The Battle Of The Regional Aircraft – What Aircraft Is Best?

The regional jet market has seen plenty of change in recent years. Both Airbus and Boeing have paid more attention to it, but it remains dominated by other manufacturers. This article looks at both turboprops and regional jets and the choices airlines currently have for each of them. Both of these markets are dominated by a couple of leading manufacturers. But with fewer entry barriers than large jet manufacturing, there are several smaller and newer competitors.

E195-E2 Tech Lion
Embraer is the current leading regional jet manufacturer, but there is plenty of competition amongst smaller aircraft. Photo: Embraer

The regional aircraft market

The market for larger aircraft is, of course, dominated by Boeing and Airbus. Through their own innovation and a series of mergers with other manufacturers, they have come to dominate the narrowbody and widebody segments. Some new competition is emerging from Russia and China, but it will be some time before that makes a difference.

The regional aircraft market is different, with several companies manufacturing both turboprop and jet engine aircraft. For clarity, we are considering regional aircraft as those with a capacity of up to 100. There is no fixed definition, though, and some cross the boundary (such as Embraer’s E-Jet series).

For both turboprops and jets, the market is dominated by a couple of leading aircraft series, but there are other offerings in each, especially jets at present.

This article looks at the current leading aircraft offerings, as well as promising upcoming ones, and the challenges these competitors face.

Embraer Getty
Embraer is a leading manufacturer of regional aircraft. Photo: Getty Images.

Turboprop vs. jet aircraft

Before moving into the different manufacturers and their aircraft offerings, it is worth looking briefly at the differences between a turboprop and jet aircraft (Simple Flying looked at this in more detail previously). Airlines have a choice between these types when selecting regional planes.

Turboprop ATR Getty
A turboprop engine uses a propeller but is very different from a traditional piston engine. Photo: Getty Images

In general, jet engines allow an aircraft to fly higher and faster. On longer journeys, this makes them more fuel-efficient. The more time spent at ‘cruising altitude,’ the more pronounced this becomes. But for lighter aircraft, on shorter flights, turboprops can be more desirable. The engines are lighter and more efficient at low altitudes as well as during take-off and landing.

There are other differences too. Turboprop aircraft can operate with shorter runways and are also preferable on rough surfaces. They are also generally cheaper to maintain and operate. Jet engines are quieter and allow an aircraft to avoid bad weather at lower altitudes more easily.

The choice comes down to airlines’ planned operations and the airports where they will operate. For shorter, low-capacity regional flights, turboprops remain very popular. But for longer flights, or to allow higher capacity, jets are preferable.

For a larger airline, operating a mixed fleet, of course, allows both, but a smaller airline is more limited in this. It may have to accept the limitations of one type, for example, operating jets on shorter routes, to increase the flexibility of its fleet.

Turboprop aircraft – ATR and DHC

There are two leading manufacturers of turboprop regional jets, ATR and De Havilland Canada (owned by Longview Aircraft Company). They both introduced their current range of turboprop aircraft in the mid-1980s, at a time when many airlines were looking to replace older propeller aircraft.

Embraer has the EMB-120, still in service with some airlines, although out of production since 2001. It may soon re-enter the market, though, with a 70-100 seat turboprop. Early indications are that this will be a low-wing design, the same as the EMB-120.

SkyWest EMB-120
Embraer’s last turboprop was the EMB 120, and it may soon launch another. Photo: Cory W. Watts via Flickr

ATR aircraft options

Franco-Italian Aerei da Trasporto Regionale (ATR) is one of the two largest producers of turboprop regional aircraft. Its two aircraft, the ATR 42 and ATR 72, have both seen several different variants since launch. The ATR 42-600 and ATR 72-600 are the currently produced models. The two aircraft share cockpit commonality, as well as parts and equipment (up to 90% according to ATR).

The ATR 42 was ATR’s first aircraft launched (entering service in 1985), with a capacity of between 40 and 48 (hence the mode name). The following variants improved on performance and engines. The latest ATR 42-600 offers a glass cockpit, improved propeller design, and increased maximum take-off weight.

