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Bombardier and Embraer spar over 50-seater replacement

Bombardier and Embraer have differing views on how to replace the aging 50-seat regional jet fleet around the world.

Montreal-based Bombardier launched the CRJ550, a re-certified variant of the CRJ700 with 50 seats to allow for the addition of a premium product, as a replacement in February, while Embraer insists that the marketplace needs a new technology aircraft.

"The CRJ550 is the 50-seater replacement," said Ross Mitchell, vice-president of commercial operations at Bombardier, touting the flexibility of the CRJ family at the ISTAT Americas conference in Orlando on 12 March.

The Canadian airframer launched the CRJ550 with United Airlines, whose regional partner GoJet Airlines will initially operate 50 of the aircraft for the Chicago-based carrier. The aircraft will be configured with 10 first class, 20 extra-legroom economy and 20 economy seats.

Scott Kirby, president of United, said earlier in March that the economics Bombardier laid out to the airline work. While unit costs for the aircraft will be higher than for 50-seat regional jets, the unit revenue increase will be greater, he said.

"I was a sceptic… but turns out [Bombardier] could make the economics work," said Kirby.

Embraer, however, views the CRJ500 as a temporary solution to the 50-seat jet replacement problem.

"It can be a temporary fix for pre-owned aircraft," said Rodrigo Silva e Souza, vice-president of marketing at Embraer Commercial Aircraft, at ISTAT Americas. "As a definitive solution for the 50-seaters, we believe it must be a new technology, a new development."

No airframer, including Bombardier and Embraer, offer a new technology replacement for 50-seat jets, adds Souza.

There are 1,486 50-seat regional jets, including Bombardier CRJ200s and Embraer ERJ-145s, in service globally, Cirium's Fleets Analyzer shows. Of those, 863 are operated by carriers in North America where the likes of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United are looking for replacement options.

United's decision to add the CRJ500 was driven by a need to offer a premium product in smaller markets where it operates all-economy 50-seat jets coupled with the scope clause in its pilots contract that limits its large dual-class regional jet fleet to 255 aircraft. American and Delta can both operate more larger two-class models.

While United's messaging indicates confidence that the CRJ550 could replace its 50-seat jet in the future, airline executives tell FlightGlobal that the economics look good on paper but still need to be proven in day-to-day operation.

The carrier plans to introduce its first CRJ550 this summer on flights from Chicago O'Hare.

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