United Airlines and its pilots are now negotiating tricky contract terms specifying the number of regional aircraft flying under the United Express banner.
But the discussions about so-called "scope" enwrap much more than regional flying. They link to United's widebody fleet and union concerns about how airline joint ventures and ownership stakes affect US pilot jobs.
Chicago-based United is the first of the three large US airlines to begin the latest round of contract talks, meaning its deal could set a standard for American Airlines' and Delta Air Lines' next contracts.
Delta's pilot contract becomes amendable in December and American's becomes amendable in 2020
The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) intends "over the next few weeks" to negotiate with United items related to pilots' career security and "scope", the union says in a 2 September note to members.
"Scope" is industry-speak for contract provisions defining the size of United's regional fleet.
Major US airlines, including United, have sought what is commonly called "scope relief", meaning contract changes allowing them to acquire more regional aircraft, particularly larger jets like 76-seat Embraer 175s.
But unions, wary of ceding more flying to regional outfits that pay lesser wages, have pushed back and advocated for more mainline expansion.
United's pilot contract limits its Express operation to 255 aircraft in the 70- and 76-seat category. It caps the number of 50-seaters at no more than 90% of United's narrowbody jets. That equates to about 500 50-seat aircraft.
United has already reached its cap for 70- and 76-seaters but could fly nearly 200 more 50-seaters. Problem is, no manufacturers make new 50-seat jets, and those already flying are aging fast.
ALPA thought the age of existing 50-seaters would mean a phase-out of those aircraft, but United now plans to roll-out "CRJ550s" – used Bombardier CRJ700s modified to have 50 seats, not the usual 70.
"It is imperative we… negotiate improved limitations on the number of regional aircraft," ALPA's note to its pilots says.
United and ALPA began negotiating a new contract in March 2018, and the existing agreement became amendable on 31 January. The parties already agreed on "noneconomic" items related to pilot scheduling, but have not reached terms related to scope.
"We continue to have productive discussions with management, which is somewhat unique for us and indicative of a positive process," says ALPA's letter. "We remain confident that a path to improvement exists that simultaneously meets our goals of mainline growth and protects our pilots from an economic downturn."
United says "negotiations are ongoing," but declines to comment further.
During initial discussions, ALPA proposed bringing United Express flying into United's mainline operation, but United nixed that suggestion.
"It became clear that our goal to bring [Express] flying back to the mainline cannot be fully corrected in one contract cycle," ALPA tells members. "It is still not economically viable."
The union has not said what tact it intends to pursue and did not comment further to FlightGlobal.
But ALPA's letter ties scope discussion to United's broader fleet, particularly its widebody aircraft.
The current contract leaves United's widebody flying exposed because it ties the regional fleet size to the size of United's narrowbody fleet, not its widebody fleet, the letter says.
"Management can park literally all of our mainline widebody aircraft, and up to 160 of our narrowbodies, and they would still not be required to remove one single [regional jet] from Express service," the letter says.
ALPA additionally warns of "foreign carrier outsourcing" – a nod to the joint ventures and ownership deals all three major US airlines have recently pursued.
ALPA has filed a grievance related to United's ties with Avianca. United owns a stake in Avianca's largest shareholder and is seeking a joint venture with Avianca.
ALPA has likewise taken issue with Delta Air Lines' joint ventures, saying those deals have enabled Delta to shift flying to foreign carriers at the expense of US jobs.
United has 154 "top-tier" widebodies, a category including aircraft that command the highest pilot pay scales, such as 777s and 787s, but not some 767s, the union says.
By comparison, American has 133 of those aircraft and Delta has just 31, ALPA's letter says.
In other words, United has lots to lose.
"The adverse effects of failing to ensure adequate contractual job protections on both ends of the flying spectrum are more reasons why we must negotiate the right contract," ALPA's letter says.
Story updated on 5 September to clarify that contract discussions began in March 2018, not after the contract became amendable in January.