Image: US Airways regional jet
Stephen Jaffe  /  AFP/Getty Images
A US Airways regional jet taxis to the US Airways terminal at Ronald Reagan National Airport in this file photo. Increasingly, travelers are coming down with Regional Jet Stress Syndrome, or RJSS, which he calls an anxiety disorder that develops after exposure to undersize aircraft and all the ups and downs that come with it.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/9/2008 11:02:29 AM ET 2008-06-09T15:02:29

If you’re reluctant to fly, maybe you’ve got Regional Jet Stress Syndrome.

RJSS is an anxiety disorder that develops after exposure to undersize aircraft and all the ups and downs that come with it. You won’t find any references to this malady outside of this article, but let me assure you that the symptoms are very real.

Just ask Kathy Hall-Zientek, who recently found herself stuck on a puddlejumper from Buffalo, N.Y., to New York’s LaGuardia airport. “We sat in the rear of the aircraft and watched the fear in people’s faces in the row ahead of me,” she remembers. “It was a mother and teenage daughter who held hands and prayed.”

But that's only half the trauma of RJSS. The regional carriers operating these planes don't necessarily offer the same amenities or have the same service standards you'll find on bigger planes. Taken together, it means that a flight on a regional jet is far more likely to leave you swearing off air travel for good.

And there’s more bad news. This summer, as airlines try to save money by cutting capacity, the odds that they’ll downgrade your flight to regional jet service — and that you’ll be afflicted with RJSS — are higher than perhaps ever.

Let me put that into a little perspective. More than 400 communities — about 70 percent of the places with commercial airline service — rely on smaller regional airlines, according to the Regional Airline Association, a trade group. (About one-third of those flights are on turboprops. I’m not going to split hairs here — Either way, we’re talking a small plane.) Roughly 1 in 5 passenger enplanements — that’s trade industry jargon for a person boarding a plane — is on a regional carrier today.

It’s possible you could end up boarding one of the gleaming new regional jets that are, in many respects, nicer than their bigger brothers. JetBlue’s super-comfortable Embraer 190 comes to mind. But on balance, regional jets and the airlines that operate them tend to be pretty dreadful when you run the numbers. For example:

Many flights are chronically late
Of the 10 most delayed flights in America, half were on regional airlines, including No. 1, Mesa flight 7124 from Chicago to Mosinee, Wis. It was late 91 percent of time, with an average delay of 37 minutes. Not to pick on Mesa, but it had three flights in the top ten, including flight 7155 from Chicago to Springfield, Ill., which was delayed an average of 67 minutes. That’s right, it was delayed by more than an hour. On average.

Regional carriers lose more luggage
Regional airlines are bottom-feeders when it comes to luggage. The last Transportation Department report card found all the regionals it tracks round out the bottom of its lost and mishandled luggage list, with Atlantic Southeast coming in dead last with 15.69 lost or mishandled baggage reports per 1,000 passengers for the month of March. The top carrier, Hawaiian Airlines, had just 2.44 reports.

You have fewer rights on smaller aircraft
For example, if your aircraft has fewer than 30 seats, the government doesn’t require the airline to compensate you for bumping you from the flight. That lets some of the regional airlines off the hook when they overbook. It used to be worse: the number was recently lowered from 60 passengers, which applied to practically every regional flight.

You don’t have to become the next victim of RJSS. Here are five ways to prevent it.

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1. Avoid smaller aircraft
That’s what Hall-Zientek, who works for a technology company in East Aurora, N.Y., did after her harrowing flight. An experienced traveler, she took note of the make and model of aircraft. “The plane seemed weightless in the sky and was swaying from left to right and bounced up and down before it landed,” he says. “I will never set foot on that aircraft again.” So how do you tell if you’re scheduled to fly on a smaller aircraft? Pay close attention when you’re booking a ticket online. Next to the flight number it should indicate who operates the flight, and what type of aircraft is being used. Bigger is probably better.

2. Fly the majors wherever possible
Not that you won’t experience turbulence and substandard service on a large aircraft operated by a major airline — if you’re a regular reader of this column, you already know that — but it’s less likely. Tim Pottorff, a consultant from Chicago, came to that conclusion after he flew from Chicago to Evansville, Ind., recently. “I boarded the plane and I said ‘hello’ to the flight attendant, who merely grumbled a reply, if that much,” he says. “At the end of the flight, she welcomed everyone to ‘Chicago, wherever you’re going — whatever.’” I can’t promise this will solve your air travel problems but you could avoid the worst of it.

3. If you’re ticketed on a smaller aircraft, do your homework
The rules on a regional airline are different, as reader Eric Cloninger recently discovered while flying from Oklahoma City to San Francisco with his family. They brought a booster seat on the plane, which was allowed under United Airlines’ rules. However, the regional carrier subcontracting with United, SkyWest, blocked them from bringing the seat on the regional jet. “The flight attendant told her she wasn’t flying on United Airlines and the seat had to go,” he says. An argument ensued — with the Cloningers insisting the booster seats were allowed under the rules and flight attendants threatening to call authorities. The family eventually backed down. Adds Cloninger: “We didn’t want to let some air tyrant ruin our vacation.” The only way Cloninger’s wife could have known about the seat policy would have been to phone SkyWest before leaving. There’s no mention of its booster seat policy on its Web site, nor is there any information about the difference in regional carriers on United’s site.

4. Ask about boarding
One of the most common complaints I get about regional airlines in general, and regional jets in particular, involves airport facilities. Like the octogenarian passenger who found a deal on a Comair flight but then realized she would have to climb stairs to board the plane. Which proved difficult, considering she had just had a hip replacement operation. “I do not recall seeing anywhere on the Comair Web site a warning that there would be stairs involved in boarding and deplaning,” she complained. Indeed, there’s no mention of stairs on the Comair site. You would have to phone the airline to ask. That would have been a good idea.

5. Remember the exceptions. Frank Zuccaro, who operated a Federal Aviation Administration-certified aircraft instrument shop for more than two decades, says it would be unfair to paint all those operating regional jets with the same broad brush. In his experience, there are some professional operations such as General Motors Air Transport, “which are, for the most part, extremely conscientious, professional organizations.” But he’s also seen plenty of playing it fast-and-loose with the rules, which typically happens on smaller, commuter airlines. “They attract kids, ex-plumbers, and an assortment of motley characters who are more enamored, it seems, with the title than the occupation,” he adds. Good point.

RJSS isn’t inevitable, as long as you know what to look for, rely on the phone instead of the airline’s Web site and bear in mind that the rules aren’t always evenly applied. For example, you might think flying on a regional carrier would be a good opportunity to avoid certain fees charged by the big airlines.

Not necessarily. Allison Coull recently booked tickets for her son on US Airways operated by regional carrier Mesa Air. When she phoned Mesa, she was told she’d have to pay Mesa’s unaccompanied minor fee. But US Airways insisted that it pay theirs, which is significantly higher, since Coull bought the tickets through its site.

“Basically, US Airways has the most stringent policies and highest fees in the industry for children traveling alone,” says Coull, a homemaker from Royersford, Pa. “The explanation I received was ‘these fees are used to offset fuel costs.’”

Come to think of it, may I should just drop the word ‘regional’ from RJSS.

Every Monday, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. Your comments are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, drop by my blog for daily insights into the world of travel.

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