US regional Atlantic Coast Airlines (ACA) plans to break ties with troubled United Airlines and create its own independent budget carrier at Washington Dulles. But analysts are sceptical, saying 50-seat regional jets are ill-suited for a low-fare start-up.

ACA hopes acquire up to 25 narrowbodies to launch its new carrier in 2004,and appears to be leaning towards next-generation Boeing 737s or the Airbus A320 family, saying it wants aircraft with "well over 100 seats", and "in a family of aircraft".

ACA pilots will conduct most of the narrowbody flying, and talks have begun with the US Air Line Pilots Association to amend the current labour contract.

ACA's own Bombardier CRJ200s will be capped at 87 aircraft, leaving orders for 34 more in limbo. "We have the ability not to take aircraft if we do not do a deal with United," says chief executive Kerry Skeen.

The carrier will stop flying as United Express when United leaves bankruptcy protection, a move expected early in the first quarter of next year, after which ACA will retire its 30 BAe Jetstream 41s. ACA intends to increase utilisation of its CRJ200s from 9h to 11h a day, rely 100% on web-based distribution, and slash ticket prices. Walk-up fares on a Dulles-Charleston flight, for example, will be $150 compared with $450.

ACA will continue to operate 275 daily departures from Dulles - a mixture of traditional United Express routes and new routes. When the narrowbodies arrive, ACA will boost departures to 325 a day.

But the plan has not convinced some analysts: "We think there's a reason that nobody on the planet has successfully launched discount operations with a small jet - because it can't be done," says JP Morgan analyst Jamie Baker.

Source: Flight International