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Archive for Friday, July 6, 2007

A makeover for regional jets

First-class seats, other frills could help bottom line

July 6, 2007

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Northwest Airlines' newest jet, a Bombardier CRJ-900, sits on display in Minneapolis. Northwest, which is upgrading its regional jet fleet, is adding a total of 72 new 76-seat jets, half of which will be CRJ-900s and the other half will be Embraer 175s. The planes include a dozen first-class seats, and the cabins are roomier than Northwest's other regional jets.

Northwest Airlines' newest jet, a Bombardier CRJ-900, sits on display in Minneapolis. Northwest, which is upgrading its regional jet fleet, is adding a total of 72 new 76-seat jets, half of which will be CRJ-900s and the other half will be Embraer 175s. The planes include a dozen first-class seats, and the cabins are roomier than Northwest's other regional jets.

— Airlines are rushing to add new regional jets with first-class seats, roomier cabins and, in some cases, hot food.



Roomier, plush Airplanes

¢ What's New: Northwest and Delta airlines are adding regional jets with first-class seats that make the flying experience more like that on a mainline jet.¢ Is it a moneymaker?: Maybe. Northwest says margins are higher on its regional jets. The cost to flyers can be higher, too: $678 more for a first-class seat on its Fargo, N.D., to Minneapolis flight, for instance.¢ Why now?: Northwest, Delta, and United each used bankruptcy in recent years to expand the number of small jets that are allowed by union contracts with pilots.

The carriers are hoping business travelers tired of a cramped 50-seat jet will pay extra for a flight experience closer to what they get on a mainline jet. The addition could help airlines turn a profit on flights that have generally been a loss-leader feeding traffic into long-haul flights, although rising fuel prices could complicate the plan.

Airlines that recently went through bankruptcy - Northwest, Delta, and United - are the freest to add such jets because of relaxed restrictions in their pilot contracts.

Northwest Airlines Corp. is adding 72 new 76-seat jets through next year. Half will be Bombardier CRJ-900s flown by its Mesaba subsidiary and the other half will be Embraer 175s flown by its new Compass subsidiary. Both include a dozen first-class seats, and the cabin is roomier than on Northwest's other regional jets. Delta Air Lines Inc. plans to fly 77 dual-class regional jets by the end of 2008, and United's regional partners now fly about 115 70-seat jets with coach, first-class and an Economy Plus seat with extra legroom.

Delta spokeswoman Betsy Talton said business customers have been asking for the regional first-class seats for years. The aim with the new jets is "to make it all more seamless and more like the mainline jet experience," she said.

First-class seats on Northwest's new jets will include the same level of meal service as on regular flights.

Northwest said it helped design its version of the Bombardier CRJ-900, which has 6 feet 2 inches from floor to ceiling in the aisle, and windows that are 25 percent bigger than an earlier version of the CRJ-900.

That's a big improvement over the 50-seaters often used on regional routes, even if doesn't quite match mainline flying, said aviation consultant George Hamlin of Airline Capital Associates Inc.

"You had to be a midget to see out the windows of the 50-seater; it was so low," he said.

With regional jets covering longer distances, passengers are spending two hours or more on board those planes - making a first-class seat more desirable.

"As other carriers like Northwest and Delta and United roll out regional equipment that offers two-class configurations, that will turn out to be a competitive advantage for them," said Darin Lee, senior managing economist at aviation consultancy LECG in Cambridge, Mass.

The new jets stretch the idea of "regional" flying. For instance, Northwest used to fly some 1,400 miles from Minneapolis to Vancouver only seasonally, when demand could fill an Airbus. It dropped the route when demand slackened because that was too far for a 50-seat jet.

But it's within range for the new Embraer, which is the plane Northwest will use on that route.

"What people really care about is nonstop service," Hamlin said. "And these aircraft are the right size to introduce them into many markets that wouldn't have it otherwise."

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