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Big Carriers, Commuter Lines Team Up and Alter the Industry : NEW LINKUPS IN THE SKY

December 27, 1987|ROBERT E. DALLOS | Times Staff Writer

Capt. Clark Sheppard stood at the bottom of the wobbly steps of the Brazilian-made Embraer turboprop one recent afternoon, helping passengers board Flight 3305 from Burbank to Fresno.

When all six passengers were aboard, he jumped onto the 19-seat aircraft himself, pulled up the stairs and strapped himself into the cockpit seat next to co-pilot Bill Schroeder, who had been preparing for takeoff.

"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard United Express Flight 3305," he announced through his microphone. "Our flying time to Fresno will be one hour and 10 minutes; we will be flying at an altitude of 10,000 feet. Please fasten your safety belts and put your carry-on luggage under your seat. There will be no smoking."

Welcome to the world of regional airlines. As this illustration shows, it is a world in which your pilot might check you in at the boarding gate, carry your luggage or double as flight attendant.

It is also a world where you might be a bit confused about which airline you are flying on. Is it American, United, Delta or TWA? No. It is Wings West, WestAir, SkyWest or Resort Commuter--all independent carriers that have marketing agreements with their big brothers and most often carry some variation of the larger lines' names on their planes.

It is a phenomenon that has changed the face of the commuter airline industry. And it is not peculiar to the Golden State.

Throughout the nation, increasing numbers of relatively small commuter airlines are affiliating with major carriers, feeding passengers to each other at major hub airports through joint pricing, ticketing and computer-reservation arrangements. There are 52 such agreements now, up from only one when U.S. airlines were deregulated nine years ago, according to Airline Economics, a Washington consulting firm.

Until the start of 1986, there were virtually no such linkups in California. The commuter lines remain under independent ownership but, except for Delta Airlines' affiliates, which still use their own names and colors, they paint the bigger carriers' colors on their planes. Their pilots wear the same uniforms, they use the same terminals and share baggage handling and other services. Even the stationery of the commuter line resembles that of its larger partner.

The major airlines also share their two-letter computer codes (American Airlines' is AA, for example) with their regional partners. This results in a better computer display for the commuter lines on the screens of travel agents--who book 75% of all travel--giving the smaller carriers a substantial marketing advantage over regionals that do not have a major partner.

The names the commuters are using on their planes--American Eagle, United Express or Trans World Express, for example--cause many travelers to confuse them with their bigger affiliates.

"The regionals' corporate identity has disappeared in favor of the unified big-carrier imagery," said Edward J. Starkman, airline analyst with New York brokerage of Paine Webber. "The average passenger neither understands nor cares that these feeder flights are operated by predominantly independent carriers. If it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, the uninitiated assume it is a duck."

The trend results from airline deregulation in 1978.

It was then that the airlines were given permission to fly to any U.S. destination and to start or cancel service on any route. If a route was a money loser, the thinking went, why serve it? Use your big jets on routes where you can make money.

When the major airlines were allowed to drop out of any markets they wished, someone had to fill the void so smaller communities would continue to have air service. Enter the commuter lines, which are able to make money by flying smaller planes--more fuel-efficient, propeller-driven planes--and by serving communities that once had no service because jets could not afford to serve them. In the process, they grab some passengers from buses and automobiles.

14 Daily Flights

Aside from the benefits to passengers, the increase in flight frequencies has helped communities lure new industries. Though many small to middle-sized cities lost their one or two daily jet flights, they have gotten instead much more flight frequency, albeit with smaller, turboprop planes.

For example, officials of SkyWest, which was a Western Airlines commuter line for a year before Delta and Western merged last year and since then has flown as Delta Connection, recall that Pocatello, Ida., had just two flights daily in 1981. SkyWest, which is headquartered in St. George, Utah, now serves the community with 14 daily flights.

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