Here’s why United just dropped nearly 250,000 seats from its schedule

Jan 21, 2021

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There’s more to United’s latest capacity adjustment than meets the eye.

During this past weekend, United dropped nearly 250,000 seats from April 2021 through January 2022 on flights exclusively operated by regional jets, according to Cirium data.

While it’s easy to pin this roughly 7% seat reduction on the recent uptick in nationwide COVID-19 cases, this isn’t actually a demand-related play.

Instead, it’s due to an interesting clause in pilot contracts.

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First, some background.

Traditionally, mainline pilots who fly the carrier’s larger jets don’t want United outsourcing flying to cheaper, regional affiliates. That’s especially true during the pandemic when United and its competitors are looking to both cut costs and trim capacity to meet demand.

Case in point: take a look at the 956-mile flight between Palm Beach (PBI) and Houston (IAH). In the first quarter of 2019 — well before the pandemic — United flew 204 flights between the airports, with just 26 of them operated by regional affiliates.

Fast forward to the first quarter of 2021, and Cirium schedules show that United is slated to operate 114 of its 178 total flights — roughly 65% — with its United Express partners.

As such, many pilot contracts have “scope clauses” that limit the number of flights and/or seats that carriers can outsource to regional affiliates.

And that’s essentially why United was forced to drop nearly 250,000 seats in its latest schedule update.

Although United ultimately didn’t lay off any mainline pilots, the carrier was required to remove six seats from its 76-seat aircraft due to a clause in the no-furlough agreement ratified by the pilot union Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and United.

As United explained to TPG in a statement, “in accordance with the landmark ALPA pandemic recovery letter of agreement which was ratified by United pilots last fall, United has temporarily removed six seats from its 76-seat aircraft. The agreement enabled United to retain all of its pilots at the company.”

Capt. Todd Insler, ALPA’s Master Chairman, told TPG that “the historic United Pandemic Recovery pilot agreement reversed a decades-long trend of outsourcing mainline flying. This was necessary to protect United pilots’ careers during the temporary reduction in demand due to COVID. ALPA’s long-term goal of securing more flying for mainline pilots will continue as demand recovers.”

United Express affiliates Mesa Airlines, Republic Airways and SkyWest Airlines operate 194 Embraer 175s (E175), according to Cirium fleet data.

United Express Embraer 175 (Photo courtesy of Embraer)

Due to the no-furlough agreement with ALPA, United has been in the process of stripping six seats from its Embraer 175s. Ultimately, the carrier will offer two versions of the modified 70-seat jet.

One sports 12 first-class recliners, 16 extra-legroom Economy Plus seats and 42 standard coach seats and the other has double the number of extra-legroom seats and half the number of standard coach ones in a new, more premium configuration. Just note that United hasn’t added any seat pitch in either of the two arrangements.

So, in the latest schedule update, United didn’t actually cut its flying.

Instead, it dropped six seats from every Embraer 175 flight from April 2021 to January 2022, representing a sum total of nearly 250,000 fewer seats.

United’s E175s won’t always be in a 70-seat configuration, however.

The carrier told TPG that these jets could revert back to 76 seats “when the letter of agreement [with ALPA] ends in October 2022 or when pilot’s monthly hours are no longer reduced through the letter of agreement.”

More: A look inside United’s swanky, two-class CRJ550

This isn’t the first time United purposely removed seats from a regional aircraft. In 2019, United unveiled the CRJ550, a re-certified variant of the Bombardier CRJ700.

Due to caps on the number of large regional jets — typically those with 65 to 76 seats — in its pilot contracts, United took the CRJ700 airframe and outfitted it with 50 seats in a two-cabin configuration, with a walk-up bar for first-class passengers and two large onboard closets to store full-sized carry-on bags.

That paved the way for the airline to order 20 more Embraer E175s to its fleet, all of which will sport 70 seats for the foreseeable future.

Featured image by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy

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