Regional jet scope clauses have long been the subject of hot debate within the US airline industry. At last a resolution appears to be in sight. A number of newly agreed deals between major US carriers and their pilot unions has signalled the start of a gradual relaxation in once onerous limitations on the use of regional jets.

American Airlines and United Airlines have both reached new labour contracts with their pilot unions which will permit the greatly expanded use of regional jets. Delta Air Lines is expected to follow with a further relaxation of its already fairly liberal scope clause restrictions.

This is adding pressure to other carriers still locked in long-winded negotiations with their pilots to quickly reach an agreement.

For scope-constrained airlines such as TWA and US Airways, still struggling to compete using turboprops in a market increasingly dominated by the jet, what is at stake is their future survival.

While scope clauses are being relaxed, it is a gradual process rather than an opening of the flood gates. Pilots are settling for a rise in the number of smaller regional jets in return for a more clearly defined ceiling on the maximum permissible size of aircraft and, in the case of United, a hefty hike in wages. Airlines, meanwhile, are winning carte blanche to induct virtually unlimited numbers of regional jets seating 50 or fewer. The clear winners in this are the Bombardier Regional Jet CRJ200 and Embraer ERJ-135/145 series of regional jets, which are building record backlogs as carriers move to quickly place triple digit orders to fill fleets.

Losers in the short-term are the larger 70- and 90-seat regional jets, which continue to fall outside the limit of most US airline scope clauses. American Airlines' pilots, in exchange for agreeing to American Eagle expanding the number of 50-seat jets to as much as 56% of the overall fleet size, has ensured that the new CRJ700 will either be flown by mainline crews or not at all.

But where the future lies for the 70-seat regional jet, let alone larger 90-seat-plus derivatives, is unclear. Significantly, the only major orders so far have come from Europe. Regional jet advocates are nonetheless taking heart from the new agreement as the first step towards completely rolling back scope.

Source: Flight International