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What Are Regional Airlines?




One term you often hear within the airline industry is “regional airline.” Regional airlines operate all over the country, yet many members of the flying public are unaware of their existence.

Here’s a look at what the term means and which airlines fit the definition.

Let’s also look at what regional airlines mean for those looking to become airline pilots.

Types of Airline Companies — Regionals vs. Majors

Airlines are roughly classified based on their size.

How their size is defined, however, varies.

For example, which airline is bigger, the one with the most planes or the one that flies the most passengers? What about revenues? Does the biggest profit make the biggest airline? The most destinations served?

As you can see, deciding how airlines are grouped is a difficult question.

The biggest airlines are referred to as the major airlines.

Popular regional airlines

The US Department of Transportation defines a major as one that posts more than $1 billion in revenues in a year. The “Big 4” in the US—American, Delta, Southwest, and United—all meet this definition. So do a few other carriers, like JetBlue, Spirit, Alaska, and Allegiant.

Another term that gets used is “flag carrier.” A flag carrier is one associated with a particular country. In many cases, these are airlines with a history of state sponsorship, such as Air France, Iberia, British Airways, or Lufthansa. 

Historically, regional airlines came from the gaps left by the major and flag carriers.

For example, these airlines seldom operate into small communities. Instead, they operate their flights out of the biggest hub airports, relying on smaller regional airlines to feed passengers to those hubs. 

Regional airlines typically operate smaller aircraft and fly more limited route structures.

Their business is supplying passengers to the major airlines, not competing with them. In this way, regionals are sometimes called “connectors.” In the 60s and 70s, many of these companies were called “commuter airlines.”

Regional Airlines Today

Today, most regional airlines operate under code-sharing agreements with the major airlines.

This means a passenger can purchase a ticket from a major airline they trust that takes them from their small hometown to anywhere in the world. When they get to the airport, the plane they board may even be painted to look like it belongs to a major airline.

regional airline Envoy

In reality, however, the plane is operated by a regional airline that the major has contracted to perform the flight in their name. 

From the passenger’s point of view, the only difference between the regional and the major may be the aircraft size or the destinations where they fly.

But, behind the scenes, they are two completely different companies. Some are owned by the major airlines or holding companies, while others are wholly independent.

The major airlines maintain some trade names or banners to describe their codeshare agreements. 

  • American Eagle, which is operated by Envoy, Piedmont, and PSA Airlines
  • Delta Connection, which is operated by Endeavor, Republic, and SkyWest
  • United Express, which is operated by CommuteAir, GoJet, Mesa, Republic, and SkyWest

Here are a few of the other regional airlines in the US. 

Pilots and Regional Airlines

Regional airlines are smaller companies when compared to the major carriers. For pilots, these companies are good places to start their careers. They pay less than the majors, but it’s usually easier for a new pilot to get a job flying for one. 

There are certainly plenty of pilots who work for regional airlines and love their jobs.

But most pilots’ ultimate career goal is to work for a major airline like United Airlines, American Airlines, or Delta Air Lines. In these cases, pilots use a job at the regional as a stepping stone.

Regional airline united express

They can get the job after a few years of flight instructing, and while working there, they can build up Part 121 turbine time in their logbook—a precious commodity that will prove their experience when it comes time to apply to the majors.

For example, a regional airline might hire a flight instructor right out of college with a Restricted ATP and as little as 1,000 or 1,250 hours.

On the other hand, many major airlines require 2,500 hours or more of flight time and often prefer pilots with 1,000 hours or more of turbine time. And they always prefer pilots with previous Part 121 flying experience.

Regional airlines understand this from the perspective of pilots. Many have formalized pathway programs that help pilots transition from flight school to the regionals and onto the majors.

Each program is different, but the general idea is the same.

As a program member, a pilot may have some assurance of a job waiting for them at the major. Some pathway programs, like the Envoy Cadet Program, start as early as flight school, while others wait for you to begin working as a copilot for a regional. Some assure you of a job, while others only guarantee an interview.

There’s competition among the regional airlines to recruit pilots into their pipeline. Regional airlines often partner with flight schools and universities to ensure a stream of pilots is coming in.

This is important, as most regionals have high turnover among pilots as aviators leave after a few years to go to the majors. For pilots, this is good because it means jobs are always available, and upgrade times are short.

Here are a few pilot pathway programs that use regional airlines as stepping stones.

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