United Airlines Set To Remove Seats From Regional Jets

US carrier United Airlines has drawn up plans to remove seats from its regional jets to comply with pilot contracts. The anticipated move is meant to adjust to a smaller fleet if large numbers of pilots will be furloughed effective October 1st.

United Express
United is preparing to remove seating from regional jets to comply with scope clauses. Photo: United Airlines

Why is United looking to remove seats from regional jets?

For most people in smaller cities (and even some major ones), several flights are operated under regional brands. You may know these as Delta Connection, United Express, or American Eagle. Under these banners, there are regional carriers to which the big three contract regional jet operations.

However, these regional carriers can only do a certain amount of flying governed by scope clauses that an airline has with its pilots. There are heavy restrictions on the amount of 70- and 76-seat jets. But, there are fewer restrictions on the number of 50-seat planes that United can fly.

United Express planes next to mainline aircraft. Photo: Getty Images

This is why United introduced the CRJ550. To fly premium jets to destinations that would demand it – places like Fayetteville, Arkansas, the nearest airport to Walmart’s headquarters – United opted to configure some larger regional jets into a premium-heavy 50-seat configuration as a workaround.

However, now, United has got to make some changes according to View From the Wing. From October 1st, United has made it no secret that it may have to furlough some pilots. That will limit the amount of regional flying that it can contract out– which then means that United will have to fly regional planes with fewer seats since United is maxed out at its higher-capacity regional jets. Meanwhile, it has room to go with its 50-seaters. The comments were made from COO Andrew Nocella.

Simple Flying reached out to United who provided the following statement:

To clarify, Andrew said that we are working on the engineering to remove seats from regional aircraft but we haven’t actually started to execute the project. For context, this was in reference to a question about one of the furlough protections that the pilots have, which mandates that United remove seats from its regional aircraft in the event that we implement involuntary furloughs.

United plane runway getty images
Involuntary furloughs would force United to take seats out of regional jets. Photo: Getty Images

Will United implement involuntary furloughs?

The company has come under fire in recent weeks. It has been telling its employees to consider voluntary separations, received criticism from other airline CEOs over its work practices, is offering status and miles to some employees who depart early, has parked some aircraft for an indefinite period of time, while also closing some long-haul bases.

Financially, the airline has to focus on preserving its cash and ensuring its survival. Nearly all major airlines are struggling as a result of this crisis. However, the US government has provided employee payroll grants to airlines through September 30th. Beyond that, airlines can also access federal lines.

Will this mean more CRJ550s?

United has not clarified what jets will undergo the retrofits if necessary. The CRJ550 is the same basic structure as the CRJ700, so it would just be a changing of the interior configuration – which will come at a cost.

Currently, United is working on altering the interior of some CRJ700s into the CRJ550 configuration. Some additional jets previously intended to remain as CRJ700s could then make their way into the conversion process and become CRJ550s.

United Airlines Set To Remove Seats From Regional Jets
United could end up with more CRJ550s. Photo: United Airlines

So far, the signs are pointing to leisure travel starting to rebound a little more quickly than business travel. This would indicate that United does not need a lot of premium capacity. However, operationally, 50-seat CRJ550s would offer additional fleet efficiency.

Other options include reverting some aircraft to all-economy jets. United does have 50-seat planes flying under the United Express brand. These include CRJ200s and ERJ145s. These would cater more to leisure travelers. Although, most passengers are not a fan of these aircraft. However, if an airframe like a CRJ700 turns into an all-economy jet, United could have room to put in extra legroom or else storage for more bags.

United Express Gety
United Airlines does operate all-economy regional jets. Photo: Getty Images

How will this affect United’s premium operations?

United Airlines has gone big after premium customers in the last few years. Now, however, that calculus could be changing. The business world has been upended by people staying at home and teleconferencing taking the place of face-to-face meetings. Those trends may stick around for a while.

United recently rolled out 46-seat Polaris Cabins onboard some 767-300s. Photo: United Airlines

The Boeing 767-300s flying with 46-seat Polaris cabins will not return on the Newark to London route until July. Before then, the 787-10 is flying fairly empty in business per United’s seat maps. Although, the cargo-capacity onboard the aircraft is likely what is helping drive the route.

Do you think United will end up removing seats from regional jets? Let us know in the comments!