“Welcome aboard flight 5429, operated by PSA airlines, we’re happy to have you with us today.” Whether a road warrior or an infrequent traveler, odds are you’ve heard an announcement just like this. Why is your flight being flown by an unfamiliar airline? For decades, network airlines (you know, very familiar airlines like American, Delta and United) have used regional airlines with smaller aircraft to feed their hubs from smaller cities and to serve routes that aren’t large enough for a mainline jet.
Regional airlines generally fly aircraft between 50 and 76 seats, while most mainline airlines fly aircraft with 100 seats or more. Because the aircraft have so few seats, the cost for mainline (network) airlines to operate them could make them uneconomical. Regional airlines instead operate these planes at costs that are more economical to fly. They generally don’t have some of the expenses that mainline carriers incur by virtue of flying larger aircraft. For example, ExpressJet doesn’t own any hangars that can house a 747, nor do they have the tools to work on massive 777 engines. Pilots and flight attendants generally start their careers at regional carriers and move up to mainline as openings become available. Regional airline flight crews and mechanics go through all of the same rigorous training as the mainline carriers. Some regional airlines are actually wholly-owned subsidiaries of the mainline carrier.
There are nearly 30 regional airlines in the United States. Smaller airplanes don’t necessarily mean smaller businesses. Some, like SkyWest and ExpressJet, are actually larger and have more aircraft than many airlines that fly larger planes. There are many ways their contracts to fly are negotiated, but in a nutshell, the mainline airlines like Delta pay regional airlines like ExpressJet to operate flights on their behalf. The way the regional airline gets paid by the mainline carrier is subject to the contract between the two airlines, which is often broken down into groups of aircraft. A regional carrier with 30 planes can have 3 sets of 10 planes, with each set operating under a different contract for the same mainline carrier.
The most noticeable difference to the passenger between a regional airline and a mainline airline is the size of the aircraft. In most cases, everything else will be the same: The aircraft will be painted in the mainline airline’s colors and will fly routes for that airline as if it were one of their own. The mainline carriers want passengers to experience the same product benefits on their regionals as they do on their mainline flights. There are now more regional jets with features like first class and Wi-Fi than there have ever been and the number continues to grow.
Without regional airlines, there would be hundreds (yes, hundreds) of cities that simply wouldn’t have air service. Smaller aircraft allow the airlines to fly to smaller cities and to have added schedule flexibility. For example, without airlines like PSA and Piedmont, which are regional affiliates of American Airlines, Asheville may have fewer flights each day to Charlotte. Regional airlines have been an integral part of the air transportation network for decades and will continue to serve smaller cities and thinner routes well into the future.