ATR 42-600
ATR 42-600. Photo: ATR

The ATR 72 evolved as a stretched version of the ATR 42, entering service in 1989. With a longer fuselage, passenger capacity was increased to 72 to 78 passengers. Again, it has improved through several variants leading to the ATR 72-600 today.

ATR 72-600
ATR 72-600. Photo: ATR

Range and capacity are obviously the main differences between the two models. The ATR 42 offers (according to ATR data) a range of up to 1,302 kilometers; this is increased to 1,404 kilometers for the ATR 72.

De Havilland and the Dash 8

The other big name in the turboprop market is the Dash 8, or Q-Series. The Dash 8 and its manufacturer have a long and changing history.

In summary, the Dash 8 was introduced by de Havilland Canada (DHC) in 1984. The company passed to Boeing in 1988, Bombardier in 1992, and to Longview Aircraft Company in 2019. The name was changed to the Q400 under Bombardier but has now been returned to the DHC Dash 8.

De Havilland Canada Dash 8 Q400
Flybe was the biggest operator of the Dash 8-400. Photo: Getty Images

The original Dash 8 entered service in 1984 with Canadian regional airline NorOntair. This was a 39 seat aircraft and was soon followed by a more powerful Series 200 variant and a higher capacity (up to 56) Series 300. The Series 400 expanded capacity to 68 to 90 and added upgraded engines. Bombardier released this as the Q400 with quieter operation and reduced vibration.

This 400 Series is the only variant currently in production. It offers a typical capacity of 82, but up to a maximum of 90. The range is up to 2,040 kilometers.

ATR vs. Dash 8

The choice of ATR or Dash 8 aircraft really comes down to airline needs. There is certainly a place for both, as their split dominance of the turboprop market demonstrates.

The Dash 8 offers higher capacity and a greater range. This may be desirable for some airlines, but others may prefer the lower operating cost of the smaller capacity ATR, especially as there are two different sized models offered.

There are other factors too. ATR aircraft are cheaper. And the Dash 8 is faster, which affects routes and turnarounds. The Dash 8 is also well-known for its performance in harsh environments (Alaska Airlines Horizon Air and Ethiopian Airlines both like it for this reason).

Alaska Airlines Dash 8
Alaska Airlines Dash 8. Photo: Alaska Airlines

The dual production of the ATR 42 and ATR 72 has worked well for ATR. The two aircraft have a lot in common and share the same production line. This has kept the smaller variant in production, despite much lower sales.

angkok Airways ATR 42-600 on final at Phuket airport
Bangkok Airways is one airline that has operated both ATR variants Photo: Getty Images

Regional Jets

As with turboprops, the regional jet market is dominated by two aircraft types – Embraer’s ERJ and E-jets, and Bombardier’s CRJ Series.

There is a lot of change currently in the market, though. Bombardier sold the CRJ Series to Mitsubsuhi in 2020, and its larger CSeries to Airbus (now the A220). Despite coming close to a merger with Boeing, Embraer remains independent and is arguably the dominant jet manufacturer at the present time.

Air Canada A220
The A220 has enjoyed great success since being brought into the Airbus family. Photo: Air Canada

But, there is new competition moving into the market. Mitsubishi offers a long-anticipated and long-delayed competitor, and there is competition from Russia (Sukhoi and Anotonov) and China (COMAC with the ARJ21). Airbus offers the A220 but competes only at the top end of the size range. With predictions of increased demand for smaller aircraft once aviation recovers, it is an interesting time for the regional jet market.

We are looking here at current manufactures and aircraft options, along with upcoming new entrants. There are others still in service, such as the Fokker 70 and 100 and the BAe 146.

Embraer jet aircraft

The ERJ series

Embraer introduced its first regional jet program, the Enterprise Regional Jet (ERJ), at the Paris Airshow in 1989. Financial delays followed, and the first ERJ 145 entered service in 1997, followed later by shorter variants:

  • The ERJ 135 is the smallest variant with a capacity of 37. Its range is 3,243 kilometers (from Embraer data).
  • The ERJ 140 is the middle variant, at just 1.4 meters shorter than the ERJ 145 and with a capacity of 44. A significant motivation for this was the demand from US airlines for sub-50 seat aircraft (to meet union agreements). The range is 3,058 kilometers.
  • The ERJ 145 offers a capacity of 50 and a range of 2,783 kilometers. There is also an ERJ 145XR with a range of 3,706 kilometers.
The launch of the ERJ 145
The launch of the ERJ 145. Photo: Embraer

Production of the ERJ series ended in 2020, but aircraft remain in service with many airlines. It successfully propelled Embraer to a leading position in the regional jet market.

