Here’s Why The Big US Three Don’t Operate Their Own Regional Flights

American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines. They might be the biggest airlines in the US but you won’t catch them operating regional flights under their own name. They leave that duty to regional airline operators. But why?

The Big Three use other operators to fly regional routes. Photo: Colin Brown Photography via Flickr

You might have flown some of the Big Three’s regional airlines and heard them announce that they were operating on behalf of another major airline. That’s because the Big US Three outsource their regional flights to other carriers.

Delta Connection is the regional carrier for Delta Air Lines and United Express fulfills United Airline’s domestic needs. American Eagle is the regional branch of American Airlines. American told us that it has seven regional airlines operating under the American Eagle brand, three of which are wholly-owned subsidiaries.


But why do the major airlines not want to fly regional themselves? The main reason is money.


Cutting costs to keep profitable

All companies want to make a profit and outsourcing domestic flights to regional carriers makes sense for these US airlines.

Firstly, there is a notable difference between salaries for regional airlines and major airlines. It’s a culture that sees staff at major airlines get paid nearly double what regional airlines offer, according to One Mile At A Time.

Regional airlines allow major airlines to cut staffing costs. Photo: United Airlines

By having regional operations with a different carrier, Delta, American, and United don’t need to pay out as much for regional staff. Pilots with regional carriers accept jobs for a lower salary. But why?

The main draw of flying regional is the experience. The more experienced a pilot, the more likely they are to get those high-paying jobs with major airlines. The entire arrangement means that the employees are willing to accept lower salaries, regional carriers stay fully staffed and major airlines can be confident about their new recruits when they arrive. It’s a win, win, win.

Mitigating in-house pay inequality

Of course, paying staff less is a sure fast way to cut expenditure but the major airlines can’t offer staff on regional airlines one salary whilst international staff get more. Enter the mitigator: the regional airline. The regional carrier acts as a middle man. Staff working for these airlines know what pay to expect and that it’s unlikely to be as high as the major carriers. It keeps the peace, meaning the airlines can manage their own staff.

But aside from the staff, what about the fleet?

Managing a suitable fleet

Another benefit of using regional airlines is that they have their own fleet of small aircraft. These aircraft are those best suited to flying into smaller airports with fewer passengers. This means that these airlines can manage a fleet of small aircraft, whilst major airlines can focus on the operation of larger aircraft which are adapted for longer routes.

Regional airlines can prioritize small aircraft whilst major airlines use larger airplanes. Photo: Cory W. Watts via Flickr

Speaking to The Points Guy (TPG), the President of the Regional Airline Association, Faye Malarkey Black said:

“Larger airlines operate aircraft that can only serve higher-density markets with enough passengers to fill large planes. But regional airlines use smaller aircraft that are right-sized for smaller airports with fewer passengers.”

Without regional airlines to help them out, the Big Three would not be able to offer their passengers such an extensive network. The regional airlines allow them flexibility.

But surely outsourcing regional operations can’t be all good news?

Orchestrating a seamless experience

Of course, one problem with operating regional services away from the main carrier is that the airlines are intrinsically different. The service is different and the staff is different. In fact, the whole experience of flying United Airlines and United Express, for example, could be the polar opposite.

Airlines often want regional operations to mirror one brand. Photo: Tomás Del Coro via Flickr

The difficulty comes when you realize just how big some of these regional carriers are. One example of that is SkyWest Airlines, which helps all of the Big Three. It carried 37.42 million passengers last year alone, according to TPG. Clearly, these airlines have their own personalities but they also need to fit into a unified brand.

What’s more, is ensuring that passengers get a sense of a unified brand. When problems go wrong on regional airlines, the negative backlash almost always comes back to the major airlines. It’s where a complaint carries its sting and that’s bad news. So airlines have to remain strict, cooperating with each other to provide an experience which is mirrored in all services regardless of location.

Have you had positive regional experiences with the Big Three? Do you think these airlines should operate their own flights? Let us know in the comments.


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Albert vitale

Actually American airlines operates a fleet of emb 190 out of the PHL hub that are part of its mainline fleet. They will be phased out but are a remnant from US Airways days. The EMB 170 fleet and CRJ fleets are outsourced.

A correction should be noted in the article


Dutch carrier KLM does the same with KLM Cityhopper. I’ve been on an Embraer 190 last summer and the experience was comparible with a flight on a 737 from KLM’s mainline fleet.

The crew just refers to their brand as KLM and you get frequent flyer points on KLM Cityhopper as well.


Sometimes, regionals have their own problems of staffing the flight deck. Several years ago, Horizon Air (sub of Alaska) experienced a significant shortfall in first officers (failing to meet the # of flight hours rule) and captains (poaching by other carriers) causing significant cancellations impacting the overall service level at Alaska. Horizon used aggressive recruiting and signing bonuses to fill the void.


Clearly written by the Regional Owner council or whatever it is. WIn Win Win? The fact is that what you are saying is regional passengers are worth less than a major passengers as you are willing got put a low experienced pilot in charge of a complex jet or turbo prop aircraft. Delta is investing in the A220 and those will be flown mainline. It also has regional feeds. Unions not airlines drive this as they refuse to have a multi tier experience and its called the Scope Clause. You won’t see a modewrnb Embraer E17-E2 on these runs because… Read more »


“…cooperating with each other to provide an experience which is mirrored in all services regardless of location”. So if you get bashed on one airline, you should be bashed on the other too!

Gregg Derrett

It’s all about the $. Low wages are not good for employee retention.

Airline Pilot

This article is good in that it shines a light on this dirty secret of the airline industry. By painting the airplanes the same they attempt to hide it, but behind the curtain is a lot of problems. This article didn’t mention anything about the safety disparity between the two. When you outsource and under compensate regional employees while giving them more fatiguing schedules and outsourced maintenance, there is not one level of safety and risk levels are much higher. The regional model is all about cutting corners. This is akin to the airline saying for your regional flight from… Read more »