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

Jan 21, 2021

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

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.

Want more airline-specific news? Sign up for TPG’s free new biweekly Aviation newsletter!

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

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

WELCOME OFFER: 80,000 Points

TPG'S BONUS VALUATION*: $1,650

CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 2X points on all travel and dining, points transferrable to over a dozen travel partners

*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,000 when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. Plus earn up to $50 in statement credits towards grocery store purchases within your first year of account opening.
  • Earn 2X points on dining including eligible delivery services, takeout and dining out and travel. Plus, earn 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,000 toward travel.
  • With Pay Yourself Back℠, your points are worth 25% more during the current offer when you redeem them for statement credits against existing purchases in select, rotating categories.
  • Get unlimited deliveries with a $0 delivery fee and reduced service fees on eligible orders over $12 for a minimum of one year with DashPass, DoorDash's subscription service. Activate by 12/31/21.
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more.
  • Get up to $60 back on an eligible Peloton Digital or All-Access Membership through 12/31/2021, and get full access to their workout library through the Peloton app, including cardio, running, strength, yoga, and more. Take classes using a phone, tablet, or TV. No fitness equipment is required.
Regular APR
15.99%-22.99% Variable
Annual Fee
$95
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
Recommended Credit
Excellent/Good

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.