MIAMI — If you look at the ramps on the regional sides of hub airports across the United States, you will see two types of 50-seat aircraft — one, a dying breed, the other, a rising star. The 50-seat market is, like every aspect of aviation, constantly evolving.

Regional airlines have, in the past, favored the 50-seat regional jets from Canada’s Bombardier and Brazil’s Embraer for their speed, reliability and overall passenger satisfaction for flying on a jet. So, why are the regionals considering dumping their once-favored regional jets?

A Delta Connection Bombardier CRJ200. (Credits: Jay Haapala)

Enter the turboprop. Regional operators in the United States and around the world are dropping the once popular 50-seater jets in favor of much more fuel-efficient turboprops. Three prominent turboprop operators in the United States — Burlington, Vermont-based CommutAir, Salisbury, Maryland-based Piedmont Airlines and Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Silver Airways — have all found operational success with turboprops, as opposed to regional jets.

A Piedmont Airlines Dash 8-100. (Credits: Jay Haapala)

Piedmont, flying under the US Airways Express banner, operates Bombardier Dash 8 series 100 and 300 aircraft. While the 37-seat 100s and the 50-seat 300s aren’t necessarily as much of a replacement for the 50-seat market, they are still flown on shorter-haul regional jet routes.

Like Piedmont, CommutAir operates Dash 8 200s and 300s for United Express. While the two carriers never dropped jets in favor of turboprops they have found a profitable operation utilizing only turboprop aircraft.

While some airlines have always operated with a mix of turboprops and regional jets, Silver Airways went with turboprops from its beginning. Silver Airways was established in May 2011 with the assets from the former Gulfstream International Airlines, and started operating a fleet of Beechcraft 1900s and  began adding Saab 340B turboprops in January 2012. Today, Silver operates a fleet of 27 Saab 340Bs.

A Silver Airways Saab 340B. (Credits: Jay Haapala)
A Silver Airways Saab 340B. (Credits: Jay Haapala)

Silver was originally a United Express affiliate, but has since launched operations as an independent airline in its Washington-Dulles network. It continues to codeshare with United and has interline agreements with eight other airlines, including American, Delta, JetBlue, US Airways, Alaska Airlines, Bahamasair, Hahn Air, and All Nippon. In addition, Florida and the Bahamas are core markets for the carrier, which currently operates more routes within Florida and between Florida and the Bahamas than any other airline.

So why are regional airlines starting to favor turboprops over the once popular 50-seat jet? A market that couldn’t fill a 50 seater could possibly fill a 34-seat turboprop, thus increase the load factor of that route. Turboprops have a lower service ceiling as opposed to regional jets, making them more fuel-efficient being as the climb to cruising altitude burns more gas then any other stage of flight. And most importantly, turboprops also burn less fuel than regional jets.

A Saab 340B burns 60% less jet fuel an hour than a 70-seat regional jet. However, if a market can support a 70-seater jet it is more fuel-efficient then a Saab 340B.

Although once popular, 50-seat jets are being parked while the utilization of turboprops continues to expand. The market for turboprops is growing, with the aircraft type accounting for 37 percent of regional aircraft sales today compared with only 11 percent in 2002.

Through changing economics, route structures, and passenger demands, the 50-seat jet is dissipating while the turboprop continues to gain popularity among operators for their fuel-efficiency, often-quieter cabins, shorter take off and landing requirements, and overall passenger experience.