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Commuter Carriers Pick Up the Spoils as Major Airlines Retrench : Transportation: Their business is literally soaring as they find a niche in the abandoned shorter routes.

August 14, 1994|CHRIS WOODYARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

His black valise in tow and a blank stare on his face, Christopher Atayan waits to board a small American Eagle turboprop that he dubs "the flying sewer pipe."

Atayan logs 100,000 air miles a year as a New York investment banker. Too many of them, he said, are aboard cramped little puddle jumpers like the one he waits to board.

"They are small, they feel unsafe, are noisy and slow," he groused while slumping against a check-in counter inside the air-conditioned confines of Orange County's John Wayne Airport. Still, "you have to fly them."

True to his word, Atayan troops out on the sun-baked Tarmac to climb aboard the 19-passenger British Aerospace turboprop for the hop to Los Angeles International Airport, where he will thankfully transfer to a wide-body jet for the ride home to the East Coast.

Few products or services can match the animosity that some travelers hold toward commuter airlines. Not only are the industry's smaller, propeller-driven planes derided as airborne lawn mowers, passengers have to pay handsomely for the privilege of being jostled through what many consider not-so-friendly skies.

Yet commuter carriers have become the quiet victors of the recent airline wars. Complain as they may, about 53 million passengers flew aboard commuter aircraft last year--a 25% increase in two years--according to an industry group.

Commuter affiliates have stepped in to take over service on less-popular runs that are being abandoned by the major airlines. The majors are desperate to cut costs to make up for the more than $8 billion lost in ruinous fare wars in the past few years.

Little airlines have discovered they can turn a tidy profit flying their small planes on routes that the bigger carriers left behind. For instance, SkyWest picked up Delta Air Lines flights that had been dropped from Salt Lake City to Casper, Wyo.; Rapid City and Sioux Falls, S.D., and Butte, Mont.

It's a good deal, too, for the retreating carriers. By relinquishing unprofitable routes to their commuter affiliates, they continue to be fed passengers into their profitable, long-haul routes in a bid to retain customer loyalty.

"Since 1988, the major carriers have turned over 65% of their routes of 500 miles or less to their regional partners. That's where the growth has been," said Walt Coleman, president of the Regional Airlines Assn., a Washington-based industry group.

Financially, the commuter carriers have many of the traits that major airlines hope to emulate as they restructure.

"Every factor of our cost structure is lower," said Marty Hires, spokesman for American Eagle, a group of four commuter airlines affiliated with American Airlines that covers most of the country.

Regional airlines are flexible, able to add or delete routes within days based on market conditions. Their upper management isn't slowed by large bureaucracies that have characterized some big carriers, so service problems can often be fixed with a single phone call.

Commuter carriers usually have loyal work forces that are paid less than those of major airlines, and they are not subject to rigorous union work rules that old-line carriers say make them less competitive with cost-cutting upstarts. Their smaller size results in a greater sense of teamwork.

"With SkyWest, you're never far away from home. It's a family," said Jamie Berry, a Palm Springs-based flight attendant.

At the commuters, everybody pitches in, from pilots to managers, when it comes to getting planes in and out as quickly as possible--usually within 10 minutes of touchdown. "I love to work the ramp," said Jeff Keller, Orange County station chief for Delta affiliate SkyWest Airlines.

Co-pilot Bryan Salvati personally helps passengers negotiate the steps off the plane, loads bags and still flies a schedule that would leave many of his peers looking like slackers.

"Seven stops, and that's an easy day," said the ex-Trans World Airlines employee as he eyed a wrinkled flight schedule he pulled from his coat pocket. "I love it. . . . The flying is better for me, and I like working with a smaller group."

A commuter pilot with six years of experience can expect to make $32,000 to $40,000 a year, while their counterparts at a major airline earn $72,000 to $90,000, according to FAPA, an Atlanta-based career and financial planning service for airline employees. Experienced flight attendants average about $16,800 on the commuters--a third less than the average $25,200 wage for attendants on major carriers. Mechanics earn about $13 an hour, compared to $19.50 at a major carrier.

Some major airlines own their own commuter carriers outright and operate them as separate entities. American Airlines' parent, AMR Corp. of Ft. Worth, for instance, owns all of the companies around the country that fly under the American Eagle commuter carrier.

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