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United order for 70-seat E175s raises questions

United Airlines continues to update its regional fleet with new Embraer 175s, though its pilots are sceptical that the deal is the best option for the carrier.

The Chicago-based carrier will take the 25 E175s valued at $1.1 billion at list prices in 2019, it announced at the Farnborough air show on 16 July. United will take the SC variant, which is configured with 70 seats instead of the US standard of 76 seats.

"The new E175 aircraft will provide our customers with a superior product that offers the latest in onboard amenities and comfort and will be a terrific addition to our fleet," says Gerry Laderman, acting chief financial officer and treasurer of United, on its plan to replace older Bombardier CRJ700s with the new jets.

However, the airline will not benefit from the slight upgauge to 76 seats from 70 at a time of accelerated capacity growth, as it has with its previous E175-for-CRJ700 swaps.

United's scope clause with its pilots limits it to 255 large regional jets with 70-76 seats, including 102 70-seaters and 153 76-seaters.

The carrier declined to comment on the decision to order E175-SCs, which can be reconfigured with more seats in the future, versus standard E175s.

This move has raised eyebrows at United's pilots union, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), just as the two parties begin negotiations of a new labour accord.

"This aircraft is designed to hold over 80 seats and will be flown to outsourced express carriers in the 70-seat configuration," says the United chapter of ALPA. "Revenue plummets and costs skyrocket. Bringing this flying back to mainline United Airlines will lower costs, increase revenue, and allow United to once again control its product.”

The union proposes bringing the largest regional jets in the feeder fleet, the E175s, into the mainline operation. Such a move that would remove seat and maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) limits, allowing them to operate in a configuration for up to 82 passengers. It would also allow the addition of next generation regional jets, like the E175-E2 and Mitsubishi MRJ90, both of which are larger and heavier than the current scope limits of 76 seats and 39t (86,000lb).

United has replaced 70-seat CRJ700s with 76-seat E175s over the past two years. It replaced 38 of the smaller aircraft operated by SkyWest Airlines with the larger jets in 2016, and another 14 in 2017, its annual fleet plans show.

SkyWest operated 20 CRJ700s for United at the end of March. GoJet Airlines operated another 25 aircraft and Mesa Airlines 20 aircraft.

The CRJ700s at Phoenix-based Mesa are due to expire between August and December 2019, it disclosed in an initial public offering filing on 13 July. The airline says it is "in negotiations with United" regarding the aircraft.

United could allow the Mesa CRJ700s to expire and replace them with E175s operated by the regional carrier, which already flies 60 of the larger jets as United Express.

The mainline carrier says it is "in the process of awarding [the E175s] to a regional partner", and declines to comment further on either the CRJ700 removals or E175 additions.

Asked if it would seek the additional E175 flying, SkyWest says it is "continually in conversations with our partners regarding various opportunities".

GoJet and Mesa were not immediately available for comment.

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