July 01, 2013
Credit: Mitsubishi Aircraft Concept
Airlines have high hopes for the next generation of regional jets, which are larger and promise to have much lower unit costs than earlier and smaller models. But U.S. carriers have to face the question of whether their pilots will actually allow them to fly some of these aircraft types.
Mitsubishi Aircraft and Embraer face a potentially hefty problem in the U.S. market with the new regional jets they are developing: a maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) that could prevent regional carriers from operating the jets for their major airline partners.
To boost—and protect—their sales in the U.S., manufacturers will have to either trim the weight, change the certificated weight for the U.S. market or hope for a change in pilots' union collective bargaining agreements.
Almost all of the union contracts with the major U.S. carriers—with Alaska Airlines being one notable exception—forbid them from outsourcing flying to any aircraft certificated in the U.S. with an MTOW exceeding 86,000 lb. But the specifications Embraer just unveiled for its E175-E2 show an MTOW of 97,731 lb. Mitsubishi Aircraft's specifications for the MRJ90 indicate an MTOW of 87,303 lb. for the standard model, 90,378 lb. for the extended range and 94,358 lb. for the long range, and its MR70LR is about 2,600 lb. over the contractual maximum.
That could be a big problem, because regional carrier operations are the manufacturers' target market in the U.S. Even St. George, Utah-based SkyWest Inc.—which has placed firm orders for 100 Mitsubishi MRJ90LR and 100 Embraer 175-E2 jets, plus 100 options on each—acknowledges the importance of the issue.
North America has historically been by far the largest regional jet market, and even with other regions catching up it remains the leader. In its 20-year forecast of demand for 70-100 seat regional jets, Mitsubishi Aircraft predicts 31% of the 5,280-aircraft market will be in North America. It expects 20% of sales to be in Europe, 20% in Asia Pacific and 14% in Latin America, with the remainder in the Commonwealth of Independent States (7%), Africa (6%) and the Middle East (2%).
There are scope clauses or similar restrictions made in collective bargaining agreements in many parts of the world, but the limitations are probably still strongest in the market that otherwise liberalized first: U.S. mainline pilots are very reluctant to give ground on scope because they believe outsourced flying costs them jobs. Some U.S. airlines still have pilots on furlough, which can make extracting more concessions to allow such expansion of outsourcing even more difficult.