The major airline/regional carrier partnership has long been based on the premise of “seamless service,” although the only thing seamless about it has been a common reservation system and a shared airline IATA code. For passengers transferring to a regional airliner from an intercontinental jet, cabin comfort and amenities often defy comparison. But, that could be changing, as global carriers vie for the lucrative first and business classes, and some coach passengers show a willingness to pay more for greater room in economy.

To get a handle on the potential upgrade market, it's necessary to look at the global regional airline fleet. According to data supplied by ICF SH&E, an international aviation consulting firm, there are 3,800 regional jets—with an average age of 9.7 years—configured for passenger service worldwide. Of that, about 88% are in operation today. The regional turboprop fleet numbers 4,800, with an average age of 20 years. About 80% are in active service.

Of the top three regional airline markets, North America is the largest, with 2,100 regional jets and 1,250 turboprops; Europe is second with 880 jets and 1,000 turboprops in operation; and the Asia-Pacific and Middle East markets have 400 regional jets and 1,100 turboprops.

By sheer numbers, then, the market for regional airliner cabin upgrades is skewed toward North America, but the emphasis is going to be on equipment with more than 50 seats. That especially holds true for conversions to dual class cabins. Globally, ICF SH&E puts the regional jet fleet with 50 or more seats at 1,975.

“The upsizing of regional jets to the 70-100 seat models is making the (separate) first class cabin possible,” says Gary Weissel, VP of ICF SH&E. This, he says, is due to economies of scale favoring the larger capacity jet, along with the fact that the cost of a major interior reconfiguration on a jet with 50 seats accounts for a greater percentage of the asset's value than would be the case with a larger model. At the same time, even the most costly cabin modifications add almost nothing to the airframe's appraised value for resale. “That's why all dual cabin upgrades will take place on regional airliners of 70 seats or more,” he says.

In fact, with changes in pilot labor agreement scope clauses permitting larger regional jets and turboprops to operate within the network, the separate fist class cabin has become an economically viable concept. This is driving North American legacy carriers that are competing for the premium, international business traveler who expects a first class service experience—complete with a separate cabin—even on a connecting regional airline flight—to pursue major cabin upgrades.

“The majors want to provide a seamless service (for the first or business class passenger) between their operations and those of their regional partners,” says Kevin Casey, president of Pemco World Air Services in Tampa.

Pemco is in the process of installing cabins designed for the first class flier on 63 Bombardier CRJ-700s operated by Delta Connection carriers, as well as on 110 jets flown under the US Airways Express brand. These encompass Bombardier CRJ 700 and 900s, and Embraer E 170s and E175. The modifications, designed by C & D Zodiac, involve installing larger and wider seats, new overhead storage bins, carpeting and a bulkhead separating the two cabin sections. The installation takes 3-4 days.

The Delta Connection first class modification project—currently the largest one of its kind—will ultimately include 255 regional jets out of the 600 operated under the brand by Delta's nine regional partners. Delta Connection's CRJ 900s are being delivered dual class out of the factory, whereas some of US Airways' are getting upgraded.

In addition to the first class cabin installation, several rows of seats in the coach section will be reconfigured for increased leg room—to 34 in. of pitch from 31-in.—for Delta's Economy Comfort product that the airline introduced last year on its long-haul jets.

“The goal of the main line carrier is to offer the same amenities on its regional partners,” says Mike Reese, portfolio manager for Delta Connection. “The first class cabin upgrade is primarily focused on seating, with the installation of new, off-shelf, more comfortable seats.”

Delta also is installing WiFi throughout the aircraft. That part of the project should finish by June, making the Delta Connection's fleet the first airliners to offer this service.

WiFi connectivity, in fact, could turn out to be a strong trend on regional airliners, because the installation of wiring and routers is relatively simple, and it takes as little as 12 hrs. “It can be done during a routine overnight check,” says Mike Gibson, VP maintenance of SkyWest Airlines, which will install WiFi on 42 CRJ 700/900s by the end of March.

Although WiFi usually is not offered as a free inflight service, it does cater to a certain segment of passengers willing to pay for it. This translates into an additional revenue stream for the airline and could lead to retrofit opportunities for the MROs.

“We are in advanced discussions now with a regional carrier for WiFi installations, and we expect to do our first installations this year,” Casey notes.

Still, some argue that there might be an extremely limited market for WiFi on regional airliners, given the comparatively short segments they fly, and the fact that it can only be used while the aircraft is in the air. “During a short flight, there really won't be a lot of time to use it,” argues Mike Boyd, president of the Boyd Group. “And, since there's a connection fee, passengers will more likely wait until they get to the airport, where they won't have to pay to use their laptops and handheld devices.”

Regional jets have been the main target for cabin upgrades, but turboprops may be candidates in some markets, explains Pierre Tiefenbach, customization director for ATR in Toulouse. This, he says, is because the perception of the turboprop in the regional market has changed dramatically over the past few years, and more operators want to offer jet-level comfort on a profitable, more fuel efficient aircraft. “Globally, passengers are demanding the same level of service on the regionals that they have on the mainliners, and this is what we are working toward,” Tiefenbach notes.

One example is the recently introduced Armonia cabin that the OEM offers as standard equipment on the ATR 42 and 72; so far it is flying on the ATR 72-600. Created in conjunction with Italian designer Giugiaro, the state-of-the-art cabin is indicative of a trend in interiors toward lighter weight, more durable components for economical and environmental reasons.

The cabin design saves more than 100 kilograms thanks to thinner, lighter-weight seats that increase leg room. Other features include overhead bins that are 10% bigger, which enables 70% of the passengers to bring a standard suitcase into the cabin.

Tiefenbach reports that the OEM is seeing a potential retrofit market for the Armonia cabin, although he stresses that it's premature to estimate the market's size because ATR just introduced the cabin. “Some operators of late model ATR 72-500s, in fact, are considering installation of the cabin's seating component,” he says. The initial cabin retrofits would be done in Toulouse, eventually making their way to independent MROs.

Others are less optimistic that regional aircraft cabin modifications will surge. “In less expensive operating environments, they would have been in line for new cabins, but they are being replaced by new, more economically efficient aircraft. Nobody is going to put a lot of money into airplanes that will be phased out within the next few years,” says Boyd.

While he agrees that the opportunities for first class cabin installations will center on the 70-90-seat category, that will be a limited market, as more are coming out of the factory in a two-class configuration.

On the other hand, as the airline industry emerges from the recession, and as “the large airlines decide to upgrade their aircraft cabins, they will definitely push that down to their regional partners, because it's part of the brand upgrade,” says Weissel.