The gamble that

Comair

(COMR)

took six years ago was generally perceived in the airline industry as unwise and even laughable.

Like other commuter airlines, Comair flew the prop and turboprop planes that are known as puddle-jumpers, especially to the business travelers who so frequently fly them. But in 1993 Comair bought its first 50-seat regional jets, a couple of sleek-looking planes called Canadairs made by

Bombardier Aerospace

(BBD.A:Toronto) of Canada.

"Our competitors and a lot of analysts in the industry just sat back and watched us, thinking we we're going to fail with this grand experiment," says Meghan Glynn, Comair's communications director.

"Wall Street said we were crazy. But we knew it would work, and we made money that first month. Simply put," Glynn says, "people just prefer jets."

They certainly do -- and for good reason.

Comair, which Raymond Mueller and his son David founded in 1977 with three small prop planes, saw passenger traffic triple from 1994 to 1998. It also saw revenue jump to $763.3 million in 1998 from $296.6 million in 1994, the year after the first regional jets were purchased.

Comair, with the cooperation of its once-skeptical peers, has lifted its glass, perhaps a bit early, to toast the end of the prop-plane era. It is a toast every flier should eagerly join: Regional jets not only offer more comfortable rides but also open new routes to fliers who want to travel by jet.

'No Comparison'

Puddle-jumpers, with their loud propellers, often bumpy rides and cramped cabins, are notorious for churning stomachs, fraying nerves and causing headaches for passengers. By contrast, regional jets are smoother, faster and larger, with just two seats on either side of the aisle.

"There's no comparison," says Keith Daniels, 39, who lives in California, Ky., and frequently flies Comair to Florida as a fleet manager for

Cincinnati Bell

. "I've flown a lot of

turboprop planes on Comair, but I love the jets. You can't beat them. You feel like you're on a regular jet when you're on one of their smaller jets."

Michael Linenberg, an airline industry stock analyst with

Merrill Lynch

in New York, says passengers prefer jets because they are viewed as safer than turboprop planes.

"You ask nine out of 10 people, and nine are going to say they prefer flying a jet," he says. "People look out the window and they're a little less comfortable when they see those propellers spinning around."

There is no evidence that jets are safer than turboprops, "but that's the perception, and that means a lot," Linenberg says. Regional jets are also good at opening business for those who prefer flying jets to so-called second and third-tier cities, places like Evansville, Ind., Appleton, Wisc., and Tri-Cities, Tenn.

The jets can also fly much farther, as far as 1,500 miles before making a stop, compared with about 500 miles for a turboprop.

Follow the Leader

Competitors grudgingly admit that Comair's success has spurred them to invest heavily in the regional jet market.

"Folks saw that Comair was succeeding with regional jets, and other airlines started to follow," says Elizabeth Ninomiya, a spokeswoman for

American Eagle

, the commuter airline subsidiary of

AMR's

(AMR)

American Airlines

.

American Eagle, based in Chicago, now has 27 regional jets in its fleet of 217 planes. But it has ordered a total of 67 jets and is putting them into service at a rate of about two a month.

Other major and regional carriers, including

US Airways

(U)

,

Continental Airlines'

(CAIB)

Continental Express

,

Mesaba Holdings'

(MAIR)

Mesaba Airlines

,

Delta Air Lines

(DAL) - Get Report

and

UAL's

(UAL) - Get Report

United Airlines

, have followed suit and purchased regional jets.

Comair has also continued to expand aggressively. The airline, which has 295 flights to 85 cities daily out of Cincinnati, now boasts the largest fleet of regional jets in the world at 76, with another 50 on order. By 2001, Comair will no longer fly turboprops.

Detractors at the Controls

But while passengers love the small jets, pilots' unions don't. Pilots flying regional jets aren't paid as well as those who fly the larger planes. So the unions and the large aircraft pilots, which mockingly call regionals "Barbie Jets," are chronically spooked about the airlines using regional jets on more routes to save money.

The Delta Air Lines Pilots Association filed a suit in federal court on April 23 to prevent the airline from allowing Comair and its regional jets to fly between Washington and Boston, starting June 1. (The issue has been a sticking point in airline industry labor disputes in the past, including the 1997 American Airlines strike.)

Merrill Lynch's Linenberg calls the union's concerns "posturing" -- and he's right.

The pilots should stop whining about the proliferation of regional jets (and focus their energy on pay, if they want). The airline business is, after all, a service business. Increased access, speedier flights and rides that allow fliers to keep their lunches down count for a lot. Besides, fliers pay extra for the regional jet service, which Merrill Lynch's Linenberg points out is expensive to operate. (The per-seat cost -- an airline-industry standard of determining costs and profits -- on 37- and 50-seat regional jets is "higher than any other jet aircraft, with the exception of the

Concorde

," Linenberg says.)

A New Standard

Linenberg says regional jets won't totally replace props, at least for a while.

But Traveling With Wings is less optimistic about the future of the prop plane in the U.S.

With the number of regional jets in service building steadily, there is at least a good chance that passengers who pay attention to the white-knuckle factor and who need speed and wide access will stop patronizing airlines that fly props. (Already, there is the "turboprop avoidance" factor, according to several experts, including Robert Mann of airline consulting firm

R.W. Mann

.) It only seems reasonable, especially if you need to concentrate on business.

So, a toast to Comair -- for starting a trend that is seriously improving the lives of business fliers, for starters.

Patrick Crowley is a political reporter and columnist for The Cincinnati Enquirer. At time of publication, he had no position in the stocks mentioned, although positions can change at any time. Crowley can be reached at

crowleys@cinci.infi.net.