Pressure is mounting for the reform of regional airline pilot scope clauses



The simmering debate over regional airline pilot scope clauses is slowly coming to the boil. With most labour agreements due for renewal from next year, pressure is building from a range of sectors - airlines, airports, aerospace manufacturers and consumer groups - for restrictions to be lifted.

Many of these diverse interests are being organised by US consultancy GKMG Consulting Services into a single voice in the form of a lobbying coalition called Proposition RJ. The alliance is as varied as it is numerous, and includes the Washington Metropolitan Airport Authority, Shenandoah Airport and the "state departments of aviation", says GKMG managing director William Swelbar.

Approaches are being made to regional aircraft manufacturers such as Bombardier, Embraer and Fairchild Dornier to add their weight to the call for reform. Proposition RJ met for the first time in Nashville last month and is preparing an action plan and to brief congressional staff, labour unions and operators.

The US airlines have so far been excluded from the movement for reasons of labour sensitivity. "We don't want to be perceived as a front for airline management and compromise any consultative talks we have with pilot labour unions," says Swelbar. "We're seeking an industry solution, not a legislative solution."

According to Proposition RJ, "scope clause restrictions are a significant impediment to greater competition in the US domestic market and a significant inhibitor on more, and better, air service for small and medium-sized communities". The coalition says that revising these "artificial" restrictions would open " vast opportunities for airlines and communities alike- and in the process enhancing overall competition".

Five of the top seven US carriers are subject to scope clause agreements, which collectively cap their fleet at 233 regional jets. American Airlines' regional affiliates are limited to 67 jets, Northwest Airlines Airlink operators are allowed 36 and United Airlines Express carriers 65, all seating 70 or fewer passengers. Trans World Airlines is permitted only 30 jets seating not more than 50 passengers. GKMG suggests that an unrestricted US market would support four times that number of aircraft, with 600-1,000 potential city pairs well placed to support non-stop regional jet services. This would generate a airline requirement for 1,000 more aircraft by 2008, says the consultancy.

The US Federal Aviation Administration's latest aviation forecast for the next 10 years also points to rapid growth in the regional transport sector. It projects a near doubling of the number of commuter aircraft enplanements to 124 million by 2010. The regional jet fleet is expected to grow by nearly 16% a year, compared with 3% growth for large commercial aircraft, expanding to 1,195 aircraft by the end of the decade.

Not only will the number of jets increase, but the average seat size is also projected to continue expanding as operators move from turboprops to the more popular turbofan-powered aircraft. Bombardier and Embraer, emboldened by the sales successes of their 50-seat CRJ-200s and ERJ-145s, are embarking on even larger developments.

Bombardier will this month roll out the 70-seat CRJ-700, which has clocked up 96 orders, and has also unveiled plans for an 80/110-seat BRJ-X twinjet. Its Brazilian arch-rival is expected to launch the all-new 70/90-seat ERJ-170 at the Paris air show. Fairchild Dornier has thrown its hat into the regional ring with the similar-sized 728Jet and 928Jet. These aircraft pose a direct challenge to the 70-seat ceiling imposed by many of the current US airline scope clause agreements with pilot unions. Manufacturers from Toronto to Sao Jose dos Campos are banking on these barriers coming down before their new larger regional jets come on-stream from around mid-2002. It is no coincidence that pilot contracts are due for renewal then, or before. The Proposition RJ coalition intends to target not only the five top US "have not" carriers with scope clauses, but pre-empt "have" airlines that have no restrictions on regional jets and/or seats.


Delta Air Lines does not cap the number of regional jets with 70 or fewer seats and has an exemption for 20 larger British Aerospace Avro RJ85s. Delta's takeover of Atlantic Southeast Airlines and its plans to employ RJs operated by regional partner Comair on its new Washington DC-Boston shuttle have made regional aviation an issue with the carrier's 9,000 pilots.

The Air Line Pilots Association has sought a legal block to Comair operating three of Delta's planned eight shuttle schedules, while pressing it to peg regional air transport growth to the expansion of mainline operations. The union's longstanding fear has been a gradual encroachment of lower-cost regional carriers on routes traditionally the preserve of its higher-paid mainline membership.

Regional airline overheads are much lower. A CRJ-200 captain typically earns $65,000 a year, in some cases almost half the salary of a command pilot with a major US airline. Regional carriers can operate profitably on thin routes that would lose money for a bigger carrier. A regional-operated CRJ-200 can fly with as few as 21 passengers, or a 42% load factor, and break even.

Proposition RJ's message to pilots' unions is that expanded regional aviation does not necessarily mean fewer hours in the air for mainline operations. It contends that an expanded regional transport market has the opposite effect and generates extra business for larger airlines and so helps to secure employment.

GKMG says the introduction of leaner and longer-range regional jets will open connections between more smaller points and major hubs that would otherwise be financially out of bounds. "Revising the scope clause restrictions on regional jet deployments can and should be a win for the airline, a win for all labour and a win for the consumer, communities and competition."

Source: Flight International