United pilots have long protested the "regional creep" that permeates deeper in UA’s schedule each year. Essentially, more regional jets served by United Express subsidiaries are taking over routes that used to be exclusively mainline. For example, Los Angeles-Portland/Seattle is now exclusively operated by Skywest and Chicago-Philadelphia/Washington National now features a mix of regional jets and mainline.
The problem is not so much with the smaller (50 seats or less) regional jets in markets that cannot support mainline service, but with larger regional jets, like the Canada Air CR7 or Embraer RJ-170 that arguably should not even be classified as regional jets. Truth be told, the ERJ-170 is one of my favorite planes and the way United has configured it makes it almost as comfortable (and more comfortable depending on your seat assignment) than a mainline United First seat. UA pilots complain that the men and women piloting these aircraft are paid a fraction of what they are paid, giving Untied an incentive to add more of these regional jets into the schedule at the expense of mainline employees.
Continental pilots, on the other hand, have a contractual agreement that the airline will not outsource flying on aircraft with more than 50 seats (the limit is 70 seats on United). With a fleet of over 100 larger regional aircraft from United on the way in, angst is brewing.
United and Continental pilot unions, naturally, are advocating to bring all flying "in-house" but that is not a realistic alternative, even as less-fuel efficient 50-seat regional jets are falling out of favor due to cost concerns.
United Continental executives have avoided negotiating in public, but have voiced concern about the 50-seat rule. "We have been hampered and competitively disadvantaged," said Chief Executive Jeff Smisek on a post-earnings’ call last month.
While CO pilots are not going to roll over (they’re staging an "information picketing" today), Smisek’s comments suggest the almighty bottom line will guide negotiations and favor a resolution that may offer some piecemeal gesture to mollify pilots, perhaps a pay or benefit increase, while insuring that 70-seat jets will continue to be flown by outsourced pilots.
The real key will be to see what happens if UA/CO decide to acquire ERJ-190s, Embraer’s 95-seat product that still falls in the "twilight zone" between regional and mainline. I would predict that the pilots would win out, but who knows…
More information here.