Once again, JetBlue ( JBLU) is ahead of the trend in the airline industry -- this time because of its aircraft.

In November 2005, JetBlue began flying the Embraer 190, or E190. The model, designed and manufactured by Brazil-based Embraer ( ERJ), could alter the course of regional jet flying because it provides not only 100-seat capacity but also a once-unavailable quality: comfort. JetBlue flies the plane on two dozen routes from New York's Kennedy and Boston's Logan airports.

"Absolutely it's comfortable," said JetBlue CEO David Neeleman, in an interview. "If you're flying on JetBlue E190s, you have a comfortable, wide seat, the best legroom, big windows and no middle seats." JetBlue's pitch measures 32 inches in front of the exit row and 33 inches behind it.

In 2003, Neeleman said, the carrier sought a smaller aircraft to complement its fleet of 156-seat Airbus A320s. The airline looked at Bombardier's Canadair jets, but "what we saw from Bombardier was the same old thing with a different length," he said. "It just wasn't JetBlue, as far as the customer experience."

"So we went to Embraer and we said, 'Guys, can we do this, and make sure we get the right kind of deal?' and we got a plane built from the ground up, not just a business jet made into a customer jet." Embraer's E-Jet family also includes a 70-seater, but, Neeleman said, "If you can have 100 seats, why take 70? They both have two pilots and two flight attendants." JetBlue has ordered 101 E190s, with options for 100 more.

Cash and Comfort

Aviation consultant Scott Hamilton, who publishes an online newsletter about aircraft makers, said that the E-Jet represents an important step away from 50-seat aircraft. "The 50-seater is a miserable airplane that is torture on a two-hour segment," he said. "The 86-seater is a CRJ-200 with 36 more seats, still a miserable airplane."

Bombardier spokesman Marc Holloran said the marketplace gives the CRJs high marks. "We look at the increasing sales of the CRJ900 with 86 and 90 seats, particularly in Europe, and we see it is finding favor because of comfort in the cabin and its economic performance," he said. "Our customers have conducted their own in-depth studies, and the 900 has come out on top."

Still, the E190 is shaking things up in various ways.

Next month, US Airways ( LCC) will fly its first E190 flight, serving its Philadelphia hub. US Airways has orders for 25 aircraft and options for 32 more. Under agreements with its unions, it can recall crews to staff the E190.

"It's a great airplane and an opportunity for our mainline crews to start flying regional jets," said US Airways President Scott Kirby, in an interview. Although JetBlue was the launch customer for the E190, US Airways was the launch customer for the E-Jet family, just as it was the launch customer for the A320 family.

Mark Hale, Embraer vice president of sales and marketing for North America, said former US Airways CEO David Siegel placed the first order for 70-seat E170s. Eventually, 25 of them ended up being flown by Chautauqua Airlines for US Airways Express. After US Airways was acquired by America West Airlines in 2005, the order was converted to E190s.

JetBlue's E190s are causing price pressures in short-haul business markets served from the New York area. Last week, executives from Continental Airlines ( CAL) said JetBlue pricing at Kennedy is forcing fares lower at LaGuardia Airport, which in turn drives down fares at Continental's Newark hub. "New York market share is very important to us," said Continental CFO Jeff Misner, on a conference call. "We are not going to cede share."

In the 1990s, 50-seaters began to replace turboprops on small-market routes. But it's difficult to "fly three hours plus on that airplane," Hale conceded. The move to bigger regional jets primarily reflects changes in pilot contracts, which place various limitations on the size and number of regional jets flown by legacy carriers. Hale said that pilots increasingly recognize that "the majors are forced to give more routes to regional carriers as low-cost guys put pressure on them." As a result, longer routes become available to regional jets.

From a design viewpoint, an airplane's fuselage must reflect the number of seats, as you "try to optimize the fuselage aerodynamically," Hale said. Fifty-seaters have maximum 6-foot interior heights, which are uncomfortable for many travelers. On E-Jets, with 70 seats or more, maximum ceiling height is 6 feet 7 inches; the airplanes are 9 feet across, and seats and aisles are wider.

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