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United pilots union opposes more large jets at regional partners

Pilots at United Airlines are striking back at the carrier's push to add more large regional jets at its partners, arguing that growth targets can be met within existing limits.

"[United] doesn’t need scope relief and has the ability to accomplish our growth strategy today," said Todd Insler, chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) United master executive council, in a letter to pilots on 13 March.

United can add more large regional jets to its fleet if they are flown by mainline pilots, or if it adds a new small mainline aircraft, he says.

The comments come as executives at Chicago-based United continue to push for the ability to add more 76-seat aircraft, like the Embraer 175, at regional partners. The two-class aircraft are needed for the airline to be competitive in smaller markets against the likes of American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, executives say.

"We, today, do have a disadvantage," said Scott Kirby, president of United, at a JP Morgan conference on 13 March. "We have less scope ability, less 76-seat aircraft than either Delta or American."

The carrier's contract with pilots limits it to 255 large regional jets, or those with 70 to 76 seats. American's large regional jet fleet, or aircraft with 66- to 76-seats, is capped at 40% of its mainline narrowbody fleet – or about 320 large regional aircraft at the end of 2017 – and Delta's up to 325 aircraft split between 102 with 51- to 70-seats and 223 with 71- to 76-seats.

However, United does have the option to add up 65 more 76-seat jets to its feeder fleet in exchange for the addition of a new small mainline narrowbody, like the Bombardier CSeries or Embraer E-Jet-E2, under its existing pilots contract as Insler says.

The airline has not taken advantage of this clause in the contract.

United plans to grow capacity by 4-6% annually through 2020, a level it plans to achieve through increased mainline aircraft utilisation and a temporary bump in 50-seat regional jet flying this year. The additional 76-seat jets would allow it to remove some smaller siblings in coming years, as well as fuel the planned growth, executives say.

The airline is evaluating the small mainline narrowbody aircraft options ahead of the next round of contract negotiations with ALPA, which could begin as early as May. This includes the Airbus A319neo, Boeing 737 Max 7, CSeries and E2 family.

Andrew Levy, chief financial officer of United, told FlightGlobal earlier in March that the carrier was "very interested" in a small mainline narrowbody.

Any decision on the such aircraft, however, would be conditioned on how much pilot pay rates rise in the next contract and the cost of the additional complexity a new type would add to United's mainline fleet, he said.

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