Regional Jets vs. Props: How Passenger Psychology Wastes Fuel

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, 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…

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of has grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.

11 responses

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  2. i think for horizon the switch is also about numbers of bodies in the seats. i have flown around Washington state on horizon, to and fro the east and west sides of the cascades, and the planes are generally emptyish.

  3. I think I'd rather see airlines getting into the high-speed train business (to come back to a point you made a week or two ago Nick). For anything < ~300 miles high-speed trains are just cheaper, quicker, less hassle, and better for the environment.

    I wonder what the investment difference is in say switching over to these Q400s vs. building the infrastructure needed to operate a few different high-speed train routes. I imagine the Q400 switch is a good deal cheaper, but perhaps there's greater pay off in being the only high-speed train operator in a certain region.

    There are also probably regulatory aspects to this and governmental permits required for laying high-speed rail that I'm not aware of…

    1. Good point! I think the main problem is that laying the infrastructure for high speed trains is currently way too expensive for any private company. Seems like the perfect opportunity for a public/private partnership to get underway, however! There are a number of routes in the US that would likely be profitable to run trains on if the capital costs of building the rails could be deferred or avoided!

      1. Agreed – It also seems like the type of infrastructure building opportunity that would support some solid job growth. Actually seems quite politically tenable from that perspective.

  4. It’s pretty simple. Props and RJs are fine on a sunny day, but when the weather is bad the service ceiling for a Q400 is 25,000 feet where an ERJ is 37,000 ft. So you will have a better chance at smoother air on an RJ. I’ll take a flight on a jet over a turboprop any day.

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