvements."

Chicago Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino said she expects the airline business will rebound strongly and that there will be a return to larger planes.

"We would love that in the future every aircraft coming to O'Hare will be a larger gauge, because that means more passengers," she said.

But as United and American start to increase service heading into summer, after deep cuts in operations during 2008-09, the growth will largely be on the wings of smaller aircraft, OAG data show. For the first half of 2010, United is cutting traditional jet flights at O'Hare by 13 percent, while boosting regional flying 21 percent compared to the first half of last year; American is trimming its flying by 7 percent and increasing operations on regional affiliates 17 percent for the same period.

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