Sunday, December 4, 2011

Airport may give turboprops another spin

Sunday, December 4, 2011

While airlines are grounding small jets and cutting flights to smaller cities to save money, Pittsburgh International Airport is pitching a plan to restore routes to 13 small Pennsylvania airports, using more economical turboprop planes.
"We think there is a niche for us with turboprops," said Brad Penrod, the airport's CEO and executive director.
Regional jets with 50 seats or fewer can be twice as costly per passenger as larger jets, but Penrod said twin-engine propeller planes burn less fuel than small jets and are ideal for flights of up to 400 miles. The airports with which Pittsburgh is looking to reconnect are closer than that; Allentown's Lehigh Valley International Airport is farthest at 250 miles.
"Turboprops are more economical to operate on short-haul flights," said Deborah McElroy, executive vice president of the Washington-based Airports Council International of North America.
McElroy said turboprops with 19 seats or fewer could be ideal for flights between Pittsburgh and airports in Allentown, Altoona, Bradford, Dubois, Erie, Franklin, Harrisburg, Johnstown, Lancaster, Latrobe, State College, Wilkes Barre/Scranton and Williamsport.

Pittsburgh operated at least three daily flights to those markets a decade ago, but the flights began to disappear when US Airways closed its local hub seven years ago. Currently, a Pittsburgh to Philadelphia flight is the airport's only in-state flight — and fliers will pay much more for that when average US Airways' nonstop fares jump from $118 to nearly $500 in January as Southwest Airlines eliminates its four daily round trips on the route. US Airways will be the only airline left on the route.
Attorney Stephen Summers said he would welcome service to Harrisburg, where the Downtown law firm he co-founded has an office.
"If that went through, assuming the price wasn't ridiculous, I'd definitely be interested," he said. "I go to Harrisburg three to four times a month, and it's a long, boring drive on the turnpike."
The Pennsylvania Air Service Committee, a trade group representing the state's commercial service airports and state Bureau of Aviation, has pushed for at least three years to restore service between Pittsburgh and the regional airports. Massachusetts-based Cape Airline backed out of a tentative deal in June 2009 to provide service on nine-seat turboprops.
The committee is seeking bids from consulting firms to help woo turboprop operators. The deadline for proposals is Dec. 13.
"I think what they are doing is very innovative, and could well be a model for what other communities will be doing across the country," said Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association in Washington.
McElroy agreed, noting that the move away from regional jets has eliminated air service at 41 airports across the country since 2009.
"Turboprops could help fill a void," she said.
Delta, United Continental and other big airlines are expected to park, scrap or sell hundreds of jets with 50 seats or fewer in coming years.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when jet fuel cost about one-fourth what it does today, airlines considered small jets a profitable way to connect people in small cities to the rest in the world. Bombardier and Embraer sold more than 1,900 50-seat jets during that period.
But as jet fuel prices soared, small jets became less economical. For example, based on today's fuel price of about $3.10 a gallon, Delta Air Lines would spend $58.90 per passenger on fuel to operate a full, 500-mile flight on its 50-seat Bombardier CRJ-200. The cost would be $23.25 per passenger on its 160-seat MD-for over the same distance.
Delta started eliminating 50-seaters in October 2008 and plans to have shed 121 by the end of next year, leaving it with 324. United Continental has 30 37-seat jets, but 25 are grounded. American Eagle, which feeds traffic to American Airlines, owns 39 37-seaters, but 17 were parked as of the end of last year.
Pittsburgh International spokeswoman JoAnn Jenny said last week that no airline has announced plans to cut service here because of the move away from small jets. In Pittsburgh, airlines use 37-seaters on routes to and from Toronto and Cleveland and 50-seaters to and from Chicago, Detroit, Hartford, Conn., Miami, Milwaukee, New York, Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and St. Louis.
Jenny said the flights tend to be full or near capacity. Airlines can set higher fares on popular routes for which they lack competition than they can on competitive routes that don't routinely sell out, she said

Read more: Airport may give turboprops another spin - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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