Unions want airlines to dump regional jets along with narrowbodies

Until little more than a few months ago the major US airlines were bringing on new regional jet orders as fast as Bombardier and Embraer could turn them out, with the only real constraint being the artificial limits of scope clauses contained in airline pilot union agreements. With the desert filling quickly with discarded Boeing 727s, 737s, MD-80s and McDonnell Douglas DC-9s, the same mainline pilot unions are pressing for the regional jet community to absorb its share of cuts.

Conventional financial wisdom would beg to differ, though. With traffic and yields plummeting, regional proponents argue now is the time to be adding more 35-, 50- and even 70-seaters in place of larger and much less efficient mainline narrowbodies. Why else would the likes of Moritz Suter be fighting a rearguard action against the Swiss authorities, convinced that Crossair's need is for smaller, right-sized aircraft rather than inheriting Airbus A320s and even larger intercontinental A330s and Boeing MD-11s from bankrupt Swissair?

There is already evidence to support this emerging trend, with United Express moving to supplant mainline capacity on the West Coast with CRJ200s and BAe 146s from United Express partners Air Wisconsin and Skywest. This is meeting with opposition from the US Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), representing United mainline pilots. With major carriers laying off ever increasing numbers of pilots, the issue is only likely to grow.

ALPA's contention is that if airlines agreed to prorate regional jet expansion with the growth of the mainline fleet, the reverse should apply when times are bad and mainline pilots are being laid off. This is reflected in the scope clause language of many major carriers, with United agreeing to a minimum of 451 narrowbody jets, American Airlines agreeing to strike one regional jet for every two mainline aircraft below 628 aircraft and Delta Air Lines capping regional flying at 34% of overall block time.

Many airlines like Delta have an override provision in their labour agreements in the event of a national emergency or the grounding of a substantial number of aircraft. The tragedy of 11 September and the subsequent financial implosion of the industry would appear to qualify. The question is whether the unions are ready to listen to and accept the argument from management that mishandled mergers and failed to solve the problems of the industry slowdown even before 11 September.

Source: Flight International