When was the last time you had to board one of those small airplanes seating fewer than 50 passengers—the kind of aircraft where many adults have to stoop to stand in the aisle? Seem like it's been a while?
You're not imagining things. The use of smaller commercial aircraft has been on the decline for years, and, for several reasons, the change is especially noticeable this summer. And it’s not entirely a good thing.
True, the vast majority of major U.S. airlines retired their old, noisy propeller planes some time ago. Now, though, even smaller jet-engine craft—particularly the smallest regional planes you take on short-hop flights—are getting less airtime, too.
The numbers are pretty dramatic.
In 2010, big jets carrying 151 or more passengers made up just 11% of domestic flights, according to data from the airline trade group Airlines for America. By four years ago, those larger planes made up 34% of domestic flights. Today, virtually half of all domestic flights are on big jets.
Meanwhile, smaller aircraft have become less and less prevalent. Today, planes with 100 or fewer seats make up just a third of domestic flights, down from more than 50% of domestic flights in 2010 and 43% in 2019.
Those tiny 38–50-seaters are now used in just 6% of flights compared with about 25% in 2010.
Why the shift?
Part of the reason has to do with a well-known airline business philosophy: “Efficiency generally scales with aircraft size,” recited Robert Mann, a longtime airline executive and current industry analyst. At its essence, the idea is that it’s easier and cheaper for airlines to fly 5 big planes than 10 medium and small ones.
That strategy helps explain how airlines are currently serving more passengers than in 2019 despite operating around 10% fewer flights, as revealed by Airlines for America's data.
The bigger-planes game plan has benefits, to be sure.
Fewer total planes taking off and landing is a way for airlines to make more efficient use of pilots and crews, Airlines for America CEO Nick Calio said during remarks last month in Atlanta. That's key for carriers trying to avoid the problems caused last year by staffing shortages.
“This puts less pressure on the National Airspace System during the busy summer travel months,” Calio explained.
Additionally, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg recently touted the strategy as a way to relieve pressure on understaffed air traffic control centers, particularly in the heavily congested and understaffed New York corridor.
Air travel demand is booming, and cancellations are down.
We're gearing up for an even busier summer and taking action now to improve flight times and reduce the risk of cancellations. pic.twitter.com/gwv0SrPrnu— Secretary Pete Buttigieg (@SecretaryPete) May 10, 2023
The early results for 2023 are promising.
Since Memorial Day weekend, U.S. carriers have canceled 0.8% of flights—down from 2.7% during the same period last year, and 2.1% in pre-pandemic 2019, according to data from FlightAware. The rate of delays has dropped from last year, too (though not from 2019).
As great as smoother operations and more spacious cabins are, though, experts warn there are some downsides to these changes.
Fewer flight options
The most obvious drawback to larger planes flown less often is, of course, the "less often" part.
If an airline flies to your destination city three times a day instead of five, that means there are fewer options to fit your schedule.
“It will cut into flexibility,” Mann, the aviation industry analyst, said. “If you look at key leisure destinations like the Caribbean or Mexico or Hawaii ... you’re often going to find that the times the airline wants to fly are not ideal for the times you want to arrive.”
What's more, the airlines' strategic shift to larger aircraft is merely one part of what’s happening.
There’s still a shortage of pilots at regional airlines, which fly shorter routes, often between smaller cities and large hub airports, frequently feeding into the big carriers under names like American Eagle, United Express, and Delta Connection.
This “severe and ongoing” pilot shortage has led to more than 500 regional aircraft (predominantly small jets) being “parked,” Regional Airline Association CEO Faye Malarkey Black told Congress in April.
With those cuts, hundreds of airports have lost flights in recent years, especially in smaller communities, some of which have been left with minimal air service.
“I think this is something that will continue to be a factor going forward,” Mann said, calling it a “multiyear” problem.
What does this mean for customers?
For starters, the next plane you board is likely to be larger than what you may have boarded 10 or even 5 years ago, owing to a range of factors such as airline strategy, grounded regional aircraft, and even the rise of low-cost carriers, which, for the most part, don’t fly the tinier jets at all.
But although the planes may have more seats, the airports have fewer flights.
This new reality in air travel may require some passengers to exercise more flexibility when considering departure times and drawing up vacation schedules.
For customers in small cities, flight options may be so curtailed (at least for now) that stringing together connections to reach your final destination could be a daunting—and expensive—undertaking. It might be wise to consider different, farther-away airports than what you're used to, as inconvenient as that extra drive time can be.
If there’s a bright side, it’s that once you reach the airport, things this year are running a lot smoother from an operational standpoint than in 2022—at least, so far.