According to Airfleets, Embraer has delivered 1,222 ERJ aircraft. And as of January 2021, an impressive 758 remain in service. US regional airlines are the largest operators. United Express (CommutAir) and American Airlines’ Envoy Air, and Piedmont Airlines lead the way.

Embraer ERJ-145 Getty
An Envoy Air ERJ 145. Photo: Getty Images

Embraer E-Jets

Following the ERJ series’s success, Embraer moved on to produce larger regional jets through the E-Jet program. This has, likewise, been a great success, with over 1,400 aircraft built.

E175
The E175 has been the most sold E-Jet. Photo: Embraer

The E170 was the first jet produced, launched with LOT Polish Airlines in March 2004. The E-Jet series now includes:

  • The E170, with a single class capacity of 72 and a range of 3,982 kilometers.
  • The E175: a slight stretch of the E170, increasing capacity to 78, (maximum 88), with a range of 4,074 kilometers.
  • The E190 is a larger variant, with a stretched fuselage and a larger wing and horizontal stabilizer. It carries 100 to 114 passengers, with a range of 4,537 kilometers.
  • The stretched E195 offers a capacity of 116 to 124 and a range of 4,260 kilometers.
JetBlue, Airbus A220, First Delivery
JetBlue is replacing its larger E190 aircraft with the Airbus A220. Photo: Getty Images

The improved E2 program was launched in 2013. Similar capacity jets have several improvements, including new wing design, more fuel-efficient engines, and updated avionics.

  • E175-E2 is the smallest variant, with a capacity of up to 90. The range is 3,704 kilometers.
  • The E190-E2 keeps the same size and capacity as the E190, of 104 to 114. And the range improves to 5,278 kilometers
  • The E195-E2 is the largest aircraft offered by Embraer, with a capacity of 132 to 146. The range is 4,815 kilometers.
E190-E2
Norweigan airline Widerøe was the launch customer of the E190-E2 in April 2018. Photo: Valentin Hintikka via Wikimedia

It is still early days for the E2 Series, but as of Q2 2020, Embraer had received 25 orders for the E190-E2 and 148 orders for the E195-E2.  Brazilian airline Azul is the largest customer so far, having ordered 51 E195-E2 aircraft.

E195-E2
The largest E195-E2. Photo: Matti Blume via Wikimedia

Bombardier CRJ Series

Embraer’s main competitor in the regional jet market has been Bombardier with its CRJ Series. This was sold to Mitsubishi in June 2020 but remains well in service, with over 2,000 aircraft built and over 1,400 still in service as of January 2021. (according to Airfleets.net).

The first CRJ model launched was the CRJ100, introduced with Lufthansa in 1992. This was a 50 seat regional jet with a range of 3,056 kilometers. Bombardier improved it with the same sized CRJ200, but with upgraded engines.

Delta connection CRJ 200 getty
A Delta CRJ200. Photo: Getty Images

The CRJ700 Series followed this from 1997:

  • The CRJ700 entered service in 2001. It has a range of 2,553 kilometers.
  • The stretched CRJ900 takes capacity to 76-90 passengers and range to 2,876 kilometers.
  • And the largest CRJ1000 offers a capacity of up to 104, with a range of 3,004 kilometers.
American CRJ
The CRJ900 has been the best-selling of the larger series (with around 50% of sales). Photo: Getty Images

Embraer and Bombardier competition

The regional jet market has developed a lot over the past 30 years or so has. Bombardier got a solid lead by launching its first aircraft in the early 1990s. And as a US-based manufacturer, it was well placed to build up relationships and orders with US airlines. Its aircraft were designed to meet the needs of these airlines, with capacities, for example, taking account of airline and union requirements.

Embraer was later to enter the market, but it was already well established as both a turboprop and military manufacturer.

