Chris Barnett on Business Travel
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Why I'm Done Hating RJs. I Think.
June 9, 2016 -- I've thrown in the towel. No more long, shrill rants against regional jets.

Why? I flew 1,770 miles from San Francisco to Madison, Wisconsin, last week on two RJs and I was able to work, sort-of stretch out and arrived without feeling like I spent five hours in a straitjacket.

Why? U.S. airlines are systemically dumping the worst of the RJs--one-class 50 seaters that were never meant to fly long routes--and putting larger RJs on domestic runs. In some cases, full-size jets are replacing RJs altogether. That's especially true at Delta Air Lines, which actually convinced Southwest Airlines to pay Delta to take AirTran's former Boeing 717 jets.

But my phobia of tiny, bouncy planes is deeply ingrained. So when I booked SFO to Madison with a 90-minute layover in Delta's Salt Lake City hub, I was braced for the worst.

Why? I had just flown from Palm Springs to SFO on a 50-seat United Express RJ and I was jammed into the last window seat. It didn't recline, it was opposite the bathroom and I couldn't pull down the tray table to work. And the fellow in the aisle seat next to me was a widebody himself. I felt trapped during a 90-minute flight that seemed to be puttering along at 100 miles per hour. It was misery.

But with the Delta Connection flights, both operated for Delta by SkyWest, my worry was overblown.

The SFO-to-SLC leg was aboard a 65-passenger CRJ-700. There were nine first class seats in 2x1 configuration and eight Comfort+ seats configured 2x2 with 35 inches of legroom. The 48 coach seats were surprisingly roomy and accommodated my filled-to-the-brim rolling office.

Sky West's CRJ 900, used on the 2.5-hour SLC-Madison leg, has 12 first class, 12 Comfort+ and 52 coach seats.

Both aircraft offered WiFi, both had leather seats and the interiors were in good condition. That said, overhead bins are tight and carry-on-luggage is loaded planeside in what Delta calls Early Valet. You avoid the $25 checked-bag fee, but lose time waiting for them to be retrieved.

Another benefit? By Federal Aviation Administration rule, airlines must deploy one flight attendant for each 50 seats. That means the 50-seat RJs have only one flight attendant. The 70-seaters have two and that means a much more pleasant flight-attendant-to-passenger ratio.

Neither flight was a sellout and one of the flight attendants knew I wanted room to spread out papers and files. The moment the door was closed, she tapped me on the shoulder and said I could move back and take over two empty seats. She did it discreetly and efficiently.

But what changed my mind about RJs--or at least the planes flying Delta's colors--was the coach legroom. The airline says the pitch is 31 inches, but it felt more spacious because the seat has more storage room underneath. That made it easier to stretch your limbs. And as I mentioned, the pitch between seats was large enough so that the seatback tables could actually drop down and a decent-sized laptop could be fully opened.

Still, business travelers I talked to on the flights weren't exactly enraptured about the RJ experience. But they didn't complain, either.

B.J. Schone, a sales training leader for Autodesk in San Francisco, described it as "not too bad."

Anish Agarwal, who works for a Bay Area technology startup, was a bit more sarcastic. "I'm six-foot-one and almost enjoy being slightly uncomfortable and not having much room so I can be distracted from my work," he said.

Software designer Marya Oestreich, lucky enough to have two exit row seats, was naturally happiest. "This may be a smaller plane, but I'm very comfortable," she said. "But then I'm a Delta loyalist."

Delta, which has six regional airlines operating 450 Delta Connection regional jets, claims that 65 percent of the RJ fleet is now larger Bombardier or Embraer aircraft. Over the next 16 months, the CRJ-700s aircraft will get in-seat power ports in first class and Delta Comfort+. Other Delta Connection planes will get similar interior enhancements later.

A Delta spokesman said the airline is "upgauging its regional aircraft fleet to the larger, more customer-friendly planes. There has been a concerted effort to reduce the 50-seat RJs on domestic routes." He noted that Delta has retired 280 50-seaters since 2009 and more than 500 since the merger with Northwest Airlines in 2008.

Internally, Delta has a three-word mantra called "same except tube." Translated: Give its passengers, whether on a mainline aircraft or an RJ, "the same experience and amenities regardless of the plane including the same operational reliability," the spokesman said.

If nothing else, Delta's mantra has, at least for the moment, assuaged my hatred of RJs.

This column is Copyright 2016 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2016 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Chris Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.