United Airlines to drop ExpressJet as affiliate, threatening regional airline's survival

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United Airlines will end its relationship with ExpressJet Airlines, dealing what could be a fatal blow to the 50-seat regional jet operator.

Chicago-based United will consolidate all of its United Express Embraer ERJ-145 flying with affiliate CommutAir and drop ExpressJet as a partner, United spokesperson Charles Hobart confirmed to TPG. The transition will take “a number of months.”

United’s latest fleet disclosure shows that CommutAir flies 37 ERJ-145s and ExpressJet 97 ERJ-145s for United, though some of those planes are parked due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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Travelers are unlikely to see an impact from United’s decision to consolidate ERJ-145 flying with CommutAir. The planes will continue to fly the same flights with the same service and exterior livery — only the operator, and the crews working them, will be different.

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However, the move could prove a death knell for ExpressJet. The Atlanta-based airline only flies ERJ-145s for the mainline carrier, having transitioned its E175s to SkyWest Airlines earlier this year.

If ExpressJet shut its doors, it would be the largest airline closure yet in the U.S. during the crisis. The Atlanta-based regional carrier employed more than 3,000 staff and fed United at its hubs at Chicago O’Hare (ORD) and Houston Bush Intercontinental (IAH).

Related: Could Trans States Airlines closure buy time for other US regionals?

To date, three U.S. carriers have shut down as a result of the pandemic: Trans States Holdings-owned Compass Airlines and Trans States Airlines, as well as RavnAir in Alaska. Both Compass and Trans States closed when their major airline partners ended contracts early as the number of people traveling slumped due to COVID-19.

United said that until there’s a vaccine, it expects the recovery in air travel to plateau at around half of its 2019 passenger numbers. As a result, it has pulled back August schedules and notified 36,000 staff of possible furloughs.

And on Thursday, the airline told pilots that it may have to furlough 1,650 more pilots than previously planned, or as much as a third of its cockpit crewmembers, due to the stalled recovery.

Related: United Airlines worries travel recovery will stall until there’s a COVID vaccine

On July 27, Reuters first reported that United planned to select a single operator for its future ERJ-145 flying.

United owns stakes in both CommutAir and ExpressJet. While it describes its ownership in the former as a “minority stake,” it has a 49.9% stake in ExpressJet parent ManaAir.

United will have five regional affiliates once it ends its relationship ExpressJet: Air Wisconsin, CommutAir, Mesa Airlines, Republic Airline and SkyWest Airlines.

ExpressJet was formed as the operator of Continental Express in the late 1980s. It was acquired by SkyWest-subsidiary Atlantic Southeast Airlines in 2010 which than adopted its name, before being sold to ManaAir in 2019.

Related: Global air travel unlikely to recover until 2024 as COVID remains ‘issue’ in US, elsewhere

Featured image by Robert Alexander/Getty Images.

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