Even before Bombardier ended its involvement in the CRJ program, Embraer’s E-Jets were arguably the more attractive option. They had received more attention and updates (not just the E2 program, but developments such as extended range options). And now, with the CRJ program sold, Embraer leads the way.

Each manufacturer’s models, though, have competed strongly, with both Embraer and Bombardier offering similar specifications.

The ERJ145 and the CRJ200, for example, are closely matched with a capacity of 50. The ERJ145 gets slightly ahead on range and fuel efficiency, but not a great deal. Simple Flying looked at this comparison in more detail previously. Other models can be compared similarly, and the choice often comes down to airline fleets and manufacturer relationships.

united-express-crj200-getty
United Express has fleets of both ERJ and CRJ aircraft through different regional operating airlines. Photo: Getty Images

Competition with Airbus

Embraer’s other major competition is Airbus. At the larger end of the E-Jet series, there is also overlap with the A220 and the smaller end of the A320 family, specifically the A318. This is where the regional and larger markets start to merge.

At the top end, the A220-300 edges ahead of the E195-E2 in specification. It has a higher capacity (160 against 146) and range (5,920 kilometers against 4,815). It is also, however, more expensive to buy, but it is cheaper to operate.

jetblue A220-300
JetBlue is replacing ist ERJ aircraft with the A220-300. Photo: Airbus

For a true regional jet, Embraer is still the best option for many airlines. The A220 may beat the E195-E2 in some respects, but remember that this is the largest offering from Embraer. The commonality of smaller aircraft in the same range is a big advantage. The A220 has sold well so far, and better than the E195-E2, but keep in mind that it is also an alternative to the smaller Boeing and Airbus narrowbodies.

The advantage of scale

Clearly, one of the main advantages these series offer is diversity. Similar to how Boeing and Airbus have taken on the larger aircraft market with the 737 and A320 families, Embraer (and previously Bombardier) can offer different sized aircraft for different uses. This can be a good choice for many airlines, offering commonality in operations and maintenance and possibly better pricing.

The larger company size also helps win over more customers. No-one wants to be left with an aircraft that is little used. It makes maintenance and obtaining parts harder, and lowers the potential second-hand value of aircraft.

With this in mind, we look at some of the newer, and at present smaller, competitors and consider what they offer.

Sukhoi Superjet 100

The Sukhoi Superjet 100 (SSJ100) is a regional jet built by Russian state-owned manufacturer Sukhoi, in service since 2011. There is just one sized variant, offering a passenger capacity of 87 (or up to 108 in dense single-class configuration). It has a range of 3,048 kilometers, and there is a long-range version that increases this to 4,578 kilometers.

Sukhoi Superjet 100
The Sukhoi Superjet 100. Photo Getty Images

By specification, the SSJ100 competes well against the Embraer E170  and E175-E2, although Embraer beats it significantly for range. Simple Flying took a look previously at the differences.

As of January 2020, 302 SJ100 aircraft had been ordered, with 175 delivered. And according to reporting by Business Insider, Sukhoi was not expecting any new orders in 2020.

Struggling with orders

The SSJ100 has struggled outside Russia so far, and this does not look set to change. Almost all orders have been from Russian airlines or those in surrounding countries. You can see a full list of operators in this Simple Flying article.

There has been one European operator. CityJet operated seven aircraft from 2016/7 (wet-leased to Brussels Airlines) but there were dropped in 2019 (according to reporting by AeroTime),

And Mexican airline Interjet operates a small fleet. It planned to retire the aircraft in 2020, but that has changed during the slowdown. It has switched back to the SSJ100 after its Airbus aircraft were repossessed. As of late 202, the airline is grounded and facing huge debt. It if recovers, it could once again be the only operator in the Americas or Europe.

Interjet Getty
Interjet operated only the SSJ100, before stopped flights in late 2020. Photo: Getty Images.

With most orders now for Aeroflot and smaller Russian airlines, its future success has to be questioned. There are several challenges airlines face with the SSJ100, including:

  • There are no other sized variants. Sukhoi has proposed a Sukhoi Superjet 130NG, which would offer a capacity of up to 130, but this has not been confirmed. This would compete with the larger Embraer regional jets as well as the Airbus A220. And s smaller variant would increase its appeal in the US.
  • Support outside Russia is limited. And to make this worse, it uses custom-built engines (PowerJet SaM146).
  • It does not have a great safety record, with three hull losses. While these were all attributed to pilot error rather than technical problems with the aircraft, it will still be a consideration for airlines.

