Regional airline

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"Regional Airlines" redirects here. For the French airline, see Regional Airlines (France).
Flight West was a regional airline operating in Australia in the 1990s

Regional airlines are airlines that operate regional aircraft to provide passenger air service to communities without sufficient demand to attract mainline service. There are two main ways for a regional airline to do business:

  1. As an affiliated airline, contracting with a major airline, operating under their brand name, and filling two roles: delivering passengers to the major airline’s hubs from surrounding communities, known as regional feeds, and increasing frequency of service on mainline routes during times when demand does not warrant use of large aircraft, known as commuter flights.
  2. Operating as an independent airline under their own brand, mostly providing service to small and isolated communities, for whom the airline is the only reasonable link to a larger town. Examples of this are Peninsula Airways, which links the remote Aleutian Islands to Anchorage, Alaska, and Mokulele Airlines.


Regional airlines began by operating propeller-driven aircraft over short routes, sometimes on flights of less than 100 miles. In the early days of commercial aviation few aircraft had ranges greater than this, and airlines were often formed to serve the area in which they formed. That is, there was no strong distinction between a regional airline and any other airline. This changed with the introduction of long-range aircraft, which led to the development of the flag carrier airlines, such as British Overseas Airways Corporation and Trans-Canada Airlines. As the flag carriers grew in importance with increasing long-range passenger traffic, the smaller airlines found a niche flying passengers over short hops to the flag carrier's airport. This arrangement was eventually formalized, forming the feeder airlines.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, war surplus designs, notably the DC-3, were replaced by much more capable turboprop or jet-powered designs like the Fokker F27 Friendship or BAC One-Eleven. This extended the range of the regionals dramatically, causing a wave of consolidations between the now overlapping airlines.

In the early 1990s, much more advanced turboprop-powered, fuel efficient, and passenger friendly DC-3 type replacement projects such as the 19 passenger Embraer/FMA CBA 123 Vector and the 34 seat Dornier 328 were undertaken, but met little financial success, partly due to economic downturn in the airline industry resulting from the outbreak of hostilities when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Many of the regional airlines operating turboprop equipment such as Delta's regional sister Comair airlines in the United States set the course for bypassing entirely the regional turboprops as they became the first to transition to an all-jet regional jet fleet. To a lesser extent in Europe and the United Kingdom this transition, to notably the Embraer or Canadair designs, was well advanced by the late 1990s. This evolution towards jet equipment, brought the independent regional airlines into direct competition with the major airlines, forcing additional consolidation.

Although regional airlines in the United States are often viewed as small, not particularly lucrative "no name" subsidiaries of the mainline airlines, in terms of revenue, many would be designated major airline carrier status based on the only actual definition of "major airline," in the United States, the definition from the U.S. Department of Transportation. This definition is based solely on annual revenue and not on any other criterion such as average aircraft seating capacity, pilot pay, or number of aircraft in the fleet. It is common in the U.S. to incorrectly associate aircraft size with the Department of Transportation's designation of major, national, and regional airline. The only corollary is the Regional Airline Association, an industry trade group, defines "regional airlines" generally as "...operat(ing) short and medium haul scheduled airline service connecting smaller communities with larger cities and connecting hubs. The airlines' fleet primarily consists of 19 to 68 seat turboprops and 30 to 100 seat regional jets." To be clear there is no distinction in the Department of Transportation definition of major, national and regional airlines by aircraft size. The definition is based on revenue. The clash of definitions has led to confusion in the media and the public.

Beginning around 1985, a number of trends has been apparent. Regional aircraft are getting larger, regional aircraft are getting faster, and regional aircraft are flying longer ranges. Most recently regional aircraft in the US have been getting slightly more comfortable with the addition of better ergonomically designed aircraft cabins, and the addition of varying travel classes aboard these aircraft.[citation needed] From small, less than 50-seat "single-class cabin" turboprop, to turbofan regional jet equipment, present day regional airlines provide aircraft such as the higher capacity CRJ700, CRJ900, CRJ1000 series of aircraft and the somewhat larger fuselage Embraer E-Jets. Some of these newer aircraft are capable of flying longer distances with comfort levels that rival and surpass the regional airline equipment of the past.[citation needed] Today, the "Regional Airline" designation in common usage has nothing to do with annual revenue, as the in original U.S. Department of Transportation designation. The "Regional Airline" designation in the United States does imply significantly lower flight crew compensation, less desirable working hours, work rules, rest rules, less desirable overnight accommodations while on trips, and less job security as "Major Airlines" move contracted flight hours from carrier to carrier to hold down the costs of "branded lift." Controversy and attention surrounding "Regional Airline" pilot qualifications, experience and comparatively onerous work and rest rules increased after the crash of Colgan 3407 in 2009. Largely due to the cheaper labor costs at "Regional Airlines," as of 2012 more than 50% of U.S. departures were on "Regional Airlines."


