Interestingly, the changes are not hitting all sizes of airports uniformly.
A recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology study concluded that U.S. medium-hub airports have been hit hardest by the 50-seat RJ's demise. In 2012, medium hubs accounted for about 300,000 departures of RJs with 50 or fewer seats—less than half of 2007's total. Small hubs, by contrast, still had about 300,000 departures in 2012, or two-thirds of their 2007 totals. Non-hubs had the fewest such departures in 2012—just under 300,000—but actually gained some compared to 2007.
One explanation for why medium hubs have been hit so hard: the bigger the market, the easier it is to replace 50-seaters with larger aircraft. However, the study notes, the replacement trend is not one-for-one. Instead, a larger jet is flying where two 50-seaters once did, accomplishing the airlines' goal of keeping capacity in check.
Shifts in economics and pilot scope clauses are opening up new opportunities for larger RJs, including Bombardier's CRJ700s, -900s and -1000s. Aviation Week's fleet database shows 357 CRJ700s, 271 -900s and 45 -1000s in service; the aggregate total is projected to be about the same in 10 years, with new -900s and a few more -1000s canceling out retiring -700s.
The steady fleet count creates a similarly predictable—and potentially lucrative—MRO market. Aviation Week's commercial fleet and MRO forecast projects about $11.6 billion in total aftermarket spending on the larger CRJs over the next 10 years. Spending dips below $1 billion only once: 2013's $931 million. The top-end year is projected to be 2020, at $1.4 billion.
Taken together, the current-generation CRJ's MRO market is projected to be $19 billion in the next decade. While it is clear that 50-seaters are heading for the bone yards and the -700s and -900s are placeholders for new-generation RJs—including the revamped Embraer ERJs, the all-new Mitsubishi Regional Jet and the larger Bombardier CSeries—the near term still offers notable aftermarket opportunity.
Some MROs are betting on this hidden gem. Timco Aviation Services, for instance, established a CRJ line and heavy maintenance facility at Cincinnati in October 2012.
As smaller CRJs—including some relatively young ones—head for storage, some industry officials suggest the shift of a few variables could create opportunities for the 50-seaters. If fuel prices fall low enough, rock-bottom acquisition costs could make 50-seaters ideal for stopgap lift or an adventurous hyper-regional airline.
“You can . . . imagine an environment where everyone is trying to get large regional jets and, as a result, large regional lift becomes expensive and 50-seat regional lift becomes inexpensive,” said Scott Kirby, US Airways president, this spring. “We're agnostic about whether we have 50-seaters or larger regional jets. It's all about the economics. Today, the economics of large regional jets are better, but five years from now, that might be different.”