A year ago in this space, the Embraer regional jet (ERJ) family’s prognosis was summed up in two words: slow fade. As U.S. carriers—the major drivers behind the 50-seat RJ’s climb—revamp their strategies to include larger narrowbody aircraft operating fewer flights, the pace of that fade should pick up.
Aviation Week’s Fleet Discovery shows that the number of 50-seat ERJ 145s and 37-seat ERJ 135s in commercial service has dropped 13% in five years, from 707 on December 31, 2009 to 618 on March 31, 2013. The first ERJs entered service in 1996. So far, 16 total airframes, all 50-seaters, have left the fleet, including one parked by Embraer.
A macro look at Discovery’s numbers shows that, despite the clear downward trend, the fleet size is not in a free fall. The number of ERJs in storage has stabilized—there were 44 at the end of 2012, 46 a year later, and 45 at the end of March. At the end of 2011, the figure was 62.
Perhaps more encouraging for those with a stake in ERJ longevity is the emergence of a secondary market that is picking up some airframes being shed by larger operators. Of the 25 operators flying ERJ 145s on March 31, eight introduced the model in the last five years. While the new fleets are modest in size—Equatorial Guinea-based Punto Azul, with three, has the largest fleet among new operators—the trend favors third-party aftermarket providers, as small operators often do not have much in-house MRO capability. The operators’ geographical diversity—home bases include Bangladesh, Mexico, Nigeria, the U.K, and Zimbabwe—means opportunities are spread out. But this nascent secondary market is not enough to prevent an overall decline in the total ERJ customer base.
The ERJ fleet distribution includes 10 operators with at least 10 aircraft, including longtime fleet leader ExpressJet Airlines, which has 242 145s and eight 135s. American Eagle has the next-largest fleet, at 118 145s, followed by Chautauqua Airlines, with 59, including one 135. Add in Trans States Airlines’ fleet of 29 145s, and U.S. operators have nearly 75% of the in-service fleet. Notable non-U.S. operators include Aerolitoral/Aeromexico Connect with 30 145s, and Tanjin Airlines with 23 145s.
Shifting dynamics in the U.S. airline passenger market are driving smaller regional jets out of carrier networks. Since 2007, airports in all four hub categories have seen significant drops in total flights and seats. The hardest hit have been medium hubs, which have seen a 24% reduction in flights and a 19% reduction in seats, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office analysis.
The disparity between those figures underscores the upgauging shift going on that is largely pushing out 50-seaters in favor of 76-seaters or, in some cases, larger aircraft. The global regional aircraft fleet’s average seating capacity grew 25%, from 45 to 56 seats, from 2003 to 2012, Regional Airline Association (RAA) statistics show. While the phasing out of smaller turboprops has contributed, relaxing of scope clauses in the U.S. and the availability of larger aircraft, like Embraer’s E170 and E190 family, has been even more influential.
An evolving factor is U.S. regulation that increases minimum qualifications for first officers and tightens pilot rest rules. The combination has pushed demand for pilots up, leaving some regional carriers scrambling to find enough qualified candidates. Citing concern over adding enough pilots to support existing operations as well as its growing fleet of larger Embraer E175s, Republic Airways Holdings recently decided to park 27 ERJs rather than seek new contracts for them.
Aviation Week’s MRO Prospector projects that about 210 ERJs will require heavy maintenance checks by 2018; a total of about 720 C checks will be required. Prospector also projects a need for 209 full ERJ shipset landing gear overhauls in the next three years—more than half of them for ExpressJet aircraft.