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Continental/United Merger: How Pilots Can Resolve Their Labor Standoff

I've had plenty of criticism for the way early pilot contract discussions for the new United (UAUA) have gone, but it's a lot easier to criticize than to offer an alternative. So here's an alternative. Pilots want to protect their jobs, and management wants to reduce costs. The 90-to-110 seat aircraft category provides that opportunity for both sides and that's where the focus should be.

It seems to me that it's highly unlikely that the pilots will be able to convince management to reserve flights involving turboprops and 50-seat jets for in-house pilots. They might have better luck making that demand for 70-seat jets, but the 90-to-110 seat category actually holds the greatest potential for satisfying the pilots by far.

Take a look at this chart showing the current capacity of the combined United and Continental (CAL) domestic narrowbody fleets. (Yes, that means it excludes aircraft configured for international flying as well as the large domestic widebodies.)

Forget about the oddball 757-300 at the top end for a minute, and you'll see that these are evenly-spaced. There is a 20 seat gap between the 737-700 and the A320, but that's the biggest gap in there . . . except for the 90 seat gap. There is a 46 seat gap between the 74 seat turboprop Q400 and the 120 seat A319. That 737-500? It's being phased out, but there's still a 40 seat gap in there.

What you'll also notice is that this is the dividing line between the regional fleet that's contracted out and the mainline flight that's flown by United/Continental pilots. It looks like a no-man's land right now, but it's where United pilots should be able to gain some ground.

The 90 seat aircraft is one that's found at a couple US-based airlines. Delta (DAL) has some operated by its regional partners, and US Airways (LCC) has some outsourced and some flown internally. It's a good number of seats, and United planners would undoubtedly like to have that option in their arsenal, but it's long been a no man's land where mainline can't operate profitably and labor won't allow outsourcing.

Instead of asking United to end all contracted flying, the pilots should focus on this area. If they're willing to fly for a competitive rate as they've said they will (and I believe they will), then it could work for the airline, despite some of the other logistics that would need to be resolved. But there's an additional opportunity that makes this even more compelling.

Most legacy airlines have more 50 seat aircraft than they know what to do with, and they've been working to remove them from the operation. The old Continental is in an even more gruesome situation in that it owns over 200 of those 50 seaters. ExpressJet just operates them on Continental's behalf and if Continental parked them, then Continental (and soon, the new United) would be on the hook.

The airplanes that Continental owns are the 50 seat Embraer ERJ-145 (and smaller variants, I believe, may still be on the book). Embraer also happens to make the EMB-190/EMB-195 aircraft which conveniently seat between 90 and 110. Perfect.

I have no doubt that the new United could go to Embraer and trade in some of the ratty 50 seaters for credits on sparkling new 90 to 110 seaters. Kill two birds with one stone.

Of course, when SkyWest bought ExpressJet, it was given the first chance to replace those 50 seaters when they left the fleet, and that's fine. I could see United slowly walking away from other partners (including Mesa and Republic, which directly competes with United in Denver anyway) and backfilling that flying with SkyWest while giving larger aircraft flying to its own pilots.

In the end, the airline would have less regional flying with fewer 50 seaters and it would get a new class of 90 to 110 seaters to fill its needs. And United/Contiental pilots will be flying them. This is the best way for both sides to make significant gains. Let's hope they focus on it.


Image via Embraer
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