Regional Jets Step Up in Class

COLONIE -- When airlines started 14 years ago to replace small propeller-driven planes with 50-seat regional jets, as they were called, passengers were happy.

When the same regional jets, with their all-coach seating, began replacing full-size airplanes, passengers complained.

Now, carriers such as Delta and United are buying larger regional jets and adding amenities such as first-class sections, more overhead storage space and, in United's case, additional space in economy seating for their best customers.

Some of these planes are beginning to serve Albany, where business travelers are welcoming them.

The new Embraer planes look like a Boeing 737 on the outside, with engines under the wing. The fuselage is designed to provide more headroom and enough storage space to hold carry-on baggage.

"All the 170s we have will have first-class seats," Black said.

Carriers and their regional partner airlines all still fly the smallest regional jets, such as the 50-seat Canadair and some even-smaller Embraer planes, with all-coach seating.

But those planes' days appear numbered, say airline analysts.

"They never were economical," said Michael Boyd of The Boyd Group, an Evergreen, Colo.-based airline consultant.

Bombardier, which makes the Canadair regional jets, has said it will suspend production of the 50-seaters in January as new orders dwindle.

The company's 70-seat planes, however, are increasingly featuring first-class seating. Some United Express flights from Albany International Airport to Chicago and to Washington's Dulles International Airport now include first-class and economy-plus seating -- economy seats with several inches of additional leg room that are provided for elite-level frequent fliers.

"There's a perfect reason" for the roomier seats on the regional jets, said United Airlines spokesman Jeff Green. "A lot of our business travelers like to use their (frequent flier) miles to upgrade. Chicago-Albany is a big business route."

Mark G. Campito, chief executive officer of MarkTech Optoelectronics Corp. in Latham, is one of those people. He recalls being routinely upgraded to first class on the trip from Albany to Chicago when he was booked in business class from Chicago to Tokyo.

But on regional jets with just economy seating, that wasn't possible.

Campito has not yet flown on one of the new regional jets, but said Wednesday that "I'd be all over it, especially at the end of a trip."

Regional jets are getting even larger -- Embraer has just brought out the Embraer 190 with as many as 100 seats -- blurring the distinction between small and full-size planes, said Boyd, the airline consultant.

And they have a big advantage over the Canadair jets and many of the smaller Embraer jets, which have narrower fuselages and little carry-on space. That's an issue because larger carry-ons must be left outside the plane when passengers board, to be stored separately at the back of the plane. And passengers usually must wait to get off the plane at their destination until the carry-ons have been retrieved by baggage handlers.

Not every carrier has plans for first-class seats, however. At American Eagle, American Airlines' regional affiliate, spokesman Dave Jackson said there are no plans "yet" to add the sections on regional jets.

And while Northwest has first-class seats on some of its smaller jets, the regional jets that it flies nonstop between Albany and Minneapolis have only economy seating.

Continental Express and US Airways Express also have regional jets that offer only economy seating.

Meanwhile, Bombardier on Wednesday said it hasn't yet made a decision on whether to proceed with plans to build an even larger jet, one that would hold up to 130 passengers.

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