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
The best short answer: just pull out chairs from the crj990 and create a larger mini version of the CRJ550 under the current clauses. Win-win for everyone. Customers love it, pilots love it and UA keeps flying. IMO United need’s its regional jets and pilots. Those sub fleets are the seedlings needed for the nursery of pilots to create the pipeline to feed all the mainline jets with crews. It doesn’t sound such a bad idea all in all.
They can’t do that with the current clauses, they’re not only seat based but weight based as well.
But wait, is this even confirmed, is this even happening . Just read United is offering no comment response, tight lipped. Might just be something Mesa is trying to spin for PR reasons. They’re saying they’ll keep their “domiciles “ both at DFW and PHX?? I’m assuming they just mean pilots? Then, they said they were rotating everything to both IAH and DEN, how?? So just shutting down both DFW and PHX, no more flying out of there? It’s all really far fetched and confusing honestly.
It is pretty confusing and doesn’t all make sense, but I have heard it is confirmed from a few friends who work at United. All they said is they will be entering the fleet before the summer, no other details are really known at this time.
Btw – great to see you talking some sense into those AA “loyalists” on another blog! The future of their airline is awful.
Ohh Hahahaha, Hi Jared, it hasn’t been an easy task , it’s literally like navigating a moat full of crocs…but hey, one person one mind at a time lol!!
United’s scope clause has a MTOW limit of 86,000 pounds for 70/76 seat aircraft. The CRJ-900 is typically 84,500 lbs. So seats would need to come off, but as long as they have headroom on 70/76 seat flying, the -900s can substitute for E175 aircraft.
Other than the few Mesa CR9s running around with 79 seats, reconfiguration wouldn’t be an issue, as the rest have 76 or fewer seats. The real issue would be where they subtract other 76 seater to keep under the scope number of 76 seaters.
They need the CR7s performance in a few markets, so I doubt those go away, unless they think the CR9 can take over Aspen and the like
RJ’s should be flown with mainline crews. ALPA should make a scale that makes sense for all, and claim those jobs.
ALPA-UA gets more control, more visibility, more dues, and more Fraternity members.
Yes, United should fly all of its aircraft. Letting regionals have the United name on the side has not been good from a service standpoint. With regional airline pay skyrocketing over the last few years, it makes even more sense for United to fly regional-size aircraft. If Kirby really wants happy and motivated employees, this is a step in the right direction and I think it will pay off for UA in the long run.
not sure on this. the United FA’s that I know personally would hate to fly on a regional jet and they try to avoid ever stepping foot on one
Disagree, 90% of the time regional FA’s, especially in First Class, are better than maineline on all 3 of the majors.
Airline executives are insane if they sign any contract with any restrictions on the amount or type of planes they fly. Foul executives in the past made the mistake of signing a contract with these provisions and dimwitted executives keep re-signing contracts instead of saying no. Airlines are perpetually near bankruptcy because of ridiculous union constraints. Executives should man up and not sign any agreement with these stipulations. Let the pilots strike but don’t give in. Enough is enough.
The issue is not that the UA pilots are constraining which aircraft UA can fly. The issue is UA wants to continue to outsource their product to other airlines under the UA Express banner. UA pilots want UA to put whatever equipment it wants on whatever route it wants. The stipulation is that UA pilots would fly said equipment and not outsource pilot jobs.
AC’s CRJ-900 aircraft used to fly as CRJ-705, a 75-seat variant due to their pilots’ scope clause. Since that type already has a FAA certificate, I assume it is easy for UA to do the same and at least stay below 76 seats.
Airline managers at all levels are insane if they think there will be any giveback in mainline pilot scope restrictions. There is no greater issue at the heart of protecting the profession than limiting outsourcing. You can offer pilots a 100% raise, but if the price of that increase is outsourcing the job they currently hold to earn it, what’s the point? United pilots just voted down their last TA by 94% and one of the largest reasons was a minor scope giveback compared to what is being proposed in the article above. Any such talk is DOA.
