Steamboat Springs Mesa Airlines has loaded its summer flights between Hayden and Denver into travel computers, and the route will be served by 37-passenger turboprop De Havilland Dash-8's. However, commercial aircraft with propellers are endangered birds, even in small markets such as the Yampa Valley, Bill Oliver said Wednesday.
Oliver, an executive with industry consultant The Boyd Group, said turboprops are being phased out by airlines in the United States. The motivation is strong passenger aversion to flying on propeller-driven aircraft.
"Pre-9/11, props were bye-bye," Oliver said. "We're in a small bubble where turboprops will remain," but they will disappear from commercial airports in a few years, if not sooner.
Oliver was in Steamboat Springs on Wednesday to take part in a panel discussion during the Mountain Travel Symposium at the Sheraton Steamboat Resort and Conference Center.
Mesa confirmed last week that it will assume service at Yampa Valley Regional Airport from Air Wisconsin in July under a code-sharing agreement with United Airlines. Oliver had praise for both commuter airlines.
"They're both excellent carriers. They both have excellent management teams," he said during a pause in the conference.
Air Wisconsin is leaving YVRA as it eliminates turboprop Dornier 328s from its fleet, a company spokesman said last week.
Air Wisconsin has a larger order to add additional 50-passenger Canadair jets to its fleet. Oliver said the shift to Mesa Air Group's turboprops doesn't mean smaller jets won't return here -- it's only a matter of time until all commuter airlines make the shift to small jets. Mesa already flies the Canadair as well as a similar Embraer jet made in Brazil.
Airline labor contracts, which seek to protect the salaries of pilots of larger jets, are one of the reasons why the change isn't taking place at a more rapid pace, Oliver said. Those contracts are in a state of flux as airlines look for wage concessions in the current economy, he added.
The small jets that are currently coming to the fore are frequently referred to as "regional jets" or RJ's, but that's really a misnomer, Oliver said. The Canadairs flown by Air Wisconsin and Mesa are increasingly operated on major routes into cities of one million or more.
In that respect, airlines are pushing the intended use of the small jets, Oliver said.
"They're beautiful aircraft, but cabin constraints mean that on flights of over two hours, it gets uncomfortable."
A current airline trend toward using smaller aircraft is putting pressure on resort markets like YVRA/Steamboat, Oliver said, as the small jets are in increasing demand. The average size of commercial aircraft today is 140 passengers, down from 180 in 1981. In 2006, the average size will have decreased to 125 passengers.
Oliver said a new generation of Embraer aircraft in the 80- to 100-passenger range will relieve some of the industry pressure on 50-passenger jets.
"Airlines are extremely risk-averse," Oliver said. "They want to make the best use of their resources (aircraft) and that means achieving the highest return. Ski resorts have to look at that by offering an economic opportunity to generate year-round revenues. You've got to convince airlines you can make money here."
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