Air Transport World

Indispensable regionals: once considered the questionable stepchildren of major carriers, regional airlines have become an integral part of the global air transportation industry.(Regionals 2004)

The transformation of commuter/ regional airlines over the last 40 years has been nothing short of dramatic. Deregulation, cabin-class airliners, codesharing and top-shelf management have helped change commuter carriers from marginal players with shaky finances into billion-dollar Regionals that have become part of the industry's core.

While Regionals can be found worldwide, their earliest and greatest development was part of the US landscape. In the 1960s, most US commuter airlines were, in effect, part-time air taxis operating under Part 298 regulations established in the early 1950s by the Civil Aeronautics Board. These early Regionals provided connecting service for the local-service carriers, a class of airline created after World War II to enhance domestic US service.

In the beginning, the commuter fleets were a ragtag mix of 6/9-seat piston twins and WW II-vintage aircraft like the DC-3. There also were the odd birds such as the four-engine, 17-seat de Havilland Heron and twin-engine de Havilland Dove.

The early commuters were mom-and-pop outfits run by a colorful cadre of irascible entrepreneurs who despite lacking a full complement of management skills were visionaries nonetheless. People like Dawson Ransome (Ransome Airlines), John Van Arsdale (Provincetown-Boston Airline), Kingsley Morse (Command Airways), Joe Fugere (Pilgrim Airlines), Paul Quackenbush (Empire Airlines), Dick Henson (Henson Airlines) and Bill Britt (Britt Airways) laid the foundation for what has become today's Regional airline industry.

Statistics illustrate the sea change that has engulfed this segment of air transportation. In the 1960s, individual commuters rarely carried 700,000 passengers in a year. In 1978, the year the airline industry was deregulated, Regionals collectively carried fewer than 10 million passengers. Today they transport well over 100 million passengers annually.

Even more dramatic has been the increase in revenue generated by Regionals over the years. Some carriers now post annual revenues in excess of $1 billion. In the mid- to late- 1960s, any profit shown by a commuter airline was considered an oddity. "It was pretty tough going back then," remembers Preston Wilbourne, now-retired founder of Air Wisconsin. "And it was almost impossible to make money."

In the regulated years, commuters were restricted. While allowed to operate without a CAB-issued certificate of public convenience and necessity, rarely issued after creation of the local service carriers, commuter airlines could not use aircraft with a maximum gross takeoff weight exceeding 12,500 lb. …

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