The Air Line Pilots Association won the latest battle in the war on so-called regional airline outsourcing when an arbitrator derailed United Continental Holdings’ plans to place the CO code on 70-seat jet flights operated by United Express carriers from the Continental hub cities of Houston, Newark and Cleveland. The ruling, issued December 30, limits the capacity of any jet equipment operated by a regional affiliate from those three cities under the Continental code to 50 seats, at least until the sides reach consensus on a single, integrated collective bargaining agreement.
At issue, of course, stand differences between the scope clauses written into the respective pilot contracts at Continental and United, which continue to operate separately under the ownership of United Continental Holdings. In short, United’s scope clause–like most others in the U.S.–allows regional carriers to fly jets that hold as many as 70 seats. Continental’s scope clause limits regionals to 50-seat jets or to turboprops that hold no more than 79 seats.
Perhaps ironically, both sides saw the merger as an opportunity to advance their respective positions on the matter. Soon after United and Continental announced their plans to merge, pilot reps, during meetings with management in Denver, proposed placing an initial cap on all regional subcontracting, allowing their capacity purchase agreements with the regional carriers to run their course and, finally, require a phased transition of all regional flying into what would become the new United Airlines. If implemented as proposed, such a scope clause would serve eventually to dismantle the United Express and Continental Express/Connection systems.
But by the time the merger took place on October 1, the union found itself fighting merely to maintain the restrictions already in place, as the newly merged airline revealed plans to replace 50-seat Continental Express Embraer ERJ145s based at Houston, Newark and Cleveland with fifteen 70-seat jets flown by United Express affiliates SkyWest and Shuttle America starting January 4. In fact, United Continental carried out the plan, but simply didn’t place the CO code on those flights.
United Continental expects to receive a single operating certificate by the end of the year, by which time all the flights will carry the United code. By then, plans call for at least another 30 United Express 70-seaters to arrive at Continental’s hubs. Although they can’t carry the Continental code, their presence will serve as a stark reminder of the company’s ultimate intention–to move the higher capacity regional jet flying wherever it makes sense.