After salaries, fuel prices are the biggest expense for an airline – a hard to control cost that is also the principal culprit behind any aviation company’s carbon footprint. For these reasons alone, you’d expect airlines to bend over backwards to find the most fuel efficient planes they can.
For the most part they do: Boeing’s new 787, billed to be the most environmentally friendly large jet out there, has been selling like gangbusters. Not to be left behind, Airbus’ massive A380 is also claimed to be extremely efficient on a per-passenger basis.
Trouble is, most routes these days don’t offer the volume of passengers that either of the two aforementioned jumbos need to be effective. Hence, many routes are served by smaller planes, often on what are known as regional jets. These 40-100 seat jets are suitable for flying frequently between smaller cities at relatively short distances and have come to almost universally replace propeller powered planes in smaller markets in the US. They’re typically quite cramped with minimal service and are significantly less fuel efficient than the similar sized prop planes they’ve replaced. So why have they become so popular among airlines? The answer lies almost purely in psychology.
Once upon a time, prop planes were very loud, very slow, and gained a reputation for being dangerous – which a few high profile crashes encouraged. In the cheap fuel era of the 1990s, airlines scrambled to replace prop planes to account for both legitimate and superstitious demands by passengers. According to experts on Airliners.net, despite added fuel costs, some airlines replaced props solely to respond to the fact that their competition was doing so, and began marketing their new regional jets as safer (whether they actually were or not). Although most passengers likely have no idea what kind of airplane they’re flying on (especially at the time of booking), evidently enough do that airlines felt the pressure to take on added fuel costs to purchase regional jets.
Nonetheless, since those days, modern turboprops such as the ATR 600 and Bombardier’s Q400 have emerged that are actually quieter and just as stable as comparable regional jets. Horizon Airlines (Alaska Airlines’ regional wing) happens to be a recent convert.
Horizon, in fact, plans to ditch all their regional jets, boasting that the new “comfortably greener” Q400 will be 30-40% more fuel efficient per seat – that’s a huge savings in carbon emissions and the bottom line.
Will they be an emerging leader in a leaner, more affordable, and indeed greener airline? Or will passenger paranoia about props actually impact their success? Judging by the amount of marketing being done (note the green plane below, and full page ads in their in-flight magazine – see page 20) there’s enough fear of negative reactions to justify some expense. Having flown on Horizon’s Q400, I can tell you it’s not any noisier or bumpier than it’s RJ cousins. It’s certainly not any more spacious either, but from a passenger perspective it doesn’t seem to offer any disadvantages over a jet.
Other airlines (with the exception of Continental) have all but eliminated props and have no plans to re-adopt them. If Horizon can make enough of a splash and get some good press for their efforts, look for other airlines to start mimicking them. Then again, be on the watch for advertising claiming the added safety of jets coming from airlines saddled with an all-jet fleet and nowhere to go…