American and United Switch to Small Planes for Big Routes

Last Updated Feb 24, 2010 7:50 AM EST

For several years, United Airlines (UAUA) has been moving to smaller and smaller airplanes to fly some of its most important routes. American Airlines (AMR) has continued to fly larger, mainline ones. American's decision to add First Class to some of its smaller airplanes shows that they are ready to play the game too. Recent route announcements for those planes show just that.

Thanks to contract changes achieved in bankruptcy, United has effectively received carte blanche to contract out 70 seat and smaller airplanes to its regional subsidiaries. Over the last few years, we've seen an army of 70 seaters fitted with First Class, Economy Plus, and Economy Minus under the exPlus brand name. These airplanes, though considered regional jets by many, are flying trunk routes. You'll find 70 seaters on routes like Chicago to New York/LaGuardia, Boston, Atlanta, and Miami.

American, however, still plays the game under different rules. It is allowed plenty of 50 seat regional jets, but it has only 25 of the 70 seaters to date. Until now, those aircraft have been in an all-economy configuration and have flown on smaller routes, for the most part, with only a few on larger routes. Everything else has been flown by the smallest mainline aircraft - a 136 seat MD-80. That's a big gap in capacity.

American will now reconfigure those 25 airplanes and take delivery of 22 more to position them for use against United. Starting April 6, the 70 seaters will take over all flying between Chicago and Atlanta, Houston, and Salt Lake City. They will also start flying to Minneapolis, Newark, Philadelphia, and San Antonio

I have no doubt that the American mainline pilots aren't happy with this move, but it does make some sense. Ever since the airline removed the Fokker 100s from service several years ago, there has been a huge gap in the 100 seat range.The current plan won't solve that problem, but it will at least get American closer to matching capacity with demand.

(Photo source: Bombardier)