Union limits on the scale and scope of regional flying are due to be brought out into the open as US regional carriers prepare to meet in Phoenix.

How times have changed. In the not too distant past, regional airlines were the minnows of the aviation world, flying on "hometown" routes that the majors would not have dreamed of serving, with aircraft too small and slow to raise their pulse. Not so long ago, the US Regional Airlines Association (RAA) was campaigning hard to persuade a sceptical audience that regionals still mattered. Yet the airlines which will line up later this month at the RAA's annual convention in Phoenix, Arizona, are far from homey.

The US regionals are now emerging as powerful players in their own right, with growth rates and profits which their mainline masters would die for. Across the Atlantic, European carriers, too, have become exciting business prospects.

Behind this transformation lie at least two key factors. The majors, in their highly commercial, post-deregulation world have long since recognised that one size no longer suits all. The new philosophy has highlighted the good business sense of handing over an increasing array of marginal short haul routes to affiliates who have the economics to make them work.

For their part, the regional carriers have gained the technology with which to succeed, thanks to a new wave of regional jets. Having already proved their case with offerings of up to 50 seats, the carriers and manufacturers are straining to be let loose with larger aircraft and longer sectors. Infrastructure congestion dictates that big new jets will be more than a mere wish if the regionals are to avoid seeing growth run aground.

But, while much else in the world has changed, one restraint has not - the scope clause. Virtually all of the US majors have such clauses enshrined in their pilot labour contracts limiting the routes and aircraft that regional affiliates can fly. Flag carriers elsewhere are little freer.

These agreements, signed in a different age, may look outdated and difficult to defend, but they appear to have become one of the great taboo subjects of air transport.

Yet there are positive signs that the taboo may be about to be dragged into the open. Positive, not because the concerns of mainline pilots are irrelevant, but simply because the debate is long overdue for a public airing.

When the RAA does meet on 10-12 May, the Washington DC-based GKMG consultancy is expected to present a draft proposal of Proposition RJ to the association's executive council. This will not be a broadside against mainline pilot unions. On the contrary, it is an attempt to launch some genuine discussion about the scope clause. It paints a vision of a broad-based alliance of interest groups, all of which have a stake in the future of US regional air services. Those range from local communities, trade associations and politicians, through to aircraft manufacturers, airports and the airlines themselves.

What the consultancy does argue is that the scope clause is a "significant impediment" to greater competition in the US domestic market and a major inhibitor of "more and better" air service for small to medium sized communities.

GKMG contends that the mainline pilots themselves may ultimately be winners. The argument is straightforward.

The coalition of interest groups plans to develop a political and media information campaign - to outline a vision of how the USA might look if scope clauses were not there to stop the regional jet. Preliminary findings suggest that between 600 and 1,000 US city pairs could support regional jet services that they do not have today.

Persuading the US pilot unions that change is in their interest will hardly be simple. It rarely is easy to persuade a group to give up a powerful bargaining chip which is in their gift, and they will no doubt look for concessions. But it could be time for that horsetrading to start.

Many of the majors have good reason to push the issue. With the likes of Delta and Continental now forging ahead with regional jet services, others cannot afford to be left lagging. Politicians in Washington, keen to increase competition and bring service back to the mid-West, are also in a mood to support change. Even the powerful USAir Line Pilots Association (ALPA) has pressures of its own. It is worth remembering that ALPA represents the regional pilots, too. Many want to stay within regional carriers for reasons of lifestyle or seniority, but would welcome the chance to extend their carrier through the introduction of larger aircraft. And the aircraft technology is ready and waiting in the wings.

In short, the omens are good. Now it is up to the industry to bite the bullet and to have an argument - if that's what it takes - that it has been avoiding for too long.

Source: Airline Business