New FAA Weight Rules Could Hit West Hard

Smaller commuter operations expected to be most affected

By: Jerry Chandler

New federal regulations aimed at making commuter aircraft operations safer could end up cutting the number of seats available to travelers, particularly in the West.

The Federal Aviation Administration earlier this month changed its weight formula for commercial airlines, as a result of the Jan. 8 crash of an Air Midwest (US Airways Express) Beech 1900D in Charlotte, N.C.

Under the old standards, each passenger including his clothing and carry-on baggage was estimated to weigh 180 pounds for summertime travel and 185 for wintertime.

The new assumption is 190 pounds. Each piece of checked luggage is estimated to weigh 30 pounds. The old assumption was 25.

The new increased weight estimates apply to all airlines, but are expected to especially affect smaller, regional operations because the smaller the airplane, the more critical weight factors become.

The new rules also are expected to affect the West most because, although commuter airlines operate smaller 19-seat aircraft across the country, the western part of the country may be disproportionately reliant upon them. “I think the West will significantly be impacted by this,” said David Stempler, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Air Travelers Association.

In the West, “these planes [often] need to travel long distances. That means more fuel. You can’t reduce the fuel, so you have to reduce the cargo or number of passengers.”

Travel agents booking client trips could find fewer regional commuter seats available, particularly at certain times.

“The impact (of the new rules) would be during peak periods, such as holidays,” said Brian Streeval, an analyst for the Colorado-based Boyd Group, a major aviation consultancy. “The Fridays, the Sundays, the busy travel days of the week.”

And some locations could be affected more than others.

“There are a lot of 19-seat aircraft based particularly out of Denver, serving western communities,” Streeval said.

Agents should also be aware that clients could be bumped, or unable to book the flight they want, when both temperature and altitude rise.

The higher the temperature and the more elevated the airport, the more critical weight regulations become. That’s because warm air is thinner and aircraft takeoff runs must be longer.

“The whole state of Wyoming would definitely be impacted,” particularly during peak summer tourist times, Streeval said.

Much of that state lies at 4,000 feet above sea level or higher. Certain rural locations in Colorado also could be hurt and Pueblo is another “hot and high” field, he said.

Analysts said agents should be aware that the number of seats available could be more limited than in the past. Booking ahead or mapping out backup transportation could become increasingly important.

Still, they said, with some planning, agents should be able to find available seats for clients.

“These 19-seat aircraft do not generally run very high load factors,” said Streeval.

He estimates that most of the time they’re flying about half full. Late last week, the NTSB was holding a hearing on the North Carolina crash that prompted the new rules. Although no probable cause has been established, evidence continues to point toward weight and balance as playing a possible role in the accident.