US mainline carriers have slowly started to envision what their revamped regional fleets will look like, thanks to new scope clauses made possible by new tentative pilot agreements. If each pilot agreement is ratified and reflects current scope clauses at Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and United Airlines, the need for new regional jets at regional carriers could total more than 250 aircraft by 2013.
On 7 December, Delta became the first major US airline to reveal its purchasing plans for these new aircraft types. It ordered 40 76-seat Bombardier CRJ900s with 30 options. The aircraft, due to arrive in the second half of 2013, were added to reflect a scope clause voted on by Delta's pilots in June. That allows for 70 additional 76-seat jets in its fleet as well as 88 Boeing 717-200s, which will replace 218 50-seaters.
Delta is well on its way to implementing its fleet plan at the end of 2012, but its competitors United and American are not far behind. American's pilots ratified a pilot agreement on 7 December that allows the carrier to increase its 66-76-seat aircraft fleet to 25% of the mainline fleet, which amounts to 120 aircraft based on the current fleet size.
United has also discussed plans to restructure its regional fleets with larger aircraft, and would be the last of these three carriers to have pilots ratify a tentative labour agreement. Its pilots have until 15 December to vote on the new contract.
The details of United's tentative scope clause that recently emerged shows that the airline has room for up to 255 large regional aircraft in its fleet by 2016, poising the carrier for a large aircraft order in 2013.
MORE LARGE AIRCRAFT
Like Delta, United would substantially increase the number of larger regional jets in its fleet. The airline would have to park the smaller aircraft if it reached a certain number of larger regional jets. United has the largest 50-seat regional fleet of any mainline carrier.
If United's Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA)-represented pilots ratify a tentative contract this month, it would allow for the airline to have 255 large regional aircraft in its fleet by 1 January 2016. That adds up to 70 more large aircraft outside of the scope of United's regional contracts today. At the same time, this number reflects 100 fewer overall regional aircraft than the airline plans to have in its fleet by end-2012. According to United's own fleet plan, the carrier plans to have 550 regional aircraft in its fleet by the end of the year, flown by its regional partners. Those regional airlines include CommutAir, ExpressJet, SkyWest, GoJet, Trans States, Mesa, Republic and Chautauqua Airlines. Cape Air and Silver Airways have additional codeshare partnerships with United, but those aircraft are not included in its overall regional fleet plan.
United's fleet plan shows that it will operate 168 large regional aircraft by the end of 2012, as shown in the chart below. A majority of these aircraft are 115 Bombardier CRJ700s with up to 66 seats. These are split between three airlines: SkyWest, with the largest agreement for 70 aircraft, GoJet with 25 of the CRJ700s and Mesa Airlines with 20 CRJ700 aircraft.
Republic Airways will operate 15 Bombardier Q400s for United Express by the end of 2012, but that number will increase to 32 by the end of 2013 for a total of 185 large aircraft planned to be in the United fleet by the end of 2013. These aircraft replace 28 Q400s previously that Pinnacle's Colgan subsidiary operated before shutting down in September.
Republic's Shuttle America is the only regional partner in United's Express network to operate a large Embraer regional aircraft. That airline operates 38 of the 70-seat aircraft, which has the most seats out of any aircraft in the regional network.
SHAPING THE SCOPE
The tentative scope clause that United's pilots are voting on allow it to add 70 large regional aircraft to its fleet by 2016. The total of up to 255 regional aircraft is split between 102 70-seaters and 153 76-seaters. Under the tentative agreement, United would have to cap its regional fleet to 450 aircraft.
United has fairly diverse timelines for contract expirations in its regional fleets, as shown in the chart below. For example, United has some contract expirations with ExpressJet and SkyWest coming up as early as 2013, which gives it the flexibility to adapt to a new fleet plan by 2016 by eliminating 50-seaters like the Embraer ERJ-145 if needed. Many of these aircraft were solidified with United and Continental pre-merger and have several different expiration dates, or "tranches".
For instance, more than 200 Embraer 145s under an agreement between ExpressJet and Continental will expire in 2020, but groups of 11 Embraer 145s from a separate agreement will expire in 2013 and 2015.
SkyWest also has agreements for the CRJ700, CRJ200 and Embraer 120 turboprops that expire in tranches starting in 2013 and through 2023. Chautauqua Airlines also has an agreement for 12 of its Embraer 145s that will come due in August 2014.
United plans to end 2012 with 550 aircraft, which is slightly down from the 555 it started the year with. But during the year the airline both added and lost aircraft types due to changes at the regional carriers. It should be noted that the exact number of smaller aircraft in the fleet may differ when comparing the airline agreements and total number of aircraft in operation.
The biggest cause of change for United's fleet profile is reflected in the shutdown of Pinnacle Airlines' subsidiary Colgan, which operated its last flight for United Express on 5 September. In early 2011, the regional was feeding 28 Bombardier Q400 aircraft into the United Express fleet. Shortly after, Pinnacle filed for bankruptcy protection on 1 April and announced it would cease all turboprop flying for United Express by November 2012.
Republic then agreed to fly 32 Q400s for United, including 28 from Colgan and the rest from its Frontier subsidiary. United will have added 15 of the aircraft back into its fleet by the end of the year, adding the remaining aircraft to its fleet through 2013.
Pinnacle's Colgan subsidiary also operated 25 Saab 340B aircraft for United before it shut down, which have all been removed from United's regional fleet.
United did add aircraft back into its system throughout 2012. For example, the carrier added seven Embraer 135s, an aircraft type absent from its fleet at the start of 2011. These are contracted under a short-term agreement with ExpressJet. As of the third quarter, Chautauqua also extended its agreement with United to include four more ERJ-145 aircraft as of the third quarter.
United also recorded a reduction of four Bombardier CRJ200 regional jets during the year and an addition of seven ERJ-145 aircraft.
||Date agreement ends|
|Trans States Airlines
* SkyWest's agreements expire in tranches of different numbers of aircraft between 2013 and 2023. In October 2012, United said in an updated fleet plan that it plans to operate 9 Embraer 120s and only 75 CRJ-200s by the end of the year, so the number of aircraft in operation have changed.
^ 206 of ExpressJet's ERJ-145s expire in 2020 as part of an agreement struck with Continental in November 2010. Under the United CPA, fourteen that were to expire in 2012 were renewed, 11 expire in 2013 and terms come due for 11 more in 2015. United’s latest fleet report shows it plans to operate 270 ERJ-145s across all carriers by the end of 2012.
~ United will have 15 Q400s in its fleet at the end of 2012. The remaining aircraft will be delivered throughout 2013.