If ever an airline had nine lives, it’s Air Wisconsin. Somehow, this airline finds itself in the right place at the right time more often than not. Most people think it should have disappeared long ago. This week, it did it again by signing a new agreement to takes its
talents up-to-60 airplanes and pilots from United Express over to American Eagle. This is very bad news for United, and it’s a great coup for American.
The basics of the deal are this. Air Wisconsin’s contract flying CRJ-200s as United Express is up in February of next year. According to ch-aviation, Air Wisconsin owns 64 CRJ aircraft, most of which were delivered in 2000 or later. Now, when that deal ends, American will make Air Wisconsin an American Eagle carrier once again with “up to 60” aircraft flying from March 2023.
This is a remarkable development for an airline that was cast off as dead many times. The transition should be remarkably smooth. The Air Wisconsin network is entirely focused on United’s Chicago/O’Hare hub along with a smaller presence at Washington/Dulles.
American says Air Wisconsin’s fleet will also focus on Chicago/O’Hare flying as American Eagle. This is easy since Air Wisconsin is already set up to run a Chicago-based operation. The airplanes just need to leave Terminal 1/2 one night, go get a paint job, and then park at Terminal 3 the next morning.
The question here is… just how many airplanes will be flying? The “up to 60” wording is confusing, but it also makes sense. Thanks to trouble getting pilots, Air Wisconsin has been flying far fewer than the 64 airplanes it owns. Again looking at ch-aviation, we see that there are 51 active aircraft, but even that is a stretch.
In August, Cirium schedule data shows that if 51 aircraft were operating, they’d only be flying a little under 6 hours per day. This is all because Air Wisconsin just has not been able to source enough pilots. But it has some pilots, and that is the beauty of this deal.
I tweeted about this when the news first came out, and I was surprised by not only the sheer volume of discussion but also the very negative response. Here’s just a sampling to give you a picture.
“AA getting saddled with up to (60!) old & busted CR2s in 2022 and it’s somehow a win?”
“I’m one of the ones who KNOWS you’re wrong Brett. Sorry you can’t accept it.”
“United announced this previously, it’s part of their plan, not a surprise. And the CR2 is straight up trash to fly in, this is a win for United.”
United is officially echoing these comments. A spokesperson gave me this:
This decision is consistent with our United Next growth strategy, where we plan to fly more larger narrowbody aircraft within our domestic network.
I don’t buy it one bit.
Anyone who is focusing on the aircraft itself is completely missing the point. This isn’t about airplanes. This is about pilots.
United has been struggling to maintain its domestic network. It is greatly hamstrung compared to its competitors. Delta has a large fleet of Boeing 717s and Airbus A220s that not only makes it easier to serve smaller markets with mainline airplanes, but that also unlocked an additional 40 aircraft with 76 seats at the regionals as per the pilot contract.
American has it even better. It has limits on the number of 70/76 seat aircraft, but it is effectively allowed unlimited flying up to 65 seats. That’s why we’ve seen such growth from SkyWest using 65-seat CRJ-700s. It’s a unique feature of American’s agreement.
United has the same deal as Delta, but it does not have those small narrowbodies that allow an additional 40 regional aircraft. It has its maximum of 153 aircraft with 76 seats and 102 with 70 seats already in the system — though if those regionals had more pilots, they could better utilize them. Any aircraft growth has to be in the 50-seat and under category or in mainline airplanes. It is taking delivery of large airplanes, but it has struggled to keep 50-seaters flying because there just aren’t enough pilots around right now.
Though United has expressed interest in retiring its smaller 50-seaters in the longer run, it can’t afford to lose a big chunk of them in just a few short months. It is not ready for that, and this is going to be painful. The airline has already ended service to a slew of cities since the pandemic began, some due to SkyWest being unable to support an Essential Air Service contract it had directly the feds and flew under the United Express banner, but others are simply an issue of needing to make hard decisions about where to deploy the limited resources that are available. Here are the cities that have fallen off the map.
And now, losing another at least two to three dozen airplane’s worth of flying means hard choices will again have to be made. No regionals have spare capacity right now to backfill to this extent.
American now inherits this airline as a new partner, and presumably it will continue to fly the CRJ-200s until they can fly no more. But then, if Air Wisconsin still has pilots, there is always the ability to go up to flying 65-seat CRJ-700s. That’s far more economical than the 50-seat CRJ-550s that United would have to operate for growth. I have to imagine United was already talking to Air Wisconsin about that.
Now the question is… just how many pilots can Air Wisconsin secure? Under United Express, Air Wisconsin had been participating in the Aviate program where United was getting pilots to come up through the ranks to eventually fly mainline. That clearly wasn’t getting enough for Air Wisconsin to fully utilize its fleet. You have to wonder if American has struck a deal that will provide massive increases in pay along the lines of what it has put together for its wholly-owned regionals. That could help move the needle.
Even if Air Wisconsin can only maintain the same output as it has today, that is a big swing of capacity away from United and toward American. According to American, it offers 30 percent more origin/destination city pairs than its nearest competitor. This move could help widen the gap. At the very least, it will help add more buffer to keep serving the routes it serves today without disruption.
As for United, well, its regional CommutAir just happened to give massive raises to its pilots the day after this announcement came out. I’m sure that’s no coincidence. I know United wants to grow into bigger airplanes, but it is not ready to replace its 50 seaters yet. This is happening too early, and United is going to suffer.