Look for Bigger, More Comfortable Airplanes at United Express

It wasn’t long ago that I was writing about how it was going to get a lot more comfortable to fly on Delta thanks to the retirement of small regional jets in favor of larger airplanes. Now, we’re looking at the same type of transformation at United, with one big caveat.

The United pilots are about to begin voting on a new agreement that would change the landscape of regional operations to look a lot like what we see at Delta today. I’m not kidding. They’ve almost copied the Delta contract entirely in this area. Of course, none of this matters if they shoot down the contract but we’ll know in a couple weeks.

As a traveler, you should be hoping for this to pass because it will mean a better flying experience. Here’s a visual summary:

United Pilot Scope

Now to translate that into English.

At the beginning of this year, United had 555 regional aircraft flying as United Express. Of those, 347 were 50-seat aircraft (ERJ-145, CRJ-200, and Q300 turboprops). On the bigger side, the current count is 183 including the CRJ-700, the EMB-170, and the Q400 turboprop. This makes up the group of what we’ll call 70-seat aircraft. The rest of the fleet is made up of smaller props like the Embraer 120.

In this new agreement, the focus is on 76-seat aircraft. Today, United has no airplanes in the 76-seat range, but that will change in this new contract beginning in 2014. That means the airline can introduce the CRJ-900 or EMB-175 into the fleet.

In 2014, there can be up to 255 regional aircraft with more than 50 seats. The Q400 props are included in that number. Of those, 130 can have 76 seats. In 2016, the total number doesn’t change, but the number that can be 76-seaters goes up from 130 to 153, the same number Delta has today.

So what does this mean? It means that with 183 aircraft in the 70-seat range today, there will be only 72 more big regionals in terms of number of airplanes. But some of the existing 70-seaters can be converted into 76-seaters.

There are also some restrictions on how these airplanes can be used. For example, eighty percent of regional flying has to be under 900 miles. And no more than 5 percent of flying in hub-to-hub markets can be on aircraft operated by regional airlines. United also can’t just start random regional jet hubs since 90 percent of regional flights must be in large United stations.

While there doesn’t seem to be a realistic cap on 50-seaters at this point, that doesn’t mean there won’t be a change. It’s widely expected that United will be reducing that fleet significantly, by well over 100. Restrictions to the 50-seat category don’t kick in until 2016 when the big changes may start to occur. The expectation is, in fact, that we’ll see about 200 of the 50-seaters go away by that point. Thank goodness.

How We Get There
The road here is full of questions. Delta made a deal with its pilots to bring on a fleet of 88 Boeing 717s that it acquired from AirTran. Because Delta brought those airplanes onboard to be flown by Delta pilots, the pilots agreed to allow an additional 70 of the 76-seat aircraft to be operated by regionals.

United doesn’t have a plane operating in that size range, but the pilots want one. And more importantly, the pilots want to be the ones flying the airplane for United instead of a regional carrier. This is an important thing for the pilots because it draws a line in the sand claiming the currently un-served 90-100 seat market as their own. It prevents regional expansion.

So how will they do that? Beginning in 2016, if United adds airplanes flown by its own pilots in the 90-100 seat range, then it will gain the right to add up to 70 more 76-seat regionals, up to 223 total. That would match Delta’s contract. Specifically, these must be either Bombardier CS100s or Embraer 190/195s per the contract.

That is a big “if” since United doesn’t have to add any of these airplanes. If it doesn’t, then it won’t get any more big regional aircraft.

For United to max out its number of 76-seaters at 223, the airline will have to bring on at least 88 of the new 90-100 seaters. At that point, the 70-seaters will be capped at 102. There won’t be a restriction on aircraft smaller than that. Does this sound familiar? It should, because United would look identical to Delta.

The upshot here is that if the contract is approved, we can look forward to a lot fewer 50-seaters and more 76-seaters. And if United so chooses, we’ll see new airplanes in the 90-100 seat range operated by United pilots. That’s good news for everyone, if it happens.

23 Responses to Look for Bigger, More Comfortable Airplanes at United Express

  1. XJT DX says:

    I was wondering if/when the United TA would be addressed. Though the main focus is on UAX now mirroring what Delta Connection will look like, there is at least one other item in the contract that shocked me even more than scope: Letter-of-Agreement #11 (LOA 11).

    LOA 11 is a provision added to the contract which allows for a flowdown of United pilots to UAX carriers flying 70+ seat a/c for United. Per the LOA, United must include the provision in any new agreement signed with a regional partner going forward to allow furloughed UAL pilots to be hired at a rate of 5 pilots per contracted aircraft. Not only is this unprecedented job protection for United pilots, but the fact that there is no flowUP provision for regional pilots will open up a huge can of worms internally and cause a lot of bad blood between mainline and the feeder carriers.

