Updated on 8 February to include comments from Embraer.

Bombardier said its decision to certify a 50-seat variant of its 70-seat CRJ700 reflects the intricacies of US airlines' pilot contracts and an expectation that carriers must soon replace hundreds of older 50-seat jets.

The Montreal-based company is now working on certifying the variant, which it calls the CRJ550, and United Airlines will be the first carrier to operate the type, Bombardier and United said on 6 February.

United plans to operate 50 CRJ550s, all of which will be converted to the new derivative from used CRJ700s.

The CRJ550 will have a maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) of 65,000lb (29,500kg) – 10,000lb less than the CRJ700, notes the Air Line Pilots Association International (ALPA), which represents United's pilots. That MTOW reduction will enable the CRJ550, once certified, to meet the definition of a 50-seat jet under the terms of United's contract with pilots, ALPA notes.

"In order to be in compliance with the United pilot agreement, the CRJ550 will instead be configured with 50 seats in a two-class cabin and certified to a maximum takeoff weight of 65,000 pounds," says ALPA.

Bombardier expects the CRJ550 will receive certification within the second half of 2019, it says. Even with reduced MTOW, the CRJ550 will retain the capabilities of a 50-seat jet, Antoine Chereau, Bombardier director of Americas marketing, tells FlightGlobal.

Fred Cromer, Bombardier president of commercial aircraft, calls the CRJ550 "the only solution in North America" capable of replacing more than 700 50-seaters.

Indeed, US regional airlines operate 738 CRJ100/200s and Embraer 145s, most flown for major US carriers American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, according to Flight Fleets Analyzer. Those aircraft have an average age of 16 years and have completed an average of roughly 30,000 flight cycles each, data shows.

Replacement options are limited largely because no 50-seat jets have been in production since Bombardier and Embraer shifted to manufacturing larger jets more than a decade ago.

The idea to create a 50-seater by taking seats out of a larger aircraft is not new, but has been complicated by so-called scope closes in pilot contracts.

Those clauses define the types and number of regional aircraft that major carriers' partners can operate – hence United's 65,000lb MTOW limit for 50-seat jets.

The CRJ700 is best suited – at least among competing large regional aircraft – to fly as a 50-seater due to its relatively light takeoff weight, Chereau says.

"The CRJ is the lightest in its category," he says.

Bombardier has not disclosed specific sales forecasts, but views the CRJ550 as a "first step" toward a potential bump in CRJ demand.

In addition to selling new CRJ550s, Bombardier expects demand for replacement CRJ700s will increase as airlines like United convert old CRJ700s into the new 50-seat variant, says Chereau.

United's pilot union generally supports development of the CRJ550, noting it will replace 50-seat jets that customers "disdain" for being cramped.

But ALPA questions the move's long-term economic viability.

"The verdict on whether this product is a short-term band aid or a long-term solution will hinge on the company's ability to adequately make up for the revenue lost due to the removal of 20 seats," ALPA says.

Embraer also sees demand for replacements of 50-seat jets, but believes used aircraft – including E170s – will fill the need, not new aircraft.

It also estimates demand for 50-seat jet replacements to be substantially less than the 700-plus figure cited by Bombardier.

Embraer notes American Airlines' pilot contract defines small jets more broadly, as having 50-76 seats and MTOW up to 86,000lb.

As a result, American can replace 50-seaters with larger aircraft like 76-seaters, says Embraer.

American's regional partners operate about 150 50-seat jets, Fleets Analyzer shows.

The bulk of the remaining US-operated small jets fly for United and Delta -- both subject to the 65,000lb MTOW limit.

But used aircraft could replace half those aircraft, leaving little demand for new 50-seaters, Embraer says.

"As airlines continue to buy new E175 to replace older 70-seaters (E170 and CRJ700), those will become available in the market for very attractive prices," says Embraer. The company says a 50-seat E170 has a wider cabin than a CRJ and can, even when limited to a 65,000lb MTOW, perform missions flown by dedicated 50-seat jets.

The Brazilian company is discussing new-technology options with airlines but has not reached conclusions, it says.

"In the long term we believe there will be more efficient solutions to address this market," Embraer says.

Story also updated 7 February to note that Bombardier expects CRJ550 certification within the second half of 2019. Bombardier says pilots' existing CRJ700 type rating will permit them to fly CRJ550s.

Source: Cirium Dashboard