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Delta to Shrink Its Fleet of Small Jets, Significantly Improve Customer Experience with New Pilot Agreement

This week, Delta accomplished something incredibly rare… it came to a new tentative agreement with its pilots 7 months BEFORE the contract was amendable. How the heck did that happen? Both sides wanted something and there was time pressure for it come together. If the rank and file approve, Delta pilots will get big raises, but most importantly for travelers, the airline will shift to bigger jets with better passenger amenities.

Delta Rare Pilots Agreement

Union contracts in the airline industry are different from most others in that they never expire. Instead, at a certain point they become amendable. This is supposed to avoid disruption in service, but in reality, it’s just an awful process that draws out contracts negotiations over several years. It’s only when the stars align that things get done in a timely manner. But a timely manner would be soon after the contract is amendable, not the 6 months beforehand that we see here. So what’s the story?

There was a unique opportunity on the table for Delta to get a hold of AirTran’s fleet of 717s that Southwest has decided it no longer wants as part of its acquisition. But for Delta to get those airplanes, it had to get the pilots to agree to fly them for a rate that would make this move a smart idea. So there was some urgency for Delta to come to an agreement sooner rather than later to make this work out. Sure enough, the pilots were interested and the deal came together. Let’s talk about what this means for everyone.

Delta Pilots Fly the 717
If this is ratified, Delta will take the 88 717s in the AirTran fleet today. I don’t know the terms, but you know that they’re getting a smoking deal on these aircraft. The Delta pilots will fly the 717s at the same rate they’re paid to fly the DC-9s today. In the last quarterly report, Delta still had 21 DC-9-50 aircraft in the fleet, but those are on their way out to be retired soon. The 717s, which are just a bit shorter, will take over for those DC-9-50s with 110 seats split between First, Economy Comfort, and coach.

50-Seat Regional Jets Slashed by 65 Percent
But that’s not a one for one replacement; there are still an extra 67 airplanes if we do the math. Delta says it wants to keep capacity flat, so what else will happen? The airline will slash and burn the 50 seat regionals. Here’s how Delta lines up with 50 seaters as of the last quarter:

Operator CRJ ERJ Total

Chautauqua 26 26

Comair 30 30

ExpressJet 93 93

Pinnacle 141 141

SkyWest 63 63

TOTAL 327 26 353

That’s 353 of those 50-seaters buzzing around. And you know what the new contract would allow? No more than 125.

Holy cow, that’s a massive decrease. Delta is happy about this because with oil where it is, those 50-seaters are completely uneconomical. The pilots are happy because they get rid of a ton of outsourcing. But wait, we’re still out of balance. Let’s do some math. The DC-9s have 120 passengers, so multiplied by 21 airplanes and you have 2,520 seats. The 717s have 110 seats, so multiplied by 88 airplanes and that adds 9,680 seats. The RJs have 50 seats, so multiply that by 228 airplanes that are going away and you have 11,400. So right now, we’re removing 13,920 seats and adding back only 9,680. What about the rest?

70 More Big Regional Jets
It’s the bigger regional jets that balance this out. At last check, Delta had contracted for 102 aircraft in the 65 to 70 seat range. Those are a mix of CRJ-700s and Embraer 170s. In addition, Delta had contracted for 153 of the 76-seat jets, which are a mix of CRJ-900s and Embraer 175s. As part of this deal, the pilots will allow them to contract for up to 70 more of those 76-seat jets as long as Delta adds new mainline aircraft at a rate of 1.25 to 1. It’s pretty convenient that 1.25 times 70 is … 88 (if we round up), the number of 717s that the airline would acquire.

The Final Tally = Better Customer Experience
That means Delta adds another 5,320 seats, or about a total of 1,000 more seats than it will remove from the fleet. In the end, Delta gets rid of 228 money-losing 50-seaters and the terrible, cramped, single class experience that comes with them. It gains 158 bigger jets with First Class, wifi, and just a bigger more comfortable cabin. This will give Delta a more consistent offering for customers, and it’s going to come at a pretty nice price as well. I’m sure Delta is getting a great deal on the 717s, and all Southwest has to do is push them to the other side of the Atlanta airport.

The Losers
That’s great news for both sides. Who loses? Small cities may potentially lose out. The lucky ones will see fewer flights on bigger airplanes. The unlucky might lose out, but hopefully those 125 50-seaters that remain will be able to keep service to most of those cities, if not all. The other losers here are some of the regionals. I say “some” because some stand to gain 76-seat flying while others will lose. The biggest loser in my opinion is likely to be Delta’s wholly-owned subsidiary Comair. The airline has been shrinking for years, and now it will likely lose half its fleet. (It is the only operator of the older CRJ-100 so those are most likely going away.) This could be the end of that airline entirely, with the remaining big airplanes merged into Pinnacle?

The Rest
So is that everything here? Not quite. The pilots are also getting big pay raises out of this. Over the three-year term, rates will increase by 20 percent, sometime more depending upon the aircraft. Is Delta insane? How the heck is going to pay for that?

Well, buried in the contract somewhere are productivity gains. I don’t know the details on exactly what Delta gets, because those rules are pretty tough to get through. But Delta is going to get better production out of its pilots, and that will help to offset the hourly rate increase. Another offset is a reduction in profit-sharing. As we’ve seen many times before, variable compensation starts to shrink as unions fight for more in base pay.

Wrap Up
In the end, I like this deal as a passenger because the customer experience will dramatically improve. And I like this as someone who watches the industry as well. While I start to hyperventilate when I see such big pay increases, Delta is really getting a lot out of this deal in return. It helps when both sides have goals that align and are motivated to strike a deal. It sure paints a stark contrast to what’s been happening over at United lately. Now, we just have to wait to see if the pilots vote to take it or not.

[If you’d like to read the entire mind-numbing 400+ pages of the agreement, I’ve got an updated version attachedit right here thanks to Holly Hegeman over at PlaneBusiness.]

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