Regional aviation evolved in two dimensions: technological advances steadily served to increase aircraft range and seating capacity thus permitting carriage of ever larger number of passengers over longer and longer distances; and demographical evolution of nations meant development of more towns and increasing spending power in those small towns and thus the need for shortrange flights
The term ‘regional aviation’ has varied descriptions and definitions across the world—depending upon national geographies, demographics and advances in civil aviation within individual nations. However, for the sake of some common ground for discussion, let us see how ‘regional aviation’ fits in as a part of civil aviation. For any nation’s civil aviation, the highest level in the hierarchy would be its ‘international’ or ‘major’ airlines. These would utilise the largest sized aircraft—possibly with wide bodies, more than one aisle, and sometimes with two levels. International airlines would fly beyond national airspace and possibly cross oceans to destinations in other continents. At the next lower level would lie ‘domestic’ or ‘national’ airlines with single aisle (and some twin-aisle) aircraft and with reaches across their parent nation with possible access to neighbouring ones. ‘Regional airlines’ occupy the lowest pedestal and serve to connect small towns and airports to a nearby ‘hub’, often feeding a major or a national airline and thus frequently referred to as ‘feeder airlines’; the typical aircraft would be equipped with less than 100 passenger seats.
Notwithstanding the above elucidation, common sense tells us that geographically tiny nations would probably have no need for regional airlines. A regional airliner or a feeder liner is a small airliner, designed to fly up to 100 passengers on short-haul flights, usually feeding larger carriers’ hubs from small markets. This class of airliners is typically flown by the regional airlines that are either contracted by or are subsidiaries of the larger airlines. Feeder liner, commuter, and local service are all alternative terms for the same class of flight operations.
All across the globe, civil aviation is driven by local or ‘regional’ dynamics and regional aviation within nations’ aerospace boundaries has evolved since the post-Second World War days in consonance with each nation’s peculiar regulatory and industrial progress. In the US, an airline’s ranking is determined by its annual revenue—major airlines are those with revenues more than $1 billion; national ones those with revenues between $100 million and $1 billion; and regional ones occupying the space for revenue below $100 million annually. Indeed, the US regionals are further divided in the US into three categories; large regionals, which are scheduled carriers with $20 million to $100 million in annual revenue and operate aircraft that can accommodate more than 60 passengers; medium regionals, which operate on a smaller scale, with operating revenues of less than $20 million, and often use only small aircraft, and small regionals, which do not have a set revenue definition, but are usually referred to as ‘commuter airlines’ and use small aircraft with less than 61 seats. In the US, regional airlines provide 49 per cent of the country’s scheduled flights. Some 500 US cities—74 per cent of all airline-served airports—offer service only from regional airlines, of which there are 58 in the country.
There is perhaps a need to differentiate between international airports and regional ones. While the former are much larger, have customs and immigration facilities and serve international and domestic flights, the latter cater to only domestic flights and so do not need customs/immigration services. In the case of small countries (Belgium being an illustration), there is no need for regional airports. In Europe, there is a small difference in nomenclature and airports not serving a national capital tend to be termed regional airports. For example, the airports at Barcelona and Manchester, which are both among Europe’s busiest airports, are called regional airports. In countries like France, Germany and Sweden; a regional airport is an airport used with small planes, even though they go to the national hub, just like flights from larger airports.
As far as airlines are concerned, the term ‘European regional airlines’, is used to describe those that serve the intra-continental sectors 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 livery of its parent company and flies between domestic and European cities. Such airlines operate primarily to bring passengers to the major hubs, where they connect for longer distance flights on larger aircraft. The smallest regional carriers in Europe have become known as feeder airlines. Some of Europe’s regional airlines are subsidiaries of national air carriers, though there remains a strong presence of independent regional airlines. These are based on business models ranging from the traditional full service airline to low-cost carriers; the variations include one where the passenger is required to join a membership club before being allowed to fly.
In Asia, the term “regional airline” is used varyingly. SilkAir is the ‘regional’ wing of Singapore Airlines and operates scheduled passenger services from Singapore to 37 cities in the ‘region’ of South East Asia, South Asia and China. SilkAir uses aircraft with a seating capacity greater than 99 passengers, flies internationally but is referred to as a regional airline subsidiary of its parent airline. China’s aviation is developing in leaps and bounds. Major aircraft manufacturers are setting up shop there and indigenous manufacturing capability is being nurtured at a dizzying pace (at least as compared to India’s). OKAir, China’s first privately-owned carrier, reportedly plans to build largest regional airline company in China by acquiring up to 10 aircraft every year for the next 10 years or so.
In India, civil aviation has tended to grow around the big cities. Around 75 per cent of the total capacity of airlines is on routes connecting big cities, with Delhi and Mumbai being the two busiest airports in the country; these two airports alone constitute around 60 per cent of the total air traffic movement in the country. This pattern (of air traffic being tethered to big cities) was discernible even in the 1990s when the first steps towards liberalising aviation in India were undertaken. To move away from it, the government decided in 1996 to establish Alliance Air as a subsidiary of Indian Airlines with the aim of catering to the demand for regional air travel. However, the initiative failed to meet the desired objective because its fleet (mainly Boeing 737s) was neither appropriate for operations in regional airports, nor suited for short haul flights.