50-Seaters Are On The Way Out In The US – What Will Replace Them?

Across the US, all-economy 50-seater regional aircraft are on the way out. None of the major US airlines have orders for all-economy 50-seater aircraft. Of the major three US airlines, United and American have continued to draw down those jets in more premium markets, with plans to keep doing so in the future. Delta, meanwhile, has set an end date for all CRJ200 operations in just over two years. Here’s a look at what’s to come.

American ERJ145LR
American Airlines is moving away from 50-seaters in New York. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

The decline of 50-seaters in premium markets

The most prominent markets seeing the decline of 50-seater all-economy regional jets in the US can be seen in the New York air traffic market. American Airlines is moving to end operations at its New York John F. Kennedy (JFK) and LaGuardia Airport (LGA) hubs using the all-economy aircraft. Meanwhile, United Airlines is pulling those planes down through the end of the year from its schedule at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR). Delta continues to fly the type to its New York hubs.

These planes are ending services in these two markets for a variety of reasons. The first is that they are undesired by passengers and lack a premium product. The difference is pretty jarring for a customer connecting off a United Polaris or American Flagship Business product down to a CRJ200 or ERJ145 for their connection out of New York.

UA 787-10
Going from a Polaris seat on a 787-10 to an economy seat on a CRJ200 is a pretty jarring transition. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Onboard the CRJ200 and ERJ145s, neither of the big three US airlines offer a premium cabin. The most a passenger can expect are a few extra-legroom economy seats for sale. If a passenger books an itinerary flying from Rochester, New York, to Paris, France, with a connection in New York in the business class cabin, they would be booked into the extra-legroom economy section for the flight between Rochester and New York.

However, the 50-seaters would also make their way onto other routes that were longer. American Airlines, for example, sold ERJ145-operated itineraries between New York (JFK) and Nashville (BNA), which is a roughly two-hour flight. This product, to such a premium market, is derided by passengers and is an inefficient use of infrastructure at some of the world’s most expensive airports.

Moving to larger jets, not only do airlines get more capacity available for sale, but they can also get additional revenue from premium customers who actually can sit in a dedicated premium cabin.

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A general decline

The decline of 50-seaters extends well beyond premium markets like New York or Washington D.C. A look at the big three US airlines’ regional fleets shows a move away from those aircraft. For example, here is a look at how many 50-seater aircraft each airline flew at the start of 2017:

  • American: 120 Bombardier CRJ200s, 13 Embraer ERJ140s, and 118 Embraer ERJ145s for a total of 251 all-economy 50 seaters (note that the ERJ140s seat 44 passengers)
  • Delta: 149 Bombardier CRJ200s
  • United: 50 Bombardier CRJ200s, 183 Embraer ERJ145s for a total of 233 all-economy 50 seaters (note that United also had five Q300 turboprops seating 50 passengers, five Embraer ERJ135s, and 16 Q200 turboprops, with the latter two seating 37 passengers at the time, though those aircraft were also on their way out)
Delta CRJ200
Delta prefers the CRJ200 for all-economy 50-seater operations, but those operations will cease by the end of 2023. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

And, here is where each of those three airlines stood at the start of 2021:

  • American: Eight Embraer ERJ140s and 114 Embraer ERJ145s for a total of 122 planes
  • Delta: 45 Bombardier CRJ200s
  • United: 133 Bombardier CRJ200s and 168 Embraer ERJ145s for a total of 301 planes

Note that United is still working out its Embraer ERJ145 transition over to CommutAir, so the final numbers may change.

United was the only airline’s fleet that actually grew in the number of 50-seaters in this period of time. However, that was largely because United’s scope clause limits its operations of larger regional aircraft, so the airline turned to more 50-seater flying.

American and Delta made sizable reductions in their 50-seater fleet. Delta plans to end all CRJ200 flying by the end of 2023. At that point, the carrier will have no all-economy 50-seater jets flying in the United States, assuming those plans remain intact.

United Airlines is also planning a massive move away from the 50-seaters. By 2026, as part of the airline’s plan to increase gauge across the country and unlock the power of its hubs, it will retire over 200 all-economy 50-seater regional jets.

United CRJ200
With larger narrowbody aircraft coming to United, the airline is planning to retire over 200 all-economy 50-seaters. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

What will replace these aircraft?

American, Delta, and United have all turned to larger regional aircraft in recent years. This includes the Embraer E170 and E175 and, to some extent, the former Bombardier CRJ family, including the CRJ900. On many routes, especially those flying out of New York or Washington D.C., the E175 or CRJ900 will be vastly preferred by most customers.

Thinking about smaller destinations in the US, like Rochester (Minnesota), Grand Forks (North Dakota), Cody (Wyoming), the all-economy 50-seaters will live on, as both American and United have not outlined plans to drop those fleets completely. Instead, it is more of repositioning with a reduction in the number of jets in favor of continuing to fly to small destinations where a mainline jet would not work and where there may not be enough premium demand.

Delta Connection CRJ
Passengers could end up on larger regional aircraft like the CRJ900. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Delta may drop those cities or move to offer Embraer E-Jet or Bombardier CRJ service with a first-class cabin on those routes. There could be some surprises in store for premium demand out of some of those regional cities.

United customers may still find themselves on a 50-seater aircraft out of key markets like Newark. However, it will be on the airline’s upgraded CRJ550 regional jet. These are still 50-seater aircraft, but they have a very premium footprint with a dedicated first class cabin and room for carry-on baggage for every customer.

By and large, more customers who formerly flew on a CRJ200 or ERJ145 may find themselves on a larger regional jet, like an Embraer ERJ175 or Bombardier CRJ900. Some lucky customers may find that their previously regional service has been upgraded to mainline operations, featuring larger aircraft.

AA E175
With the move to larger regional jets, this means that airlines will be offering more premium capacity in major markets like New York and Washington D.C. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Airlines cannot fly an unlimited number of the larger ERJ175s or CRJ900s. Scope clauses with pilots govern how many of those planes can fly under the regional brand. Unless there is a wide scale of renegotiation, airlines will have to put some mainline capacity on routes formerly flown by regional jets.

An example could include Delta taking the Airbus A220 and putting them into service on former E175 or CRJ900 routes. Those free planes can then move over to cover the lost capacity from the 50-seater all-economy jets. A similar story can play out at United and American with small jets like the Airbus A319.

At the end of the day, all-economy 50-seaters are on their way out. This will be a net positive for passengers, so keep an eye out to see exactly how airlines replace those aircraft and continue to serve their destinations.

Are you glad to see 50-seaters on their way out? Let us know in the comments!