A United Express Embraer ERJ-145
A United Express Embraer ERJ-145

The U.S. has a 50-seat jet problem

What future remains for the aircraft we all love to hate but can’t seem to live without?

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Release Date
October 17, 2022
The U.S. has a 50-seat jet problem
It’s the airplane we all love to hate. Once revered for its ability to overfly hubs and save us from flying small turboprops with new leather seats, faster speeds, and smoother jet altitudes in the 1990s — at premium fares — the 50-seat jet was the competitive darling of the United States domestic industry.

Today, the small regional jet simply represents the smallest of the commercial fleet, with the requisite resentment forever accompanying the least capacious aircraft. Looking beyond the American flying public’s enduring disdain for the small, however, the 50-seat jet remains a competitive tool for airlines in a very different role.

The competitive luster – and subsequent yield premiums — have long since faded from the aircraft type as over-ordering flooded the U.S. market with over 1,200 of the type from Canada and Brazil. Yet, amid a historic pilot shortage and fewer than 350 50-seat jets remaining, a new competitive fight has emerged over the segment.

That renewed fight centers around three key benefits for the current 50-seat fleet in service today: 

  1. There remains no room for larger regional jets under current U.S. airline scope clauses,
  2. The only available 50-seat replacement option available has been shunned by the market for decades, and
  3. The highest premiums today are placed on the 51st and 52nd seat – the two highly sought-after occupants sitting on the flight deck.

This value for the 50-seat jet for legacy airlines — value no longer driven by jet premiums and reduced connections but by network coverage and pilot availability — is reassessed in this TAC Analysis. How are the once-beloved aircraft being used, what remains the alternative, and how are networks likely to evolve as the aircraft are retired without replacement?

Given a new competitive gameboard forged through pandemic drought, strong domestic recovery, and a deepening pilot shortage, what future remains for the aircraft we all love to hate but can’t seem to live without?

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