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United's Houston to Aspen Route: A Middle Finger to Its Pilots

The new United (UAUA) that rises from the combination of United and Continental (CAL) is supposed to be better for labor, but so far the airline isn't acting that way. For example, look at United's announcement that it will start flying from Houston to Aspen. It may not seem like much, but in reality it's a big middle finger to the airline's pilots.

SkyWest (SKYW) will fly from Houston to Aspen beginning January 4 under the United Express name with a CRJ-700 regional jet. There's nothing inherently wrong with that idea. I mean, Aspen is a goofy airport that can only allow flights from a select few aircraft types. The CRJ-700 is one of the only airplanes that can make it, especially for that kind of distance. (Props can get into Aspen, but that's a really long flight.) So it's the right aircraft type, but it's the wrong route.

The Houston to Aspen route is clearly a Continental route since it goes to the home-base of that airline. So why isn't Continental flying it? Well, because the Continental's pilots don't allow outsourcing of any jets over 50 seats. So Continental doesn't have the airplane in its arsenal to make this flight happen.

Meanwhile, United has every right to fly this route. It's big in Colorado, and it sees an opportunity in Aspen, especially considering that it will have that feed in Houston with Continental's network behind it.

As I've mentioned before, scope is a big issue in the pilot integration. United has the right to fly a ton of 70 seat jets with its regional partners while Continental can't fly any. This is the central piece of the negotiation for a joint contract.

So for United to start flying what is a clearly a Continental route using the United scope clause looks like an end run to me. It might be legal, but it's bound to just make the pilots very angry. That's not how you build trust and create a good working relationship.

I bet this flight will do well. Aspen in winter = big money in general, but is the profit of this single flight going to make up for the hit this will deliver to relations with the pilots? I bet not. Then again, I bet we'll see more moves like this that will only continue to make things worse.

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Photo via Flickr user asrusch, CC 2.0
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