Unions claim that airlines attempting to shift routes to smaller aircraft are violating scope clause agreements

US airlines are being warned by the country's pilot unions that they are expected to adhere to scope clause agreements, which could force a number of major carriers to make significant cuts in the number of regional jets operated as a mounting number of mainline fleet aircraft are grounded and their pilots furloughed.

Labour groups at many of the country's major carriers are protesting against plans to park larger mainline aircraft in favour of shifting routes to regional jet operators, saying such a move would violate existing agreements.

Airline executives, citing dismal loads and deteriorating yields, say their hands are tied and that the force majeure clause found in such labour agreements should take precedence over scope clause limitations.

United Airlines plans to park 75 Boeing 727s and 24 737-200s and replace mainline jets in six West Coast markets with Bombardier CRJ200s and BAe 146s operated by the carrier's regional United Express partners Air Wisconsin and Skywest.

This move has met with opposition from the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which claims the retirements violate the scope clause by bringing the number of larger jets in United's fleet below the specified 451 narrowbody threshold.

"It's not in the scope of our contract to park 727s and fly six or seven regional jets in their place. It's not acceptable," says Herb Hunter, a Miami-based Boeing 777 captain at United and an ALPA spokesman.

The pilots union has said that if United continues with its plan to retire large numbers of narrow-bodies, it would demand that all regional jet service operating under United codeshare agreements be terminated.

ALPA's position flies in the face of what many analysts regard as good economic logic. "It makes sense, if a 737 is marginal or too large in light of current traffic loads, to replace it with regional jets, but if the mainline fleet is below the threshold, unions have recourse because of scope," says Douglas Abbey, an analyst at AvStat Associates.

United's ultimate recourse in any dispute with the pilots is to invoke a force majeure clause in its current labour agreement claiming exceptional circumstances beyond its control.

Delta Air Lines has already invoked such a clause to override pilot furlough protection in its agreement and lay off 400 mainline crew members, with as many as 1,300 more to follow, claims the union.

This threatens the current scope clause, which limits Delta Connection regional jet block hours to 34% of total airline flying time. "If they don't comply with this clause we will have to challenge it," says the union.

American Airlines has grounded 70 older 727s, MD-80s and DC9s and furloughed 386 pilots and plans to add a further 400 by December. Under its agreement with the American Pilots Association any pilot lay-offs require it to freeze the size of its regional Eagle operations in terms of available seat miles and pilot block time.

Furthermore, if the size of the American fleet falls below 628 jets, the feeder fleet is not allowed to exceed 9% of the total and one regional jet must be parked for every two mainline aircraft grounded.

The airline is seeking to renegotiate a new deal, but in the interim period says: "We'll remain in compliance."

Source: Flight International