Beginning in the early 1960's, commercial air passengers began traveling on jet-powered aircraft, going higher, faster, and more smoothly than ever before in propellor-equipped aircraft. The decade of the 1960's gave the Western world numerous jet aircraft ranging in seating capacity from about 75 passengers to over 300.
While these new jet-powered aircraft were a great stride forward for the air traveling public and remain quite popular in comparison to their propellor-driven counterparts, some of these aircraft are too large to be of economical use on shorter routes or on routes between smaller communities and the "mega-hubs" of the major air carriers. On one hand, passengers in smaller markets desire jet air travel. Many air passengers dislike small propellor equipment because such airplanes are slower than jets, have significantly reduced comfort and power in most cases, and may lack a flight attendant and on-board lavatory. On the other hand, airlines, conscious of their need to survive economically and provide a financial return to their stockholders, promoted the use of small propellor commuter planes on routes extending to smaller cities. What was needed was a small, economically feasible jet aircraft to fill the niche.
In the 1980's, designs for small, fuel-efficient jet aircraft began to come to fruition. The first major entrant into the regional jet market in the United States was the Bombardier Canadair CL-44, marketed as the Canadair Regional Jet. This 50-passenger jet delighted passengers on routes previously served by slower-flying propellor aircraft. Canadair's regional entrant was soon followed by the Brazilian-built EMBRAER Regional Jet, the ERJ, also a 50-passenger jet advertised as being able to provide jet speed and comfort at costs comparable to those of propellor equipment. While the Canadair Regional Jet (sometimes noted as "RJ") has seating four abreast, two seats on either side of a center aisle, the EMBRAER RJ has three-abreast seating.
EMBRAER is now marketing other sizes of its RJ to appeal to airlines flying into smaller communities, with as few as 35 seats available in the ERJ 135. Larger RJ's from EMBRAER are planned with seating capacities in the 70 to 90 range. These enlarged RJ's will have two jet engines mounted under the airplane's wings. Canadair now offers a larger RJ, a stretch of its CRJ now offering 70 seats.
Following the Canadair and EMBRAER RJ's was the Fairchild Dornier 328JET. This RJ is essentially of the same design as the company's 328 model propellor-driven aircraft, but modified and equipped with jet engines. Larger variants of the 328 were planned, but the company has ceased operations.
Seating on RJ's tends to be narrow and tight, and passengers typically are restricted from bringing on board carry-on items which would fit without difficulty in the overhead bins of larger aircraft. Nonetheless, regional jets are quite popular with feeder airlines and passengers alike as an alternative to propellor-driven aircraft. While designed primarily as feeder aircraft, these RJ's may now be found flying major trunk routes alongside traditional larger jet aircraft on routings including Dallas/Ft. Worth to Oakland, CA; Atlanta to Houston; and Cleveland to Newark. RJ's allow airlines to open new "long, thin" routings with jet equipment which heretofore did not exist, such as Atlanta to Monterrey, Mexico. RJ's have also meant a return to jet service to cities where full-size jets had departed over a decade ago, such as Macon, Georgia.
RJ's in current service were not the first small jet passenger aircraft. The YAK-40, a three-engine aircraft of Soviet design, carried up to 40 passengers from its inception in the early 1970's; however, no YAK-40 aircraft ever flew in scheduled service in continental North America. Fokker, a Dutch-based aircraft manufacturer, built the Fokker F-28 jet aircraft, powered by two rear-mounted engines. The F-28 could carry up to 65 or 75 passengers in its various sizes. Fokker's F-28 aircraft saw service with several North American carriers, including Piedmont Airlines and Horizon Air, a subsidiary of Alaska Airlines. Neither of these early entrants into the regional market is being built today, and no scheduled U.S. airline uses the F-28 for passenger service at this time.
As the popularity of regional jets continues to grow with airlines, larger variants of these aircraft can be expected. These larger variants will blur the line between RJ's and traditional "full-size" jet aircraft. As an example, the original DC-9 jet aircraft were designed to seat approximately 75 passengers. RJ's have a ready market with airlines who appreciate their lower acquisition and operating costs.