United’s New Premium Regional Jet Launches Sunday. How Long Will It Last?

United Airlines is launching their new premium regional jet configuration on board what they are calling the Bombardier CRJ-550. United can’t add more regional jets for large numbers of passengers. So they’re putting just 50 seats in a plane that can fit 50% more. This new aircraft makes its first commercial flight this Sunday, October 27th.

The airline’s scope clause in their pilots contract imposes specific limits on the number of 50, 70, and 76 seat planes that can be flown under the United Express banner.

  • United is maxed out on 76 seaters, with SkyWest, Republic, and Mesa operating a total of 100 Embraer E-175s.

  • They have 105 regional jets with 70 seats – including half Embraer E-175s and half Bombardier CRJ-700s. United would certainly fly the E-175s that have 70 seats today with 76 seats if their pilots contract allowed it.

United’s solution to scope clause limits on larger regional jets is the CRJ-550, a CR7 that might have 70 seats with only 50. It’s a premium-heavy configuration (10 first class, 20 economy plus, and 20 economy seats) that fits within their current scope clause.

  • With extra room they add closets for bag storage
  • And since 50 passengers only require one flight attendant, there’s a self-serve beverage and snack station for first class passengers

I viewed this plan as a stalking horse for a new union contract. The premium-heavy regional jet could actually work on some routes, the jury isn’t in yet, but the airline wouldn’t be doing this if they weren’t constrained by the pilots contract.

United wouldn’t be running with a premium-heavy regional jet with a more flexible pilots’ contract. The question is, if they get scope relief, whether they’ll keep the configuration in the future.

The plane will offer more space per passenger than any other 50 seat aircraft, with enough space for every passenger to bring a carry on bag, and to save on cost – and crew the plane with just one flight attendant – there will be a self-service refreshment bar first class passengers.

The premium CRJ-550 will be based out of Chicago O’Hare and fly to Allentown, Pennsylvania; Bentonville, Arkansas; Cedar Rapids; Cincinnati; Columbus, Ohio; Des Moines; Grand Rapids; Greensboro, North Carolina; Harrisburg; Indianapolis; Madison, Wisconsin; Oklahoma City; Richmond; ; St. Louis; and Tulsa.

I actually don’t love the concept of the self-serve refreshment center. Either you’re going to have passengers getting up for drinks while the seat belt sign is on, or waiting longer for drinks. You’ll have passengers queueing. It’s a good looking area, and the concept of the self service snack bar works on a long haul flight for mid-flight refreshment. I’m just not sure it’s desirable for short haul.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. How are drinks going to work on this thing? Are they just going to put out mini bottles of liquor and wine plus beer? I can see this as getting a little messy. I like the concept but the execution will be key.

  2. I thought the self-service bar was in addition to the flight attendant doing a pass-through of the cabin. I don’t think alcohol will be available at the bar so it would be the only way to get an alcoholic drink or service if seat belt sign is on.

  3. Will you be giving up Singapore & Air France in First for the new United Premium self service snack bar?Wow amazing
    I’m so there can’t wait to fly such luxury

  4. I just don’t understand the markets this plane is serving (besides Bentonville I suppose). Why don’t they put this on their big city/hub routes?

  5. I think that United may be using the CRJ-550 to up the ante on routes where they compete with AA. We flew AA from ABE to ORD on Tuesday on an ERJ-145. AA restored this route in April.

  6. I really don’t think the pilots are going to budge on scope. This is a little more than a stopgap solution insofar as it required a supplemental type certificate (for the gross weight changes) and is a fairly capital-intensive retrofit for a regional jet. True, there are other interested parties here, besides United, that have financial skin in this game (TSH, Bombardier) but I don’t think this is something United will be able to quickly walk back. There’s no incentive for UALPA to cave again on scope

  7. Since it’s United I doubt anything about this will workout well. They are a pathetic company!

  8. @Gene – I’m naive to pilot union contracts. What is in it for the pilots to limit the number of small (or any) aircraft that United can fly? Less competition for the pilots?

  9. Steve S – the regional jets are flown by much more junior pilot crews and at pay rates that can be 1/3rd to 1/4th the cost of mainline pilot rates.

  10. In many contracts the number of passengers a plane can carry determines pilot pay or if the plane is even covered by a mainline pilot contract versus a contract of a regional carrier. In the 90s and early 00s, Northwest Airlines/subsidiary used to fly Avro Regional Jets (ARJs) with only 69 seats to avoid the mainline pilot contract. That plane was big. It had four engines. First class was 16 huge, plush recliner seats arranged 2-2. NW flew it all over the midwest from Detroit and Minneapolis.

    I always selected an ARJ fight because an upgrade was guaranteed even as a Silver. If flying solo, you could often pick someone at the gate and offer them an upgrade to first as a companion. Being on the same PNR was not required until later. UA elites will love the CRJ – 550 self-service notwithstanding.

  11. The only major carrier that serves HPN that does not have a premium cabin is United. Even AA has a premium cabin to ORD, CLT and some DCA. DAL has Premium cabins on all of the HPN service.
    OK, maybe not JetBlue, but all of it’s cabins are far superior to UAL’s offerings! I suggest that HPN’s demographics and clients spend more on travel than some of the other cities UAL is planning on serving with this aircraft.

  12. Cute idea, but won’t last more than 2 years. . going the way of TWA’s “Comfort Class” or AA’s “More Room in Coach”. Once fuel prices start to rise or UA and their pilots put a new contract in place, this will be a goner. I prefer AA’s and DL’s larger first class and main cabin extra/comfort plus seating.

    UA should look to get rid of the 50 seaters like AA and DL is doing verses this stunt.

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