As of Today, the Big Four US Airlines Have No Propellers Operating Under Their Brands

American, Delta, United

Yesterday, American Eagle flight 4927 landed in Salisbury, Maryland right around dusk. That flight, operated by a Dash 8-300, marks the end of turboprop operations for its owner, Piedmont, and for American Eagle. But it also marked the end of something much bigger: there are no longer any propeller operations at the country’s four big airlines. Some may cheer that news, but not everyone feels that way.

Of course, all legacy airlines in the US started as prop operators since that was the only thing around. (Even Southwest was planned to begin as a prop operator, but the plan changed before launch.) But for the last 30 years, props have been the domain of regional partners. Many of these airplanes were soldiers, lugging people to and from small towns all over the country, feeding the ever-growing hub-and-spoke networks of the big guys. The 1980s brought a surge of new propeller aircraft types. That was the golden age of regional turboprops, and it’s been downhill ever since.

I realize it’s hard to think of anything being the “golden age” when it birthed torture chambers like the Jetstream 31/32. But these new generations of props, from the 19-seat Beech 1900 up through the Dash-8, set the foundation for what the regional carriers were to become. Sure, the introduction of the regional jet in the 1990s was the beginning of the end for props, but the regional structure was built on the back of what the 1980s started.

Thanks to federal rule changes toward the end of the last century, 19-seaters quickly fell out of favor. Soon, you wouldn’t find much under 30 seats at the big US airlines. There was the Saab 340 which has a prominent role at American Eagle and Northwest Airlink. The Embraer 120 Brasilia served SkyWest (and others) well for both United and Delta until it too was cast aside. Delta hasn’t flown a prop under its brand for many years.

The ATR 42/72 had found a minor role within the US, but today, it’s hard to find one at all here. You might be surprised to hear that the ATR was actually the last turboprop flown by United Express and it was only retired on May 31 of this year. This was for a very limited niche service within Micronesia that was operated by Cape Air.

Then there was the Dash 8, de Havilland Canada’s (and eventually Bombardier’s) pride and joy. The smallest version first flew in 1983, but it has been extended several times, most recently into the 70+ seat Q400. United had regional operators that flew all but the -100 for the airline, but the last one was retired earlier this year.

American was the one that held out the longest. Piedmont had been operating Dash 8s since 1985, back when it was called Henson and was operating for the original Piedmont. That’s quite the history. The Dash 8 stuck around in the fleet through thick and thin. Why? Because American (and its predecessors via US Airways) serves a lot of small towns. The Dash 8 had the right mix of economics and aircraft size, but even that had to end eventually. The aircraft started reaching the end of their lives, and maintenance kept getting more expensive. At some point, American had to make a move.

The smaller Dash 8s were retired previously, so in recent months it’s just been the 48-seat Dash 8-300 flying around. From a seat count perspective, it’s easy to replace those with the 50-seat ERJ that Piedmont has been taking on or the 50-seat CRJ operated by PSA. But the economics and performance aren’t the same. Operating costs of the 50-seat ERJ-145, for example, are at least 25 percent higher than the Dash 8-300.

It’s fitting that before the flight in from Charlotte, American Eagle 4927 came from Hilton Head, one of the last bastions of turboprop flying thanks to a short runway with obstructions around it. American will now be putting the bigger Embraer 175 on the route. It remains to be seen how other smaller markets like, say, New Bern, NC or Lynchburg, VA can fare without the Dash in the fleet. The bigger the Charlotte hub becomes, the better chance American can keep flying bigger airplanes into smaller markets, just as Delta has done out of Atlanta.

If you still want to fly a turboprop (or a non-turbo prop), don’t fret. Even though you can’t get on one with the big guys anymore, there are plenty still buzzing around. Other than the small essential air service carriers (eg Mokulele, Boutique, etc) and a bunch in Alaska and the Caribbean, your best options are:

  • Alaska still has its subsidiary Horizon operating a shrinking but still sizable Q400 fleet.
  • Cape Air and its Cessna 402s are all over the Northeast and Florida.
  • Hawaiian’s ‘Ohana has ATR 42s flying on smaller interisland routes.
  • Silver Airways has its fleet of Saab 340s which are being replaced by ATR 42/72s.

