AirKarp

US mainline-regional system likely contributed to bumping incident

by Aaron Karp
Apr 14, 2017

Largely overlooked in the saturation coverage of the United Airlines’ bumping incident is that, aside from the gate agents at Chicago O’Hare, none of the employees involved worked for United. The crew operating the Embraer E170 were all employees of Republic Airways Holdings, parent of the Republic Airlines subsidiary that operated United Express flight 3411. And the crew that showed up at the gate at the last minute to be boarded—necessitating bumping four passengers, including David Dao—worked for Republic.

As someone who has covered both the US mainline and regional airline industries closely for many years, I can’t help but wonder if the Byzantine relationship between mainlines and regionals is partly to blame for this incident. It was Republic, not United, that decided its crew had to get to Louisville, necessitating bumping passengers. (It is possible—and would be very ironic if it is the case—that the crew being transported to Louisville operated a non-United branded flight the next day. Republic also operates as American Eagle and Delta Connection out of Louisville.)

So you had a Republic crew showing up at the last minute and a United gate agent figuring out how to get them on board. My guess is there would have been better coordination—and the gate agent would have felt like he or she had more options—if it had been a United crew trying to get on a United mainline flight. (Figuring it out would have likely occurred before the passengers were boarded.) Most of the passengers on board flight 3411 probably had little or no idea they were flying on a Republic—not a United—controlled aircraft.

The system, while well-known and accepted by those in the industry, is really quite strange. Passengers are sold tickets by United, the flight is branded United—but United and United employees aren’t operating the flight. Given that Republic also operates for United’s rivals, the operational interests of the regional and the mainline aren’t identical. Republic, for instance, was most worried about getting its flights from Louisville out on time on Monday morning—for United, American and Delta.

That’s primarily what the regionals are judged on in terms of their capacity purchase agreement contracts with the majors: on-time performance and completing flights. So Republic’s incentive—getting the crew to Louisville so the next day’s flights can be on time—may not be United’s—first and foremost serving customers such as David Dao.

I understand why the mainline-regional system has ended up structured the way it has. Regionals largely believe it would be too risky from a business perspective to fly and sell tickets under their own brands, and mainlines, with all they have to worry about, simply don’t want so many smaller aircraft under their operational control. But the mainlines need the passenger feed to their hubs, so they contract out a large amount of their flying to other companies.

But it is nevertheless somewhat deceiving to the public, even if the small print on itineraries says, “flight operated by Republic.” Most people outside the industry I talk to about their domestic airline trips are completely unaware that part or all of the journey was not aboard the airline they bought their ticket from. And it creates incentives that are at cross purposes, as I explained above, and leads to regionals and mainlines having to coordinate things like placing crew on aircraft and bumping passengers—even though the employees doing the coordinating work for different companies that may have different rules and procedures.

None of this excuses what happened on United Express flight 3411 or United CEO Oscar Munoz’s slow-footed response to the incident. Dao, after all, was a United-paying passenger. (The passengers pay the mainlines; the mainlines pay the regionals.) But Republic should share some of the blame. And part of the “review” being undertaken post-incident should be about the mainline-regional structure in the US that helped create the situation that led to this infamous incident. 

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