For ExpressJet and CommutAir, the stakes are high. United Airlines has said it will only renew a contract with one, not both United Express carriers. That means only one company will likely survive.
United Airlines Will Reduce Regional Flights, Consolidate United Express Carriers
United Airlines owns a minority stake in both ExpressJet and CommutAir. Over the years, it has used both carriers to operate 50-seat Embraer E-145 jets to feed the United mainline network. But with COVID-19 fundamentally changing the airline industry, United plans to maintain ties with ExpressJet or CommutAir, but not both.
United refused to provide more details, but told Reuters that the pandemic will “impact” the relationship with its regional partners:
“We’ve been clear for months now that we expect to be a smaller airline in response to the historic impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on our business. That means we’ve cut our schedules and our costs across the operation – and we do anticipate it will continue to impact the relationships we have with our regional partners.”
It is not clear when or how the decision will be made between the two carriers.
ExpressJet Or CommutAir?
While ExpressJet has the larger fleet (95 versus 37 aircraft), CommutAir has a lower cost structure. That has worried ExpressJet pilots, whose union leader told pilots:
“While ExpressJet offers many attributes that make us an attractive long-term partner, cost has reared its ugly head once again and we have been asked by our management team to close the gap between our costs and those at CommutAir.”
ExpressJet lost its contract with Delta Air Lines in 2018 and American Airlines in 2019, in part because of United Airlines’ closer relationship.
United offers both CommutAir and ExpressJet pilots a fast-tracked first officer mainline hiring program, but with the surplus in pilots (and furloughs looming) there will be no further hiring at this time.
Dark days for CommutAir and ExpressJet. Since both partner exclusively with United, only one will likely survive. And United’s strategic announcement now will likely put them in a bidding war, meaning that the pilots and flight attendants who prevail may well end up with lower wages and harsher working conditions. Welcome to the pandemic era of aviation.