United Airlines Likely To Cut Contract With One Regional Carrier

Last week, United Airlines informed two of its regional carriers, ExpressJet and CommutAir, both operating under the United Express brand, that it would only maintain its collaboration with one of them. It will, in all probability, be a fatal decision for the affected airline.

United cancels one regional cooperation
United has signaled it will only need one ERJ-175 carrier in the future. Photo: United Airlines

ExpressJet and CommutAir are two regional US carriers operating exclusively for United Airlines under its United Express brand. The Chicago-based carrier’s looming decision to drop one of them will be a devastating blow for the airline affected, as it will lose its main source of revenue.

Stay informed: Sign up for our daily aviation news digest.

Only one E145 carrier going forward

United has a minority stake in both companies that operate ERJ-145 50-seater aircraft from regional markets to airports served by United’s larger jets. Until early this year, the mainline carrier was still expanding its domestic network, and the future for its regional collaborations looked bright. Then the pandemic hit and changed everything.

In a letter to ExpressJet pilots last week, their union chairman warned that there could be dramatic developments following United’s announcement that it would only require one ERJ-145 carrier going forward.

However, which airline this will be appears undecided. ExpressJet, which has the more senior pilot group, and by far the larger fleet of the two, is making a bid to lower costs to remain competitive.

“While ExpressJet offers many attributes that make us an attractive long-term partner, cost has reared its ugly head once again and we have been asked by our management team to close the gap between our costs and those at CommutAir,” the letter, seen by Reuters, said.

United lets go of one regional carrier
ExpressJet has operated for several major carriers in its 30-year history. Photo: Timothy Powaleny via Wikimedia Commons

Huge difference in fleet and staff

Both carriers operate only Embraer ERJ-145 aircraft. ExpressJet has a total of 101 ERJ-145s in its fleet, 73 of which are still parked according to the latest data available from mid-June. Furthermore, it is expecting to take delivery of another 33.

CommutAir operates a much smaller fleet of 37 of the Brazilian plane with capacity for 50 passengers. While only eight of these were parked at the beginning of last month, it also has no deliveries coming up in the foreseeable future.

ExpressJet is headquartered in College Park, Georgia, and employs over 8,000 people. Its crew bases are located at Chicago’s O’Hare, Cleveland, Denver, Houston Intercontinental, Knoxville, and Newark-Liberty.

ExpressJet began flying in 1987 and has previously operated flights for Continental, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue, and American Airlines under its American Eagle brand. Before becoming an all-Embraer carrier, it operated a large number of ATR42/72s, and Bombardier CRJs.

united lets one of two regional carriers go
CommutAir used to operate two Beechcraft 1900 aircraft as Continental Connection. Photo: Garnermiller via Wikimedia Commons

CommutAir began operations in 1989 as an affiliate of USAir. However, it quickly transitioned to work with Continental, which remained its main outsourcer until its merger with United in 2012. Historically, it has operated 22 Dash-8s, and two Beechcraft 1900. CommutAir has hubs at Newark Liberty and Washington-Dulles and employs 900 people.

Obviously there is a significant difference in how many people and jobs would be affected should one of these carriers suffer a fatal blow. But it also makes the decision highly dependent on just how much United will end up needing to downsize operations in a post-pandemic market. 

Regional relationships bound to change

Simple Flying has reached out to United Airlines for a comment but was yet to receive a reply at the time of publication. However, a spokesperson for the airline told Reuters that,

“We’ve been clear for months now that we expect to be a smaller airline in response to the historic impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on our business. That means we’ve cut our schedules and our costs across the operation – and we do anticipate it will continue to impact the relationships we have with our regional partners.”

According to its annual report for 2019, United had contracts with eight carriers flying under its Express brand. However, one of them, Trans States Airlines ceased operations in April.