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Friday May 28, 12:17 am Eastern Time

Airlines Want In On Regional Jets

By CLIFF EDWARDS
AP Business Writer

CHICAGO (AP) -- Airlines could be on a collision course with their pilots unions as the industry debates whether to fly more of the regional jets that are increasingly popular with travelers.

Pilots unions worry about what an increased emphasis on regional jets will mean for the future and fear airlines will use such jets to replace larger planes, which pilots are paid more to fly.

But United Airlines this week became the latest carrier to seek union permission to sharply increase regional jet purchases.

``Airlines are ordering them in large numbers because the customer clearly likes them over turboprops,'' United spokesman Joe Hopkins said Thursday. ``Since regional jets are important feeders into our hub cities, we do want to maintain parity.''

Regional jets usually seat no more than 70 people and have become popular tools for airlines to ferry consumers from small- and medium-size cities to large airports. Passengers prefer those planes over noisy turboprops because of their speed and perceived safety.

Northwest pilots went on strike last year in part over concerns of losing pilot jobs because Northwest was buying and leasing smaller regional jets to Mesaba Airlines, its Airlink partner.

Aviation analysts say unions must realize the disadvantages of limiting regional jets.

``If you have more (regional jet) feeds, then you have more traffic that can fill up your aircraft,'' said Brian Harris at Salomon Smith Barney.

Pilots unions for United, American Airlines, Northwest Airlines, Trans World Airlines and US Airways earlier this decade negotiated contracts that limit the number of regional jets a carrier or its contract subsidiary can fly. Such agreements are called ``scope clauses.''

America West, Delta Air Lines and Continental do not limit the number of regional jets, although they do have restrictions on the number of seats on a plane.

Elk Grove Village-based United proposed allowing its commuter partners to fly up to 284 small jets instead of 65. The plan comes as a new study commissioned by more than a dozen airports warned that labor's restrictions on such moves hamper competition in smaller cities.

The study by GKMG, a Washington-based airline consulting group, concluded 1,452 unserved markets could sustain regional jet service but restrictions bar service to 800 of them.

The Air Line Pilots Association criticized the report, noting that many of the airlines base their decisions about flying regional jets on the potential for profits rather than whether a city can support service.

Major carriers handle commuter jet service in different ways, requiring decisions to be made on a case-by-case basis, said Capt. Madison Walton, a spokesman for United's pilots union chapter.

American Airlines owns its commuter jet division, while Northwest owns the planes and leases them to others and Delta has a stake in its commuter partners.

United contracts with regional carriers that operate under the United Express banner, agreements that could leave the majority employee-owned carrier vulnerable at the end of those contracts, Walton said.

``There is an acknowledgment of the value of feeds into our hubs being able to grow the airline,'' he said. ``But the concern is that the Express carriers basically have control, and the economics of whether we should continue that, buy our own planes with corporate capital or take a greater (financial) interest in Express carriers has to be considered.''

Walton said the pilots' Master Executive Council had no timetable for making a decision on the matter.

The carrier hopes to reach agreement by March, the deadline for United Express carriers to exercise delivery options for additional regional jets.