Chris Barnett on Business Travel
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The Incredibly Shrinking Jets in Our Future
Thursday, January 22, 2004 -- I have seen the future of air travel in the United States and it is small, noisy, cramped and hostile to carry-on bags, people six feet tall and road soldiers who want to work on their laptop computers.

It's called the regional jet or simply "RJ" and it was originally designed to replace propeller planes and turboprops on short, hour-long commuter flights of around 300 miles. With two pilots and a lone flight attendant, RJs have brought jet service to small towns and communities that can't fill up a Boeing 737, Airbus 320 or the aging DC-9/MD-80.

But here's an ugly--make that uncomfortable--fact of life: The major airlines are quickly dropping longer flights using narrow-body jets and replacing them with the smaller RJs operated by their commuter carriers. Hence, instead of spending an hour on a 50-seater and being thrilled that you're not on a prop plane, you may well be sandwiched into an RJ for three hours or more on former jet routes as long as 1,000 miles. Worse yet, it can be a surprise.

It happened to me over Christmas. I booked a one-stop San Francisco-to-Madison, Wisconsin, itinerary on Northwest Airlines. Instead of connecting through Minneapolis and spending the last hour in an aging DC-9, I connected through Memphis and was told I'd be flying an A-320 for the second leg of the trip.

Great, I thought. I could work the entire flight and catch up on loose ends.

Wrong. The second leg was on a 50-seat Canadair RJ flying the Northwest colors. The seating was so tight that I couldn't open a laptop. Worse yet, the gate agent demanded that I check my rolling computer case and refused to let me carry it aboard. Sensing it was a battle I wasn't going to win, I let her tag it for baggage. But going down the passenger bridge, I tore off the tag, didn't give the bag to the handler and smuggled it aboard. No way I was going to put a laptop in the belly of the mini-beast.

I was lucky because I got a seat. Turns out this RJ had only 44 seats because six had been yanked out to make room for some badly needed storage space. But 50 seats were sold and six people got bumped in the dead of winter in Memphis and apparently had to overnight it because it was the last flight out to Madison.

If you don't think this is the future of air travel, consider this. A study called Missed Connections II, released last month, said flights on regional jets jumped to 26.6 percent of the nation's schedule in 2003, up from 14.3 percent in 2001. In other words, more than one of every four commercial airline flights in the United States now uses a regional jet. Flights on traditional jets dropped 6 percent during that same two-year period.

United Airlines, for example, is using a United Express RJ between Denver and Kansas City, a 650-mile, 1-hour, 45-minute flight. US Airways, which in the late 1980s bought PSA, the legendary California commuter airline, now operates it as a regional airline and flies 50-seat CRJ 200s from places like Dayton to New York and the District of Columbia. Delta's commuter operation flies RJs from New York's LaGuardia Airport to Jacksonville, Florida, an 834-mile, 2-hour, 45-minute marathon. Continental Express carrier Express Jet operates what is currently the longest RJ route: 1,325 miles between Newark and Oklahoma City. That's 3 hours and 50 minutes of flying on a knee-crunching, shoulder-stooping, laptop-crimping, all-coach, 50-seat Embraer RJ145.

Business travelers loathe the RJs for a variety of reasons.

Bonnie Gaugler, a corporate-affairs executive with Harleysville Insurance in suburban Philadelphia, says US Airways has switched "just about all" of its flights from Philadelphia to Detroit to RJs. "Many of our frequent travelers have preferred status with US Airways, but can no longer get upgrades to first class since it's unavailable on regional jets." Plus, the RJ terminal at Philadelphia Airport is a "long walk and inconvenient." The biggest pains: scant legroom, little laptop workspace and "limited" overhead storage.

"You're flying in a sardine can," grumbles Alan Reid, president of Sierra Club Mutual Funds in San Francisco. "I just had knee surgery for the second time and I swear it wasn't from my skiing, but traveling on small jets. As a business traveler, you need to function not just on the plane but afterwards, when you get off."

A San Francisco management consultant who is a Mileage Plus 1K elite passenger with United Airlines says he will "divert" to a larger city just to avoid flying on a United Express regional jet.

"It's an inconvenience, but I want to get a decent-sized plane," says Michael Pezel, managing partner with Management Action Programs. "I'm 6 foot 2 and I find myself scrunching over just to get into the plane. It's very uncomfortable."

This column is Copyright 2004 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2004 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.