Make no mistake, the decision by United Airlines to terminate its regional contract with Air Wisconsin was deliberate, strategic, and will ultimately serve the long-term growth goals of the carrier.
Why United Airlines Dumped Air Wisconsin And Why American Airlines May Gain Little From Its New Regional Partner
In short, United Airlines announced it would not renew its regional jet contract with Air Wisconsin. Shortly thereafter, Air Wisconsin announced a new partnership with American Airlines. Air Wisconsin will fly CRJ-200 aircraft for AA from its Chicago (ORD) hub.
Brett Snyder (CrankyFlyer) heralds this move as a victory for American Airlines, arguing, “This isn’t about airplanes. This is about pilots.” He asserts that American will benefit because it will force United to cancel routes and with pay increases, American Airlines can retain pilots at Air Wisconsin.
I often agree with Snyder, but like View From The Wing, think his analysis is faulty here. Snyder makes a huge presumption in concluding that Air Wisconsin pilots will stay onboard. Quite the contrary, I think they will pivot to the “big leagues” as quickly as possible…which is exactly part of United’s plan.
Think about it. Air Wisconsin pulls pilots from United’s Aviate Academy. These young men and women were being metered to United and had to “put in their time” at a regional like Air Wisconsin before actually becoming United pilots. With United’s pivot to more mainline aircraft and a need for more pilots, many of these young pilots can go immediately to mainline, bypassing regional flying altogether.
Did you know that the qualifications for joining the United mainline pilot team are 1,000 hours of fixed wing turbine time and 1,500 hours of total flying time, which is only slightly more turbine time than most regional airlines require to become pilots? As long as United maintains strict quality control over its pilot candidates, it will have access to a larger pool of candidates than will carriers like American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and Southwest Airlines which currently require more time (budget carriers like Frontier, JetBlue, and Spirit require similar levels as United).
How will this look practically? In the short term, I do expect United to stop serving some smaller destinations, certainly be a loss for those flyers (CRJ-200 service is better than no service at all). American Airlines will have a niche in serving more destinations.
But even that remains to be seen. Already, Air Wisconsin has been unable to utilize its entire fleet because it does not have enough pilots. With United highly likely to siphon more pilots away, I expect Air Wisconsin will experience further trouble trying to serve routes in an operationally efficient manner.
The writing has been on the wall since 2019 with Air Wisconsin. Its operational performance was not meeting expectations even before COVID-19 and United Next now lays out a new set of goals and priorities, with a much greater focus on mainline flying. Those dated, uncomfortable airplanes (and frankly their higher operating costs on a per-seat basis) have no home under United Express.
I think few would disagree that United’s long-term strategy of refreshing its fleet and focusing on mainline and larger regional jets over small ones will be favored by passengers and pay dividends. I also don’t think the move to dump Air Wisoncin undermines United’s important status as a network carrier. The question is what will happen in the short term. I think Snyder is wrong and that United is not acting too quickly. Quite the contrary, I think United will leverage the dumping of Air Wisconsin to build a formidable reserve of mainline pilots, which will propel growth in both large and small cities for years to come.
image: Air Wisconsin