To improve on their market penetration, larger airline holding companies rely on operators of smaller aircraft to provide service or added frequency service to some airports.

Such airlines, often operating in code-share arrangements with mainline airlines, often completely repaint [1] their aircraft fleet in the mainline airline's sub-brand livery. For example, United Express regional airline partner CommutAir branded its entire fleet as United Express. On the other hand, regional airline Gulfstream International Airlines does not brand their aircraft. When Colgan Air was still operating, they branded a handful of aircraft as Colgan Air, but most were branded as Continental Connection, US Airways Express or United Express, with whom it had contractual agreements.

Typical seat map of a smaller regional airliner as is often flown by the regional airlines. The smallest aircraft flown under such brands and regional airlines may or may not have lavatories.

Many airline passengers find sub-branding very confusing, while many other airline passengers are content to think they are on a mainline or flagship airline's aircraft, while in actuality they are far from it.[citation needed] Sub-branding is pretty consistent throughout the airline industry of the United States, with all the regional airlines, mainline airlines, and the regional airline holding companies, as well as the mainline airlines holding companies participating.[1]

Historically, one of the first independently owned and managed airlines in the world that rebranded its aircraft to match a larger airline's image and color scheme was Air Alpes of France. During 1974, Air Alpes painted its newly delivered short range feeder airliner regional jets into the colors of Air France. The success of the "rebranding" or "pseudo branding" of a much smaller airline into the name recognition of a much larger one soon became clear as passenger numbers soared at Air Alpes, and it was soon decided to paint other aircraft such as the Fokker F-27 into full Air France colours as well.

United States[edit]

In the United States, regional airlines were an important building block of today's passenger air system. The U.S. Government encouraged the forming of regional airlines to provide services from smaller communities to larger towns, where air passengers could connect to a larger network.

The first United States regional airline (then called a commuter airline) was Wright Airlines, founded by aviation legend Gerald Weller in Cleveland, Ohio. The airline was based at Cleveland's Burke Lakefront Airport, becoming the airport's first commercial carrier. Though airlines had come and gone from Burke over the years, Wright Airlines endured, and by the time the airline declared bankruptcy in the late 1980s, it was appropriately the last commercial airline to leave Burke Lakefront Airport. (Cleveland's commercial traffic has since been consolidated at the city's larger Cleveland Hopkins International Airport).

Some of the original regional airlines (then known as Local Service airlines) sanctioned by the Civil Aeronautics Board in the 1940s and 1950s include:

None of these airlines survives today; some airlines use these names today but are not the direct successors to the original airlines.[citation needed] A history and study of regional airlines was published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1994 under the title Commuter Airlines of the United States, by R.E.G. Davies and I. E. Quastler.

Since the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, the US federal government has continued support of the regional airline sector to ensure many of the smaller and more isolated rural communities remain connected to air services. This is encouraged with the Essential Air Service program[citation needed] that subsidizes airline service to smaller U.S. communities and suburban centers, aiming to maintain year-round service.

An alternative to some regional airline service may be the new Small Aircraft Transportation System[2] initiative in conjunction with general aviation and VLJs (very light jets). With the introduction of air taxi VLJs, city pair links to smaller communities lacking regional connections could become more common.

The following is a list of former North American regional brands or lesser know airlines in the United States:


North America[edit]

In North America many of the largest regional airlines have joined the lobbying group Regional Airline Association.[3] This association lobbies purely for the financial interest of the corporate bodies it constitutes, not the employees of those airlines.

Many large airlines, especially in North America, have established operational relationships with one or more regional airline companies. Their aircraft often use the aircraft livery for the company they are operating flights for. These airlines can be subsidiaries of the major airline or fly under a code sharing agreement. An example would be the fully owned AMR Corporation's American Eagles Holdings Corporation regional subsidiaries "American Eagle Airlines" and Executive Airlines which fly under the similar American Eagle brand.