Will we ever see widespread turboprop flights again? Unless things change dramatically, it seems unlikely. Manufacturers just aren’t seeing the demand for smaller aircraft flying shorter hops these days, and that has been the bread and butter market of the turboprop. I remember speaking with American management about this previously, and they lamented the pending loss of the prop for the markets where they needed them. But those markets aren’t enough for American to bother pushing a manufacturer to develop a prop replacement aircraft. American, like Delta and United, will just make the 50-seat jets work instead.

[Original Photo via Piedmont Airlines]

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50 comments on “As of Today, the Big Four US Airlines Have No Propellers Operating Under Their Brands

  1. I’ve been flying since God was in diapers, and too often had to travel via props to Lynchburg, Virginia, Hagerstown, Maryland and Key West. I was never a big fan, but two flights stand out in my mind.

    Shortly after taking off from MIA in an ancient Air Miami DC-3, one engine burst into flames. We circled, made an emergency landing and waited for hours while they replaced the engine. We didn’t get a different plane. They replaced the engine and we took off again.

    The second time was a Piedmont (Henson) Dash-8 into Hagerstown. The winds in the mountains threw that plane around like a feather in a tornado. It was the only time in my life I came close to being air sick or wondered if we would make it there in one piece. I vowed never to fly a prop again, and I kept my promise.

    There are aviation and history buffs who will mourn the end of an era and be sorry to see the props go. Bless their hearts, but I am not one of them. However, you are right when you wonder whether small rural cities will be able to keep regional jet service.

    1. sad day…cranky can you publish a list of 50 cities and towns that do NOT have commercial service anymore…mostly because they cannot pay for TSA or 50-76 seat RJ’s…example=lafayette,indiana

      1. dan – I can’t say I know of any cities that would have commercial service if not for TSA and the disappearance of props. Dynamics have changed dramatically and small cities can’t sustain service for a variety of reasons. The aircraft involved are just a small part of it.

  2. This makes me more than a little nostalgic. The Saab 340B was the first airliner that I flew. While I was disappointed that I didn’t get assigned you the flashier RJ like some of my other American Eagle new hire friends, I now see my time flying the Saab as a badge of honor. Sure, it was hot in the DFW summer heat. Yeah, the flights were almost always weight restricted. And of course, more than a few passengers were terrified to step on the thing. But it was a solid craft. It was fun to fly. And after a long six-leg day shuttling between DFW and hotspots like Waco or Lawton or College Station, the “waw-waw-waw” that droned on endlessly in my head was the best sleep/sound machine you could have. Thanks for this trip down memory lane.

  3. It is funny, since there are large numbers of prop planes being operated for Air Canada and Westjet. Westjet’s Encore regional subsidiary is an all Q400 operation, and they just started operating in 2013. They now have 46 Q400s. The also have a partnership called Westjet Link that uses Saab 340s

    Air Canada’s regional partners have a mix of props and regional jets. They currently have 16 Beechcraft 1900D, 16 Dash 8-100, 26 Dash 8-300, and 44 Q400 aircraft. I’ve read that the Dash 8 100’s will be retired but the 300’s will be refurbished and kept in service for some time.

    I wonder what is different about Canada’s major airlines that they use props while the big American carriers don’t anymore?

    1. Two major reasons I see:

      More small markets, particularly out in western Canada, and small regional jets never caught on as an alternative.

      Canadian pride in the Canadian-built Bombardier Q400. Of course, the CRJ is also Canadian and Air Canada has a decent fleet of Embraer E190s, so it’s not quite that straightforward, but pretty sure it’s a factor

    2. Smallmj – I think lack of competition has something to do with it.
      Historically, Air Canada could fly those airplanes without risking a traveler going to an airline flying jets. WestJet came in and instead of trying to challenge Air Canada, instead opted to just go turboprop instead. So there hasn’t been anyone pushing. But with WestJet morphing into a real Air Canada competitor, I wonder if someone will start an arms race.

      1. The thing is, an arms race with what? I don’t think a CRJ-100 is a step up over a Q400 or DH8-3 as a customer; quite the contrary. And Canadians are used to these turboprops and this aren’t conditioned to think that a jet is automatically better than a turboprop.

        I also think geography is a factor: I think there are a lot more, as a fraction, <500 mile routes in Canada than there are longer thin routes where a CRJ starts to win cost wise over a turboprop. But I’m less sure of that.

