The little plane problem

Small aircraft serving small demand routes, they most likely aren’t what you think of when you think of commercial aviation. Compared to the giant A350’s preparing to conquer the Sydney to London route in a few years or the A380’s flying passengers in world renowned comfort, the regional aviation market seems almost completely irrelevant. However, we have a problem with our “little” planes

Now, let’s talk about an airline you’ve probably never heard of: Regional Express. Born out of the Ansett collapse 20 years ago and some wealthy Singaporeans, the airline serves over 60 destinations in all Australian states. The thing about Rex though is, it serves an extremely niche market. By niche I mean small. Operating a 57 strong fleet of 34 seat Saab 340’s, it operates very very skinny routes, sometimes taking off from dirt runways in the outback. The fleet has an average age of 28 years but the real problem is, much like Boeing’s lack of middle of the market aircraft, there’s no commercially produced aircraft between the 11 to 48 seat range, Rex’s Saab’s sit right in the middle.

The problem may be somewhat solved by the fact that Rex has indicated that they most likely will have a mixture of ATR 42’s and 72’s, however even the 42’s have a typical seating capacity of 48, a fair bit above the current Saab’s 34, something which they often find struggle to fill anyway.

There seems to be a gap in the market between tiny and small planes and airlines like Rex who quite possibly provide the most critical of services seem to be paying the price for it

Still going, Rex’s oldest Saab is 32 years young Image credit


Would a bombardier be too big?


Well it depends on the capabilities. I am pretty sure a crj550 cannot operate off of a dirt strip.

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Just by some PC-12 or PC-24 and make them airliners by removing the private cabin and putting all economy seating

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Dash 8 200/300?

Maybe even the -100

I wonder if Cessnas sky courier wouldn’t be perfect.

Are they still in production?

Wouldn’t the Cessna Caravan/Sky Courier and DHC Twin Otter fit there? Less than 34 but more than 11. And both perfectly capable of STOL


Oh true you’re so right! It totally went right through me!

Bombardier regional jets have been tried in Australia without success. The fuel efficiency and runway performance of the turboprops generally wins out. The Q400 has been a great asset to the regional fleet in Australia. It fits nicely between the smaller slower turboprops and the larger jets so is quite versatile. But yes, Australia needs a smaller replacement for the Saab. Not so sure about the Cessna Sky Courier. Without knowing its details I have a feeling it would be underpowered…

If they’re sometimes struggling to fill 34 seats, it sounds like Twin Otters would do nicely. And I’d happily explore more of Australia’s Charlie, Delta, Echo stops in a Q400 or even smaller.

The issue is often that the fixed costs just get too high with small turboprops, so routes can’t survive without subsidies or strong demand/high fares. Many routes in Oz are subsidised, the Rex ones mostly, but there just isn’t the demand. That said, I’m very interesting to see how Australia’s latest airline startup goes. 737 operations between some quite obscure city pairs.

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Tbh, REX could order the ES-19 since it has a capacity of 19 passengers. They could benefit from this since it’s a more modern aircraft, and offers capabilities such as being able to land on runways as short as 2,500 feet and producing zero emissions. It is also more comfortable for passengers given that it’s much quieter than other turboprops. Along with this, the ES-19 is said to offer savings of 50%-75% in fuel and energy along with 90% in maintenance. Then again, idk how the ES-19 will perform in areas with high temperatures since it’s meant for clean city travel.

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One thing I know is the Queensland Government subsidises a bunch of route and “milkruns” basically connecting the tiny outback towns with major cities such as Cairns and Brisbane. Qantas also operate a couple as well

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