Operations at several big regional airlines -- the carriers that feed millions of passengers to mainline airlines -- deteriorated sharply last year, with late flights, lost baggage and cancellations soaring.
The slipping service at some regionals is the result of explosive growth and cost cutting. Some airlines have found themselves with schedules too tight to load and unload planes without delays, and with no cushion to catch up. Since mainline airlines typically control the scheduling of their regional partners, the small-jet airlines have been whacked with flight cancellations at hub airports to make room for the mainline airlines' bigger planes when bad weather or construction slow traffic.
Over the past 10 years, as financially strapped big airlines have turned over more flying to cheaper partners and small jets have become a mainstay for travelers, regional airlines have doubled in size, making them an increasingly important part of travel in the United States. Many don't just fly to small towns; they fill in airline schedules on routes as big as New York-Chicago and Boston-Washington. But they are increasingly dragging down the nation's air travel.
"It never goes good. They are useless," said traveler Willy Schmieder, who arrived at the Atlanta airport for a 9 a.m. Atlantic Southeast flight to Wisconsin to visit his parents during the holidays. His flight was delayed multiple times by morning fog, then canceled by a mechanical breakdown. At 5 p.m., he was told to come back the next day. He did, and his flight was only an hour late.
In the third quarter last year, four of the six airlines with the worst on-time records were regionals. In October, the most recent month reported by the Department of Transportation, the six worst carriers in baggage were all regionals, and six of the seven airlines that canceled flights most frequently were regionals. Comair, owned by Delta Air Lines Inc., dropped to 64.9 percent on-time from
84.9 percent a year earlier. American Eagle, owned by AMR Corp.'s American Airlines, canceled flights three times as frequently as its parent airline in October.
St. George-based SkyWest Inc.'s Atlantic Southeast Airlines, another Delta feeder, was the worst airline in on-time performance in the third quarter, with only 57 percent of its flights arriving within 15 minutes of schedule, compared with 66.8 percent a year earlier.
Some problems have resulted from unexpected changes -- a faster passenger train at the Dallas airport means passengers can now make connections faster than their bags, resulting in more mishandled baggage for American Eagle, a spokesman said. Also, higher passenger loads and longer flights in small jets mean baggage is more frequently left behind, so the planes, loaded with fuel, aren't overweight.
Regional airlines say they are scrambling to fix the problems by spreading out schedules and increasing the weight small jets can carry.
Though operations last year were worse than historical averages, regional carriers say structural differences mean they are unlikely to perform as well as bigger airlines. While bigger airlines fly across the country, regionals are usually confined geographically, operating out of one or two hubs. When bad weather strikes, the carrier's entire operations can be affected.
In addition, being subservient to a larger airline can hurt. The major carrier can force cancellations at the regional to open takeoff and landing slots for bigger airplanes, so the most passengers get moved. The main airline can also force regional flights to wait for passengers.
In Atlanta in October, 63.2 percent of Delta flights arrived on time, but only 52.7 percent of Atlantic Southeast flights did. In Washington, 83.9 percent of UAL Corp.'s United Airlines flights arrived on time, but only 71.6 percent of the flights of its partner, Mesa Airlines Inc., did. Same for American in Chicago, where 62.2 percent of mainline American flights arrived on time in October, compared with only 57 percent of Eagle flights.
Comair, which historically has ranked well in DOT standings, says its problems began last summer with Delta's major expansion at New York's Kennedy Airport. Dropping lots of new Comair flights into JFK, an airport already jammed with JetBlue Airways Corp., a major American operation and the afternoon and evening rush of European flights, meant the time airplanes spent taxiing in a conga line to takeoff increased 50 percent, said Don Stephens, Comair's vice president of system planning.
For now, Comair has convinced Delta to space out regional flights more at JFK and add minutes to schedules to more accurately reflect trip times. Comair has also bulked up its crew base at JFK to have more pilots and flight attendants available.
Atlantic Southeast, at the bottom of on-time performance, says it, too, is increasing staffing to try to improve. It also says it's making cockpit modifications that allow for landing in lower visibility, expanding gate areas, and investing in better hand-held radios and clocks that make it clear how close a flight is to departure for ramp workers. "We are starting to turn the corner," said Anthony DiNota, vice president of Atlantic Southeast's Atlanta operation.
American Eagle says it tried to cram more flights into its schedule in 2006 so it could grow without buying new aircraft. That meant flying planes more each day and turning them around more quickly between flights. "In some cases, we stretched too far," said spokesman Dave Jackson.
The airline also ran into a problem with its Embraer 145 jets, which carry 50 passengers. The airplane, one-third of the Eagle fleet, often was overweight. Taking baggage off meant lots of mishandled bags for customers -- Eagle's mishandled baggage rate was up 68 percent in October from a year earlier. To help, the airline has been modifying its E145 jets so they can carry an additional 1,300 pounds, Jackson said.
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