        1. Alex – You are in the minority. Airlines flocked to these jets because of customer preference. In addition, they are faster, so a shorter duration helps flights float higher in the display.

  4. Call me crazy, but I’m a big fan of the prop planes, especially the Dash-8s. Provided they are used appropriately (on legs of say, < 2 hours or < 500 miles), I'll take Dash-8s over jets (RJs or mainline) any day. I like being able to gate check my roller board bag. I like being able to walk on the tarmac and go up the stairs to board a plane. I like being able to hear the noise of the props and see more of what keeps me in the air. I even like the vibration from the props to a certain extent.

    The new (big) jets provide a much quieter and more stable ride, but in doing so create an experience that can be sterile and boring. If I wake up from a nap on a Dash-8, I instantly know where I'm at and what plane I'm on. If I wake up from a nap on a new mainline jet, I do not.

  5. It’s too bad I missed the turboprop heyday, I always found the drone of the propellers to be a great sleep aid. On Dash-8 flights between JFK and DC I’d be out light a light right after takeoff and sleep pretty much until landing. Then I’d get on a jet for my final destination and not get another wink.

  6. Quick point of semantics – Those Cape Air 402’s are not “Turboprops”, they are recip powered props. Love flying on them, highly recommend if you have the opportunity, but not turbine driven.

  7. As someone who flew on these planes in and out of New Berm in the mid-80’s, your article brought back many memories. Thanks for the update.

  8. Count me among those who will miss the old turboprops. I grew up in Charleston, West Virginia, where we didn’t see jet service for years (at least, according to my memory). I remember flying Delta’s old props down to ATL and, even more often, watching my dad get on old prop jobs for business trips (back in the day when anyone could clear security). They would always get started taxiing with just one propeller turned on and my mother, not one for flying, apparently, would begin fretting that they’d forget to turn the other one on before takeoff. Of course, they never did.
    I like those old planes so much I went out of my way to fly on AA’s Dash 8-100 and -300 last fall, knowing that it was probably my last chance before their retirement.

  9. I’m based at an airport (YYF, Penticton, BC) that remains a turboprop only operation with service by Air Canada (Jazz) and WestJet (Encore), and I also get them out of nearby YLW (Kelowna), both on those two and on Alaska/Horizon. I really appreciate them both because I doubt we’d have the service we do without turboprops and because I find the DH-8 derivatives far more comfortable than ERJs or CRJs. Especially Jazz’s Q400s, which are configured with quite comfortable seats (noticeably better than AS/QX’s Q400s).

  10. Don’t forget about Porter Airlines! They have an all Q400 fleet flying out of Billy Bishop Airport in the Toronto Islands, one of the best approaches in North America.

    1. Came here to mention that – and there’s service from a lot of cities from the east half of the country (from Chicago in the west to, I guess, Orlando in the south).

  11. Also, as a passenger, I love being under the wing on the DH-8s for the unimpeded view, including seeing the landing gear touch down.

  12. Chicago Midway is lucky to be one of a handful of US cities to have service on Porter Airlines. Their all Q400 fleet is fantastic – quiet, stable, and large windows to enjoy the view. Few things better than seeing the Great Lakes from 20,000 ft with a cold can of Ace Hill beer (it’s free, too!). Obviously Porter’s operating model is unique (only turbo props, using Toronto Billy Bishop vs Pearson) but their fleet of Q400s show that non-jet aircraft can be nearly as quiet as a regional jet and just as comfortable. I, for one, will take a Q400 any day over a CRJ200. Especially with that gorgeous approach into YTZ!

    1. Another thumbs-up for the Q400. A few years ago I flew on one (Alaska/Horizon) from OAK to PDX… that seems like too big a city-pair for a prop plane, but regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed the flight. It’s a bit slower than a jet of, course but the big difference I noticed operations-wise was that it flew considerably lower (wild guess:10,000 feet lower). So much the better for viewing the magnificent northern California and southern Oregon scenery (Marble Mountains, Crater Lake, Cascades, etc.).
      A cool thing that Alaska did was to paint some of its Q400s in the colors of Pacific Northwest colleges. So you might see one in Boise State orange and blue, U of Oregon yellow and green, etc. A curious thing: there’s also one wearing San Diego State colors. Perhaps one of AS’s executives is a San Diego State grad…

  13. I will not miss the turboprops. Most of my roughest flights were on EMB120s. I like the fact the CRJ could fly higher and go over a lot of the turbulence. It made for a much nicer ride.