Appreciate your comment. But there’s a big leap between the CRJ-900 and, say, an A319, right? When did mainline ever pilot 100-seat jets? Now the A220 would be a huge dilemma…but let’s just say there is a 90-seat or 100-seat “regional” jet. What is the harm in letting Express fly that if United has ordered 500 mainline jets, many of which will add to the fleet, not simply replace aircraft that will be retired? Doesn’t a larger airline need more feeder flights as well?
Until the large RJs arrived in the early 2000s, 100-seat mainline aircraft were pretty common. RJs displaced swaths of small mainline jets (DC-9s, F100s, 737-200, …) and their crews during the post-9/11 travel slump and bankruptcies, but some small mainline equipment survived.
American operated a small fleet of 99-seat E190s as mainline until 2020 (a legacy of US Airway’s MidAtlantic Airways scheme). United flew 104-seat 737-500s until 2009; 500s returned to the fleet courtesy of Continental and flew with 114 seats until 2013. Northwest’s venerable fleet of 51 DC9-30s with 100 seats and 12 DC-40s with 110 seats flew for Delta until 2011. Before that, Delta flew 107-seat 737-200s until 2006, and American flew 87-seat F100s until 2004.
Good comment. Thanks.
Matthew, I’m a bit surprised to have to explain this to someone with your self-reported professional bio, but to answer your “When did mainline ever pilot 100-seat jets?” question, I’ll direct you to the google machine and ask you to type in “DC-9” for an industry-wide example, or in a case more specific to United Airlines, “737-200”.
But that goes back over 20 years (737-200). I guess the 737-500 was only a little more than a decade ago.
Delta has operated the 717 with 110 seats since 2013. They’ve also operated the 109 seat A220-100 since 2018. Both these airframes are flown by Delta pilots.
Doesn’t AA fly the E-195 as mainline?
think it’s American Eagle only. I know a few AA FA’s, too and have never seen them on a regional jet in anything they post
Given that it is now after close of business on Monday and UA hasn’t said a word and the pilots’ union Facebook page says they don’t know anything about it, I think it’s safe to say there’s more to this story.
Not happy….don’t like CRJs nor ERJs. Rode many in and out of SWF.
These started life as executive jets, then morphed into regional jets crammed with paying PAX.
……”Bah humbug!!!” …….
After what happened in ‘97, 2000, and 2005 (Whiteford letter) – there’s very little appetite for any type of scope give no matter the overall package.
Add to that the disgusting scope tidbit from the failed TA (a **4700lb** weight increase on the CRJ-550 for “jumpseaters”) and that ship has sailed.
Scope restrictions are there for a reason. UAL went absolutely bonkers for over a decade where over 50% of their daily domestic departures were RJ’s. People hate RJ’s. I hate RJ’s. Sure, the 170 is okay, but it’s still crippled from a service and infrastructure standpoint. You get what you pay for, and the flying public shouldn’t receive lesser service just because UAX is painted on the side of the airplane.
I wouldn’t count on any of these airplanes appearing unless they do 1 for 1 trades with other 70/76 seaters. Said another way, there is zero chance these -900’s get added to the fleet without removing other RJ’s first.
The wild card is the addition of a “small narrow body” jet, like the E195 or A220-100. If something in that category was added to UAL’s fleet, it “unlocks” additional 70/76 seat aircraft on a pro rata basis.
This seemed likely back in … 2017? Seems to have died on the vine, though.
I prefer E170/175’s to any other narrow body flight. No middle seats, better chance at upgrades and single aisle side in first class. E170/175 flights are far better than 737/A320 domestic flights.
There’s also a clause in their current pilot contract that increases the cap on 76 seat regionals if they add small mainline narrowbody planes. Even if they don’t get scope clause relief in the upcoming negotiations, they could buy some A220s or E195-E2s.