ANALYSIS: American flatters Delta with E-175 upgauging

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American Airlines will use its new Embraer 175s to, by and large, add capacity on existing routes when flights begin on 1 August.

The new Republic Airlines-operated regional jets will be based at Chicago O'Hare and initially fly to Albuquerque, New Orleans and Pittsburgh followed by Kansas City, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Toronto and Washington National on 27 August. Houston Intercontinental, Newark, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City and San Antonio flights from the windy city will be added on 1 October.

The 76-seat E-175s will boost capacity on all but two - Minneapolis-St. Paul and Washington National - of the 12 routes, according to American's flight schedules.

American Airlines, capacity on launch day and one week before

The capacity increases are a departure from American's earlier argument for why it needed the additional small jets. During court hearings on its motion to reject its pilots contract in May 2012, the carrier said that it was at a competitive disadvantage because it had to schedule 140-seat McDonnell Douglas MD-80s on flights out of Chicago during both peak and off-peak times while its competitor United Airlines had the flexibility to schedule 66- to 70-seat regional jets during off-peak periods and mainline aircraft during the peak.

This limited American's ability to "raise unit revenues by matching supply with demand", the airline said.

The large regional aircraft would be used to optimise its fleet by both by upgauging and downgauging certain routes but with the emphasis on replacing mainline capacity, said executives at American at the time.

"Larger RJs [regional jets] have lower per departure costs than our 140-seat MD-80s, which enables us to offer a better schedule without increasing capacity, since each larger RJ has far fewer seats than an MD-80," the airline said in an employee newsletter that May. "With this superior frequency pattern, American can earn higher yields because we can better schedule flights at times when customers are most willing to pay higher fares."

The airline's previous pilots contract limited the number of large regional jets to 47 63-seat Bombardier CRJ700s. The bankruptcy court allowed the airline to reject the agreement in September 2012.

"Of course schedule patterns are dynamic, as competition changes the optimal American schedule changes," says Robert Mann, an airline industry analyst at RW Mann & Company, on the airline's decision to use the E-175s to add capacity on routes.

Things have certainly changed.

"The debtors [American] plan to accelerate the retirement of smaller regional aircraft - those with 50 seats or less - thereby increasing their ability to acquire a significant number of larger regional jets with 51 to 76 seats," American says in its reorganisation plan that was filed with the bankruptcy court on 15 April. This is needed to "improve their competitive position", it says.

American will remove 11 37-seat Embraer ERJ-135s and three 44-seat ERJ-140s from its regional fleet during the second half. The capacity will likely be backfilled by the larger regional aircraft, including the 50-seat Embraer ERJ-145 and 63-seat Bombardier CRJ700, which will be displaced as the E-175s enter the fleet.

The carrier will have four E-175s in its fleet at the end of the third quarter and 15 by the end of the year, it says.

American is removing 10 ERJ-135s and replacing them with 11 50-seat Bombardier CRJ200s during the first half. ExpressJet Airlines will operate the CRJ200s.

"The fact is in a lot of those 50-seat markets they have outgrown 50-seaters and they are being upgauged," says Michael Boyd, chairman of the Boyd Group International, citing markets out of American's O'Hare hub and Delta Air Lines' Detroit hub. He says that the same applies to the CRJ700s that American will be replacing with E-175s.

Boyd adds: "What they're doing is upgrading markets to higher capacity and mainline type service. [The E-175] is a mainline jet that has 76-seats."

American's move is a page out of Delta's playbook. The Atlanta-based carrier's pilots ratified a new contract in June 2012 that allowed it to add 70 large regional jets and 88 small mainline aircraft in exchange for cutting the number of 50-seat jets to about 125 from roughly 340 at the time. It has since ordered 70 76-seat Bombardier CRJ900s and leased 88 110-seat Boeing 717-200s from Southwest Airlines.

The decision is far from surprising. Executives at United and US Airways have commented publicly that they too would like to reduce the number of small regional aircraft in their respective fleets in exchange for larger small jets over time.

Bombardier and Embraer both expect new orders from US carriers during the next few years as the country's regional airline industry refleets with larger aircraft.

Mann says that American has so many aircraft coming in and going out of its fleet that it is hard to see the scheduling decisions for the E-175s as an overall move to add capacity. He reiterates the comments by executives at American regarding optimising the fleet, noting that this means a greater flexibility of aircraft types and not just adding or cutting capacity.

American outlined plans to remove 90 mainline and regional aircraft, and add 70 aircraft this year, in January. These did not include the E-175s, which were announced later that month.

American Airlines

American has the opportunity to continue to upgauge its regional fleet. Another 32 E-175s will enter service in 2014 and 2015, which allows for the retirement of at least an equal number of small jets - likely ERJ-140s - if it so chose.

The proposed merger with US Airways increases the likelihood of further refleeting. Doug Parker, chairman and chief executive of the airline and future chief executive of the combined American and US Airways, said in July 2012 that he would like "some larger regional jets to offset some of those 50-seaters" - a sentiment that will undoubtedly be carried over through the merger.

The memorandum of understanding between American, US Airways and their respective pilots unions in December, allows for regional aircraft to total 75% of the airlines' combined narrowbody fleet with aircraft with 66- to 76-seats limited to 25% of the said fleet. The 38 Bombardier CRJ900s and 38 Embraer 175s in the US Airways Express fleet at the end of 2012 would be exempt from the restrictions.

This would allow the new airline to have up to 599 regional aircraft and 200 large regional aircraft, based on a projected combined narrowbody fleet of 798 aircraft at the end of the year. American and US Airways plan to have 372 regional aircraft with 50-seats or less and 105 aircraft with 66- to 76-seats, excluding the exempted aircraft, at this time.

"The regional jet era is over, and this is just one more indication of this," says Boyd.