    I’m curious what will happen to these smaller markets when the 50 seaters become too old to maintain and they can’t get their hands on any more of them?

    1. southbay – I think they’ll have to find a way to keep operating 50 seat aircraft, but that’s not an issue for the near term.

  14. O f course, the $64,000 question is, what does “under their brand,” mean? Look at any UA ad and you will see something about some flights may be (1) on United Express, by airlines “doing business as United Express” (with a list of airlines) and nothing about them having codeshare agreements with UA, or (2) “pursuant to a codeshare agreement: Silver Airlines,” which, of course, is still flying the prop SAABs. Branding means what the airline wants it to mean. What code-sharing is and isn’t, we’ll let you know! To me it’s nothing but a deceptive practice!

  15. Bite your tongue. The Jetstream 31/32 offered a far better traveler experience than anything Beech of Fairchild produced.

  16. I miss the Dornier 328s flown by PSA in the late 90s to mid 00s. It provided a better short haul product than anything else out there short of a private jet, including the RJs that replaced it.

  17. My overall favorite is and always will be the Lockheed Constellation. One of the most beautiful aircraft ever built. There is still something to be said about those old propeller driven aircraft which made US air service what it is today.

    1. I’ve been meaning to get out to Kansas City one of these days just to see the old Super Connie at the museum there that hosts much of the old TWA artifacts. That plane definitely gets my vote for the most beautiful plane ever built.

  18. Hi Cranky, Count me as one who is sorry to see the eclipse of turboprops.  I used to love the Twin Otter that could land or take off on a dime and take you anywhere that had a clearing.  From an airline planner’s point of view turboprops are also much more economic than a comparably sized jet, and just as fast on short hops.  But from a marketing point of view there is a sizeable group of people who refuse to fly them.  They think of anything with a prop as old and dangerous.  Even my wife, who is a very experienced flyer, didn’t like it when I scheduled a turboprop for our trip.  So, despite their advantages, I agree that turboprops will be banished to the very small routes where jets just don’t work.

  19. My only prop travel was back in the day on Trans World Express on two different type props BOS-JFK-DCA and SkyWest (UAExpress) SFO-RNO-SFO. That’s not counting a 6-seater seaplane in Alaska. I had no issue getting on them and found them kind of fun since there were different to fly on. I know I didn’t care for having to take a bus from a main terminal gate to the commuter airline terminal in SFO or a bus at JFK from the terminal to the exact plane we would use in a sea of many TWE aircraft. Walking from terminal (in snow) at BOS to the plane and to/from plane/gate in Reno was nice since you walked outside in the open which felt like the old days when that was the only way to get from terminal to the airplane.

  20. Cranky – FYI – Cape Air hasnt flown in Florida for many years now. They shuttered their intra Florida/ Keys flying at least 5 years ago I think. Were you instead thinking of the Caribbean? They still do a fair amount of flying from San Juan, in addition to their Northeast, St Louis, and Montana flying.

    1. Jason – Oh, yeah, Caribbean. And I know they do more midwest stuff now too. Either way, they’re in a lot of places.

  21. I miss the old Brazilias SkyWest used to fly around the West. They were loud, but the single-seat side was relatively comfortable. Used to take them with DL and UA on varous routes (FAT to LAS, SFO, and LAX, and from SFO to ACV.)

    The big drawback was that they’d hop around like a wallaby when the desert was really hot – was flying FAT-LAS once and we started bouncing almost the moment we cleared the Sierras. Just about everybody on the plane checked the seatback to make sure the bag was there. When we landed at LAS, it was 118 degrees. By the time I got into the terminal I was sweating, and then after about 5 seconds in the arctic tundra aircon I started shivering so hard I shook enough brain cells loose to realize I’d left my sunglasses in the rental car at FAT (a specialty of mine, actually.)

    Good times… (except the sunglasses)

  22. This certainly brings back some memories of props and their heyday in the ’80s. As a “suitcase kid” flying back and forth between my divorced parent’s homes in Detroit and Cleveland I traveled on many of these aircraft. Saab 340, Dash 8 variants, Shorts 360, Embraer 110 “Bandeirante” and even the CASA 212, the Swearingen Metroliner and the Convair 580! Some fine memories of aircraft and airlines long gone, even if a bit bumpy flying over Lake Erie in the winter.

  23. Interesting that props have faded away in the United States whereas in just about every other market (like Asia and Africa, and to some extent Europe), props are just as popular if not more than regional jets. Any idea why this is the case? Like over here in Asia, there are regional jet operators (in countries like Japan, Indonesia, China, and India) but much of the regional flying in places like Thailand and the Philippines are still done by props.

    1. MK03 – I think in general the distances are longer in the US so jets made more sense for a large portion of the fleet. That doesn’t mean that there’s not still good opportunity on a ton of short routes for props, but if you already have jets flying longer regional routes, then it might be easier to convince yourself to just go all-jet. And maybe there’s some kind of cultural difference as well where people in the US for whatever reason have a greater hatred of props than elsewhere. I don’t really know.

  24. Great article as usual, CF! In honor of the propeller plane, I may have to watch Airplane! The droning background propeller sound always makes me laugh, since they are flying on a jet.

  25. The Dash-8 brings back fond memories of traveling in college. I lived on those old Horizon Dash 8 -100 & 200s on flights between Boise and Spokane. Round trip ticket was $59 if you bought your ticket at least 2 weeks out. Of course you had to go to the travel agent on campus to buy the ticket! The Q-400s in the Horizon (now Alaska branded) fleet are still great and I enjoy flying on them when I get the chance, but I do miss the smaller Dash 8 models.

  26. I flew between SEA/PDX and Eugene quite a bit in college on the Horizon Dash-8s (and some Q400s, I think). After turning 21, was always trying to finish the free beer (or two) they gave you in 24oz bomber bottles on those flights. Was actually a bit of a challenge on the 20 minute hop between Eugene and PDX to get it done before the FAs had to pick all the service items up before landing.
    Also once sat in the very back row of one of those planes (with 5 seats across) wedged in next to some girl who cried uncontrollably the entire flight. Good times!

  27. When I started flying in and out of Milwaukee a lot, I was surprised United and American operated MKE-ORD legs on regional jets rather than props…that route seems like the perfect route for props.

  28. To give you an idea how much prop planes are still used for regional flights here in Canada, I’ll summarize the list of aircraft type scheduled to my closest commercial airport (YQM) using data from flightaware for the entire day of July 7 2018.

    14 DH8D
    2 B190
    1 B721 (cargo)

    Prop flights are to YYZ, YUL, YOW, and YHZ. The longest flights are about 2 hours.

    1. An even better idea comes from Air Canada’s fleet. 85 turboprops (44 Q400s, 26 DH8-3s, 15 DH8-1s), 24 small regional jets (CRJ-100), and 46 large regional jets (21 CRJ-900s and 25 E175s), along with 25 mainline E190s. That’s a very different mix than any US carrier, much heavier on the turboprops. The relatively large number of E190s is also reflective of the generally thinner markets AC serves.

      I also think AC is less reliant on hubs than US carriers, since they have hub or focus city operations (ie at least some flights to non-hubs) at every decent-sized city (metro area more than one million) in Canada. That’s the kind of operation that turboprops really shine in, I think. No US carrier has service that distributed relative to population. They’re very different countries, of course.

  29. I will mist the Q400 dearly. I started my airline career ground handling CV580’s and loved those huge props. Today I am on the other side of the counter and fly a Horizon leg on purpose just for the thrill of listening and felling the props Pitch. But then I was a sucker for the 737-200 JT8D’s too. Long live the props

  30. Lotsa memories here. Have flown many turbo prop flights on Lockheed Electra, Folker F50, Convair 580, Saab 340, Various Bombardier Q300 and Q400 models, etc. Even a Pilatus PC-12 with Boutique Air.

    Memorable moments:

    Remember freezing sitting on a Convair 580 at ORD until they finally fired that sucker up and heated the cabin. You could see your breath inside the cabin.

    US Air (Mesa) PHX-MRY on a Q300. The headwinds were so bad we had to stop at FAT for fuel. I think it took 6 hours to get to MRY. Brutal slow flight on really lousy worn out seat.

    Horizon Q400- landed in BIL during a full blown blizzard. Driving the rental SUV to my hotel was scarier than the flight into Billings.

    I could go on……..will miss the props.

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