In Canada, there are a number of regional airlines. Some of them focus on Canadian Arctic and First Nations communities, while others operate feeder flights on behalf of a larger carrier, similar to their American counterparts. Some of these airlines and brands include:

United States[edit]

The trend of branding smaller and mostly regional (in terms of geographical scope) airlines to match the mainline airlines, has lead to only three main sub-brands in the United States. These three, American Eagle, Delta Connection, and United Express are the post-deregulation survivors resultant of the multiple bankruptcies and mergers of the major, legacy, mainline airlines, as well as some discount or low-cost carriers which adopted similar strategic marketing ideas.

Many small regional airlines have grown substantially, usually through virtual mergers by use of the regional airline holding company, as pioneered by AMR Corporation in 1982. AMR created the AMR Eagle Holding Corporation[4] which unified its wholly owned American Eagle Airlines and Executive Airlines under one division, but still maintained the regional airlines' operating certificates and personnel separate from each other and American Airlines.

In the United States, the most significant airline holding companies, and their subsidiary regional airlines, are:

Some of the lesser known smaller brands used by the regional airlines and their parent companies are listed below:

  • PWExpress, a regional airline brand of the regional airline named Pacific Wings, IATA code (LW) which is owned by Pacific Air Holdings company
  • New Mexico Airlines, a regional airline brand of Pacific Wings, which is owned by Pacific Air Holdings company
Cessna 402C of Hyannis Air Service - Cape Air
  • Nantucket Airlines, a feeder airline marketing brand operated by feeder and regional airline Cape Air which is wholly owned by the regional airline holding company Hyaniss Air Services.


CityJet is a European regional airline operating services on behalf of its owner Air France. This is a British Aerospace 146-200.

European regional airlines serve the intra-continental sector in Europe. They connect cities to major airports and to other cities, avoiding the need for passengers to make transfers.

For example, BA CityFlyer a regional subsidiary of British Airways uses the basic Chatham Dockyard Union Flag livery of its parent company and flies between domestic and European cities. In a slightly different category ExpressJet Airlines another regional carrier, but one which is independently owned and managed, although its 205 aircraft fleet operates in the marketing brand of Continental Airlines, Inc., Continental Express. In these roles, all of the preceding airlines are operated primarily to bring passengers to the major hubs, where they will connect for longer distance flights on the national airlines also known as flagship carriers's, larger aircraft. The smallest regional carriers have become known as feeder airlines. The separate corporate structure allows the company to operate under different pay schedules, typically paying much less than their mainline owners.[citation needed]

Some of Europe's regional airlines are subsidiaries of national air carriers, though there remains a strong entrepreneurial sector of independents. They are based on business models ranging from the traditional full service airline to low cost carriers. Innovations include one where the passenger is required to join a membership club before being allowed to fly.

Some examples of European regional airlines include:

VFW-614 of Air Alsace at Basle Airport in 1977


SilkAir is the regional wing of Singapore Airlines and operates scheduled passenger services from Singapore to 37 cities in the region of Southeast Asia, South Asia and China. This airline differs from airlines in North America and Middle America in that it uses "mainline sized equipment" that is aircraft with a seating capacity greater than 99 passenger, but uniquely receives the designation of a "regional airline" subsidiary by its aforementioned airline parent company.

Pay issues[edit]

First year regional pilot pay as of Aug. 2011. Source:, an industry career site.

In the film, Capitalism: A Love Story, director and film producer Michael Moore profiled how little most regional pilots are paid in the first few years of their careers. Hourly wages for regional pilots start at $12.50,[5] In comparison, a cabbie in New York averages $17 an hour, according to the city's Taxi & Limousine Commission.[6] On Feb 12th, 2010, a year after the crash of Colgan flight 3407, Frontline premiered its WGA Award winning exposè on the industry entitled "Flying Cheap". In the program, reporter Miles O'brian questioned how the impact of low salaries are having on pilot psyches and how safe this could be for the flying public. When asked to respond to the question, Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association[7] told Frontline that, "...there are many other people who earn less money than that and work more days in these communities that can afford it and do it and do it responsibly."[8]

See also[edit]


External links[edit]