COMAC and the ARJ21

The final operational regional jet we will discuss is Chinese manufacturer COMAC’s ARJ21. COMAC has ambitious plans to take on larger narrowbody and widebody aircraft, but so far has only launched one aircraft.

This is a smaller regional jet (ARJ stands for Advanced Regional Jet), with a capacity of around 90. It first flew in 2008 and entered service in 2016 with Chengdu Airlines. There is only one variant, the ARJ21-700, but a larger ARJ21-900 is planned with a capacity of around 105.

OTT ARJ21 China Eastern
China Eastern has set up a new subsidiary to fly the ARJ21. Photo: Getty Images

The ARJ21 competes strongly against the E190 and E190-E2. Simple Flying previously looked at how it compares with the Embraer E190-E2. Embraer beats it both on range and capacity. The range in particular (at 3,700 kilometers) is a let down for the ARJ21 but reflects its design to use on domestic Asian routes. This could be improved in later models for a more international appeal.

But it is significantly cheaper (with a list price of $38 million compared to $60 million), which could ultimately win it some market share.

Selling well so far

According to COMAC, as of September 2020, 616 orders have been placed for the ARJ21 from 23 customers. Most orders have been from Chinese airlines. The three largest airlines, Air China, China Eastern, and China Southern, all have similar orders and took simultaneous delivery of their first aircraft in 2020.

China carriers
The big three Chinese airlines took simultaneous deliveries of their first ARJ21s. Photo: Getty Images

In 2020, COMAC delivered 24 ARJ aircraft, all to Chinese airlines. This is less than Embraer (with 50 jets delivered in the first nine months of 2020), but still represents significant competition at such an early stage.

The real test for the ARJ21 will be expansion outside China. That may not be the priority for the moment (especially with strong demand expected in China), but with government backing, it could perhaps take this on easier than other new manufacturers. There is also discussion of potential sanctions from the US on supplying parts to COMAC, but this is far from certain.

Mitsubishi SpaceJet – on hold for the moment

Mitsubishi has had plans for a new regional jet for some time. But despite developing several test aircraft, its SpaceJet program is unfortunately now paused.

Back in 2007, Mitsubishi revealed plans for its Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ) program, with two different sized jets. There was even an initial order (from ANA) with target delivery in 2013. There have been plenty of delays since then, with a first flight eventually taking place in 2015. Certification delays after that delayed entry to service again.

MRJ with ANA
The MRJ in ANA livery was demonstrated in 2018. Photo: pjs2005 via Wikimedia

And in 2019, Mitsubishi announced a revamp of the program as the ‘SpaceJet,’ with two variants:

  • The M90 as the main variant, with a two-class capacity of 81, or up to 88 in one class. The range is 3,770 kilometers.
  • The slightly smaller M100 with a two-class capacity of 76 and a range of 3,540 kilometers.

The SpaceJet would compete well against the E175, with a similar capacity and range.

The Spacejet M90
The SpaceJet M90. Photo: Matti Blume via Wikimedia

SpaceJet program on hold

As of early 2021 however, Mistubishi has put the SpaceJet program on hold (according to reporting by FlightGlobal). It is unclear if production or development will resume.

Before this, there were 153 firm orders for aircraft. Delays had already caused the cancellation of some other orders. The most recent was an order from Aerolease for 10 aircraft, canceled in January 2021.

There have also been issues with orders from US airlines. In late 2019, it became apparent that the M90 would not meet union regulations for operation on regional routes. Trans State Airlines canceled an order for 50 M90 aircraft (and 50 further options) following this.

As of January 2021, there is no indication whether the program will resume. If it does, it will not be soon, as Mitsubishi Aircraft has cut its staff by 95%. Still, if it did, the SpaceJet could compete well against Embraer E-Jets, particularly if Mitsubishi can successfully target Asia or solve its US problems.

Would you like to share any thoughts on the regional jet market? Which of the competition do you think has the most potential, and will we see a return to smaller turboprops post-COVID? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

293 Shares: