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]