  2. This shows what’s wrong when a company has a union. The company, in this case United can’t do what it thinks is best for the company unless a certain group of workers (the pilots) approve of it. IF they don’t then things stay as is or goes in another direction which may not be good for the whole of the company.

    And before union pilots/members jump on me, I’ve worked for an airline and was in a union so know that yes that helped in a few ways, but was senseless and didn’t help me or the company in other ways.

    • CF says:

      David – If the company had its way, it would probably outsource all flying entirely. Scope (how much the company can outsource) to me is the one area where pilots should hold as firm as possible. Because without scope, they probably end up losing their jobs. Everything else should be negotiable in good faith (you would hope), but if the jobs are gone, then there’s nothing else to discuss.

  3. This looks like a “win-win” solution for all parties.

    • Chicago Chris says:

      I’m not so sure it’s a win for the regional carriers. It looks to me like both United’s and Delta’s contracts come at the expense of the regional and the regional employees.

      • That may not necessarily be true. If UA, DL and US/AA (separately or together) get more 100 seat aircraft, more job opportunities should open up at the mainline (especially with many pilots approaching mandatory retirement). Given the impending retirements along with the possibility of a pilot shortage, the whole issue is probably moot.

  4. Sanjeev M says:

    Why should United be mirroring the DL contract and exact number of airplanes?

    I don’t agree with the notion that 88 90-100 seat airplanes is the right amount for UA. United has different needs. DL plans to use their 717′s on DTW-northeast and medium ATL-southeast markets. UA needs them in Chicago and Houston (where there are way too many 50 seaters), and is possibly the solution for downsizing CLE-northeast appropriately. So I would think UA needs more of these than DL.

    Maybe the economics of the 50 seaters are so bad that UA is willing to put all these restrictions (Interesting choice of 900 miles btw as opposed to DL’s 750).

    • CF says:

      Sanjeev – Unfortunately, that’s how pattern bargaining tends to work. One airline group sets the bar and then that’s the new standard. If United needs more of those airplanes, then it can still get as many as it wants but it won’t open up more outsourcing options.

    • Daniel says:

      There is no correlation in the mileage, United is having 80% of all flying of regionals under 900 miles while Delta has a self-imposed cap of 750 miles for aircraft with only one cabin.

  5. EricInChi says:

    It’s all fine and good until the economic issues that plague the 50 seater class creep into the 75 seat category…then what?

  6. Jimmy says:

    Bigger planes are nice, but won’t this mean a reduction in service frequency in many cities? I’d rather have 3 50-seaters a day than 2 76-seaters.

    • CF says:

      Jimmy – Yes it likely will mean a reduction in frequency. But if they aren’t making money on the 50-seaters at this frequency, something has to give. Better to have fewer frequencies on bigger jets than to have them pull out.

    • XJT DX says:

      Jimmy, While I agree to an extent that 3×50 is better than 2×76, most of the UA reduction can and should come from cities with 5+freq a day, like BTR (9), SBN (7), MSN (10), and so on.

  7. Olamide says:

    I am hope this works out for everyone. I am a regional pilot and am happy to see improvement at mainline what I don’t like though is how us regional pilots come off as being the enemy. I feel tha many of the problems that these airlines find themselves in are do to them not being more inovative and always look to do things better.

  8. Carol says:

    I don’t know about some people, but I would pay a little extra for planes that had a little more space than what they do now.

  9. Ron Lee says:

    I agree Carol. So what if the seats on a 100 seat aircraft are narrow and paper thin like on a 50 seat CRJ?

    One advantage of going to larger aircraft (more seats) is some reduction in airspace/airport congestion.

  10. olamide says:

    I would agree carol erj 145 vs erj170/75 i would pick the 170 everytime and so would the rest of the traveling public. I also hope people will show a little bit mor kindness to the q400 though being a prop will give small markets flights that the jets wont serve economically. I hope i spelled that right.

  11. Leroy says:

    So putting employee/union bashing/corp hating aside. How does this equate to more comfort ? We see the UA 787 are now 9 abreast vs. the Boeing positioned 8 across. How do the CS100′s or E190/195′s impact comfort ?

    • CF says:

      Leroy – I think the key here is that we’re talking about a lot of fifty-seat regional jets going away in favor of the E70/E75/E90/E95/CS100. All are 2-2 across except the CS100 which will be 2-3. But they will have more cabin room and more bin space vs the CRJ. I would expect that would also provider a nicer ride.

  12. Chicago Chris says:

    I second the concerns of regional workers on here. While @DesertGhost points out there may be an opportunity for pilots there are a lot of flight attendants, dispatchers and support staff that work at the regionals. Hopefully these moves mean some of them can find work at mainlines otherwise there will be many companies and employees in trouble.

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