A flurry of moves resembling a game of musical chairs in the US regional airline market means, in simplest terms, that United Airlines is swapping smaller jets for larger jets. But with United’s strict contractual scope clause with mainline pilots, which limits how many larger regional jets can fly for United, the numbers do not seem to add up. How will United Airlines make the CRJ-900 work?
United Airlines Will Add CRJ-900 Via Mesa, But What About Mainline Pilot Scope Clause?
Air Wisconsin is leaving United Airlines and taking its CRJ-200 single-cabin 50-seat jets with it. The Appleton-based airline will begin flying for American Airlines in 2023. Meanwhile, Mesa is leaving American and will fly for United, also starting in 2023. Phoneix-based Mesa will take its fleet of CRJ-900 aircraft currently used for American and presumably fly routes for United using these planes.
I say presumably because there’s quite a difference between the CRJ-200 and CRJ-900 when it comes to United’s contractual agreement with its mainline pilots, known as the “scope clause.” That clause is meant to protect mainline pilots by capping the number of larger regional jets United can utilize with lower-paid regional jet pilots. Under the terms of the scope clause, United currently can use up to 153 76-seat regional jets.
Thus, United faces a number of options.
Option #1: United Is Not Utilizing All Larger Regional Jets Now…The True Problem Is A Pilot Shortage
The most likely explanation is that this is not an issue at all, because the current pilot shortage means United does not have enough pilots now to operate its existing fleet of larger regional jets (divided over Republic, SkyWest, and Mesa).
Mesa simply does not have enough pilots to operate all of its Embraer 175s for United and so while United does not necessarily want to operate the CRJ-900, it will because it needs the pilots and because there are currently so many larger regional aircraft that are not even being utilized that United is not close to breaking the terms of the scope clause.
While United could theoretically move those Mesa pilots from the CRJ-900 to under-utilized Embraer 175s, that would involve costly and timely training. United is likely to operate the CRJ-900.
Option #2: A Grand Bargain Is Coming As Pilots Negotiate For A New Contract
Pilot contract negotiations are ongoing at United and the scope clause is a big deal to pilots and the ALPA union representing them at United Airlines.
That said, might a massive pay increase be offered in exchange for a loosening of the scope clause? Imagine a scenario in which pilots receive a big bump in pay and the guarantee that hundreds of jets are in the mainline pipeline. Might there be a certain threshold in which pilots would permit, as mainline grows, a greater proportional growth in larger regional carriers? The current hard cap at 153 does not make much sense if mainline massively grows. Mainline will need feeder flights, which are often more properly serviced by smaller jets.
Or what about mainline pilots taking over the CRJ-900? That’s very unlikely, but of course pilots do not have a problem with any smaller jets per se; their problem is with the low wages paid to these pilots, which they fear could threaten them if United begins favoring these smaller jets on former mainline routes.
Option #3: A CRJ-555?
United converted a handful of 70-seat CRJ-700 aircraft into a spacious 50-seat configuration it calls the CRJ-550. This was done in order to respect the scope clause, which does not meaningfully cap the number of 50-seat aircraft that can fly under the United Express banner. Might we see more spacious regional jets?
I really don’t think so. The CRJ-550 is already inefficient and carries high operational costs and I cannot see United doing this on the even larger CRJ-900.
Mesa Airlines will being flying CRJ-900 aircraft for United Airlines starting in 2023. While at first blush it may seem impossible for those aircraft to fly under the United Express brand due to contractual limitations with pilots, the regional pilot shortage is real and United simply needs pilots…there are not even enough planes right now to push United to the scope clause limit. Long-term, though, I think any new pilot deal with United will allow additional larger regional jets, which is logical if mainline continues to grow and 50-seat regional jets become more uneconomical.
United sets itself up for both short-term and long-term success by addressing an immediate shortage of regional pilots by taking what it can get, but laying the foundation for a larger fleet or larger regional jets in the future, likely with the blessing of mainline pilots once a new contract is finalized.
image: redlegsfan21 / Flickr