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.

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