Regional Jet Use Stabilizing

Welcome news for cramped business travelers: The surge in the use of small jets by U.S. airlines has leveled off.

Regional jets, those with capacities of 32 to 100 passengers, will fly one-third the domestic flights this month, unchanged from a year ago, according to a USA TODAY analysis of schedules. Until now, regional jets had been capturing a growing share of domestic flying since 2000.

Regional jets are expected to remain a key part of the U.S. aviation system on busy routes under 1,000 miles. But passengers can expect to start seeing more 70- and 100-seat jets that offer more comfortable rides on longer flights, says aviation consultant Douglas Abbey of the Velocity Group.

Because the total number of domestic flights is down from September 2005, U.S. airlines will operate about 7,000 fewer domestic flights this month on regional jets, a decline of about 3%.

It's the first yearly decline since U.S. airlines began earlier this decade to shift a big portion of flying to the small jets.

"At this point, we probably have seen the peak" in 50-seat regional jet use, Abbey says.

The percentage of regional jets flying in the USA soared after 9/11, when American, Delta and the other network carriers shifted a significant amount of flying to their commuter partners to save money. Smaller planes better match aircraft size with demand on low-volume routes, and the smaller partner airlines generally operate with lower costs.

Some of the factors behind the recent leveling off:

*Saturation. Fred Curado, a top executive at Brazilian regional jet maker Embraer, says it would be unrealistic to see further strong growth in regional jet usage, given the industry's current high reliance.

*Finances. Bankruptcy and liquidation have taken their toll. Independence Air, the Washington Dulles-based airline that used 50-seat regional jets exclusively, went out of business in January, idling dozens of planes.

Also, two major users of regional jets, Delta and Northwest, are curtailing use of 50-seat jets while restructuring in bankruptcy court. As the airlines shrink, they have less need for the small jets.

*Union rules. Though US Airways and some other carriers, in negotiations with pilots, have gained more flexible union rules that let them fly some of the larger regional jets, other carriers have not. Continental, for example, has a labor contract that continues to limit its ability to expand flying with larger regional jets.

The proliferation of regional jets has infuriated many frequent fliers who find them cramped and uncomfortable compared with bigger planes. Most regional jets have a lower ceiling, tight seating and single-class cabins, which eliminates their chance of obtaining a first-class upgrade.

Automotive industry executive David Cutting of Detroit doesn't like to fly 50-seat regional jets -- the most common type of regional jet -- for flights longer than an hour. Even at 5-foot-7, he says, he finds the seats so cramped that it's "tough to read the newspaper with someone next to you."

While the use of regional jets appears to have peaked, regional jets aren't going away.

Airlines still find them useful on routes that don't have enough demand from travelers to justify bigger jets. JetBlue is taking deliveries of 100-seat Embraer 190, which are spacious enough to compare favorably with a big jet. It now has about 20 of the planes. US Airways will receive its first Embraer 190 in November.

But uncertain airline finances continue to hinder big purchases, at least for now.

At American Eagle, American Airlines' commuter carrier, spokesman David Jackson says that it would buy 70-seaters if it decides to add regional jets. It has no plans to do so, he says.