Behold the outcome of a battle between pilot scope clause, a shrinking pool of commercial airline pilots and, if we’re feeling generous, a push by an airline to improve passenger comfort on board. United Airlines and Bombardier announced the launch of the CRJ550 this morning. It is a CRJ700 frame, reconfigured to a maximum of 50 seats.
United will introduce the CRJ550 on routes to and from its hub at Chicago O’Hare in Summer 2019. It will expand to Newark after that. The aircraft will be conversions of existing CRJ700 to start, operated by the GoJet regional affiliate.
The reduced seating on board delivers a 50 seat aircraft with three seating arrangements. United will fly it with 10 first class seats, 20 in Economy Plus and 20 in Economy. The cabin will also include a self-service beverage and snack bar for first class passengers, owing to the significant extra space on board. Bombardier also highlights the increased cabin baggage storage available, reducing the number of gate-checked bags. It will also be the first 50-seat aircraft with inflight wifi connectivity on board.
One potential passenger experience drawback for the new layout: At 50 seats United would need only one flight attendant on board. Delivering a premium cabin service level to the 10 first class passengers and also the 40 in economy would be a challenge for one FA to deliver. The self-service beverage and snack station up front would alleviate some of this challenge.
The reduced capacity layout of a larger frame is not a new concept in the airline industry. Bombardier previously produced the CRJ705 for Air Canada, based on the CRJ900 frame. Much like the CRJ550 layout the seating capacity is reduced to comply with pilot scope clause rules that preclude the operation of larger regional jets by non-mainline crew. Similarly, the Embraer ERJ-140 was a 44 seat version of the ERJ-145 (50-seater) produced specifically for American Airlines.
Bringing premium seats to the 50-seat markets can be a compelling play, particularly where United is competing against Delta Air Lines for smaller airport connecting traffic on to long-haul, international destinations. Delta offers more mainline aircraft (or larger RJs) into many competitive markets, giving passengers the first class seat on the entire journey.
United cannot add more large RJs owing to the current pilot contract so converting some of the 70-seat frames to 50 seats helps the carrier grow its regional operation without adding the larger mainline type. It also helps United push the CRJ200 out of many markets. The smaller 50-seat commuter jet is loathed by most travelers and United has previously acknowledged that it is a poor experience. But it also was what the carrier could get quick and cheap.
Another factor driving the shift is a push for common flight crews across the regional types. While the CRJ700 and CRJ200 share a type rating most regional operators today only fly one of the two types. As pressures continue to grow for the regional carriers to maintain pilot staffing levels operators of smaller aircraft are feeling the pinch. Running these as part of the CRJ700 series should help United on that front. GoJet currently operates only the CRJ700 and CRJ900 types, soon to be joined by the CRJ550. Hopefully the cost savings from a consolidated pilot group can help offset the higher operating costs of the larger frame carrying only 50 passengers.
More First Class on the Airbus as well
United’s introduction of the CRJ550 is joined by a reconfiguration of its Airbus A320 family fleet. Both the A319 and A320 aircraft will see an additional row of first class seats installed. But the total capacity on those planes will not change much. The A320 remains at 150 seats, dropping three Economy+ and one regular economy seat (12/42/96 to 16/39/95). The A319 will add four in first and drop six in Economy Plus (8/42/78 to 12/36/78). For passengers booking economy class seats on the A320 it seem likely, though not yet confirmed, that the one seat lost will be a hard blocked middle seat in a triplet. American Airlines did something similar on some of its 737 aircraft to stay at 150 seats for FAA staffing requirements (1 flight attendant per 50 seats).