Saturday, May 24, 2014

Perception can be a problem for turboprops



None of South Carolina’s airports will ever get mistaken for a Hartsfield or Heathrow. The state’s busiest airport by enplanements in 2012 was Charleston, but with 1.28 million boardings, it was only the nation’s 80th-busiest.

Way down that Federal Aviation Administration list at No. 249 is Florence Regional Airport.

But don’t let that ranking fool you. This airport is a key cog for economic development. The many multinational corporations with facilities in the Florence area were all lured to some extent by the promise of regular commercial air service.

Florence has four to six daily flights making the quick hop to Charlotte, North Carolina. Thanks to some cost-savings measures, the airport is in good shape financially, rebounding from its 2012 million-dollar mix-up with Uncle Sam over leased Transportation Security Administration space.

Last week the airport’s lone carrier, US Airways, announced it will be only using turboprop airplanes after Friday in Florence. Eliminating jets might just be temporary, but US Airways is here because it is good business. If the carrier can improve its bottom line with a turboprop-only service, it will.

Enplanments have been on the decline in Florence since Delta’s Atlanta connection left in 2011. Planes are about 70 percent full on average, according to airport officials. On the heavy days, Air Wisconsin has a fleet of 50-seater CRJ-200 LR jets that typically depart here once or twice daily. The rest are Piedmont Airlines turboprops.

Regular Florence fliers are obviously used to turboprops and might not notice, or care about, any difference in the planes they book out of here.

Still, whether it’s the sight of those whirly things or the imitation major airline livery, turboprops can carry a hidebound perception, rightly or wrongly.

The turboprop out of Florence gets you to Charlotte in the same amount of time as a jet, and the replacement turboprops have the same amount of seats. They use less fuel, but they also fly shorter distances. And there’s not a hamster on a wheel spinning those propellers. Turboprops are powered by turbine engines.

Overhead space and other amenities vary. Luggage space and foot room can be limited because of the curvature of many turboprops’ fuselage. Turboprops fly at a lower altitude than jets, which make them more susceptible to weather and turbulence. Complaints abound about the noise, too.

Having the option between a jet and turboprop might be inconsequential to a Florence traveler. Besides, plenty of fliers are more concerned with convenience, price and timeliness. Florence can offer that.

The local airport has proximity, obviously. Parking is a breeze. By the time you drive, park and take the bus at Charlotte/Douglas, you could already be relaxing on your connection if you left out of Florence. Prices here are sometimes more favorable, too.

But for many others fliers, there’s turbo aversion. Small seems dodgy. Propellers seem dated. Big jets seem safer.

Flying, of course, on any commercial plane is astonishingly safe. More than 800 million people boarded a commercial plane in 2012 in the United States. Since 2003, only six commercial crashes on U.S. soil have resulted in fatalities.

Five of those involved commuter planes, though, and three were turboprops: 19 died in 2003 in Charlotte, North Carolina, in a turboprop; 20 died in 2005 off the coast of Miami in a turboprop; 49 died in 2006 in Lexington, Kentucky; 50 people (including one on the ground) perished in 2009 in Buffalo, New York, in a turboprop accident; and 10 people died in 2013 in Soldotna, Alaska, in a single-engine, propeller plane. Only Asiana Airlines Flight 214, a Boeing 777 that crashed short of the runway in 2013 at San Francisco International Airport, was a major airline crash. Three of 307 people on board perished.

That data could be used as an indictment on turboprops or a condemnation on regional carriers in general — or neither.

But, pilot pay scales are based on aircraft size. The bigger the plane, the higher the pay. Although all commercial pilots are trained to the same federal standards regardless of the airline that employs them, it’s not a stretch to conclude smaller planes could mean less experience on the flight deck.

The chances of you ever needing the maneuvers of a Chesley Sullenberger are microscopic. But they’re nice to have all the same.

All of this is to say the turboprop-only plan at Florence might not make a dent in enplanements either way, and the jets might be back in a few months.

But for an airport that could stand some good news and for a city that desperately needs its airport, this feels like a step back.


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