Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Where can we go from here: Props versus jets

Last time I discussed a few of the various destinations for flights out of LAX. This time we'll continue that theme with a look at destinations served by both jets and turboprops. As you might imagine, there are not that many places that have such dual service. JFK, for instance, currently does not have any scheduled turboprop service from LAX. All of these are cities served by one or more of the regional airlines operating at LAX: American Eagle (callsign: Eagle Flight), for American; Horizon, for Alaska; and Skywest, for United (primarily).

Boise, Idaho, can be reached from LA via Horizon's Dash 8, seen here in the foreground, or via Skywest's CRJ-200, in the background. The CRJ, while somewhat faster, also has less seating capacity: 50, versus around 70 for the Dash 8. Ironically, although they have different brand names (Canadair builds the CRJ's and de Havilland the Dash 8, which is officially the DHC-8), they're both built by the same parent company, Bombardier Aerospace of Canada, who also owns Learjet. Bombardier is better known to most Americans as the builder of Ski-Doo snowmobiles; producing snowcats and snowmobiles was how the company got its start in the 1930's. Just as the CRJ series was an outgrowth of the Challenger CL-60 business jet, the Dash 8 was a descendant of the Dash 7, which was in turn preceded by the de Havilland DHC-2 Twin Otter. Bombardier actually calls the turboprop the Q400, but you'll never hear pilots or controllers refer to it that way. The flight plan times are about 1:35 for the Skywest CRJ and 2 hours for the Horizon Dash 8. At LAX, the Horizon gates are a good deal closer to the preferred departure runway than are Skywest's.

Monterey, California, is another destination with turboprop and jet service from LA. In this case, American Eagle E135's and Skywest E120 Brasilias. Both of these aircraft are built by Brazil's Embraer, which has made itself a major player in the regional airliner market. The ERJ series is itself a development of the E120. The E135 is the smallest of the ERJ's, with a seating capacity of about three dozen; the Brasilia seats thirty. The jet is less than 15 minutes faster to Monterey than the turboprop; flight plan times are about 50 minutes and 1:04, respectively.

Another destination that offers a choice of jet or turboprop service also offers an additional choice of carrier: Reno, Nevada, can be reached from LAX via Horizon Dash 8, Skywest CRJ, or Southwest B737. The Skywest flight seems to be the shortest, by a whopping one minute. The CRJ's and 737's average just under an hour, while the Dash 8 takes about an hour and ten minutes.

San Diego and San Luis Obispo, California, offer not just a choice of jets or turboprops, but different models of turboprops as well. Skywest uses the Brasilia for these routes, but American Eagle uses E135's and Saab Fairchild 340's. Flight plan time for the Brasilia is about 25 minutes to San Diego. The jet is only a minute faster, but the Saab is about five minutes slower. I've mentioned before that the SF34 is the doggiest of all the aircraft regularly operating at LAX, and we controllers were encouraged by rumors that the Saabs were going to be phased out. If so, it hasn't happened yet (sigh). The E135 flight plans about a half hour to San Luis Obispo, the Brasilia about five or six minutes more. The Saab needs about forty-five minutes for the same flight.

On all of these routes, the jets are slightly faster, but what's not reflected is the greater fuel and maintenance requirements. That stuff doesn't show up in the flight plans, so I wasn't able to figure it in. Turboprops are generally more fuel efficient than jets, however, and don't have to climb as high to achieve efficiency. This plays in their favor, especially on short routes, as the airspace congestion in southern California often means that certain routes are held to pre-designated altitudes, regardless of what altitude the pilot files for. For instance, the San Diego flights are capped at nine thousand for the turboprops and eleven thousand for the jets. Below ten thousand, all aircraft are limited to 250 knots, and on these shorter routes there's just not much chance for the jets to go any faster.

On the other hand, the flying public has a definite preference for jets, even little ones, over prop-driven aircraft. The perception is that the prop aircraft are smaller, slower, bumpier, noisier, and more dangerous than the jets. I don't have any factual information to hand on whether any of these is in fact the case . . . but then neither does the flying public.

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