What Is The CRJ550?

Filed Under: United

Yesterday United announced that they’ll be adding 1,600 first and business class seats to their fleet. This is coming in the form of installing more first class seats on their A319s and A320s, configuring some 767s with additional business class seats, and introducing the new CRJ550.

When I first read about the CRJ550 I did a double take, since it’s an aircraft type I hadn’t heard of before. So in this post I wanted to talk more about what exactly this plane is, and why I find United’s decision with this plane interesting.

What is the CRJ550?

The CRJ550 is Bombardier’s newest aircraft type. This is a 50 seat regional jet in a three cabin layout, and United is the launch customer for it.

Here’s how Bombardier’s President describes the plane:

“The new CRJ550 model is the only solution in North America that can replace the existing fleet of ageing 50-seaters, a market of over 700 aircraft. It offers improved passenger experience with ample on-board storage for carry-on bags and more passenger living space. This is one more example of how we are focusing on creating value for our customers and a very important endorsement from United in regards to the CRJ platform.”

The CRJ550 isn’t really a new aircraft type

The fuselage of the CRJ550 is based on the CRJ700, which many airlines already operate. The plane will require a new type certificate, but otherwise is almost identical. That’s why you may not have heard a lot about this plane yet, even though it will join United’s fleet later this year (usually it’s years from when a plane is announced until it’s in service).

So why on earth would they create a new aircraft type that isn’t really a new aircraft type? Why does the interior being different warrant the plane type being renamed?

The CRJ550 is intended to circumvent scope clauses

Over the years airlines have tried to get creative with lowering the cost structure for many of their operations:

  • For the most part, major global airlines don’t operate regional jets themselves, but rather contract regional airlines to operate flights on their behalf, so that they can achieve a lower cost structure by paying employees less
  • Similarly, we’ve seen some airlines set up low cost carriers with a similar mission

Just to give you a sense of pay differences, an American EMB190 fifth year captain earns $166 per hour, while an Envoy Air EMB175 fifth year captain earns $77 per hour. The planes have identical cockpits, and one plane just has slightly higher capacity than the other (and hence isn’t allowed to be operated by a regional airline).

Airlines’ ability to set up things like this is entirely dependent on negotiations with unions. Over the years airlines have certainly pushed their luck when it comes to how widespread regional airlines have become.

When they were first introduced, the intention was that regional airlines would fly to smaller airports that couldn’t be served by mainline jets, in a way that wouldn’t threaten mainline pilot jobs.

Meanwhile over the years we’ve seen regional airlines operate in all kinds of major business markets, like Chicago to New York, Los Angeles to San Francisco, etc.

What does United’s scope clause say?

What does United’s current scope clause look like?

  • United Express is limited to flying 255 aircraft with 51-76 seats
  • That limit doesn’t apply to planes with 50 seats or less; as a matter of fact, in theory up to 90% of United’s narrowbody fleet could be flown by 50 seat regional jets, per the contract

This is a huge point of contention at the moment, especially as United pilot contracts are up for negotiation. Management wants pilots to agree to more big regional jets, while pilots aren’t budging.

The CRJ550 will intentionally be weight restricted

As mentioned above, the CRJ550 will be almost identical to the CRJ700, except the interior. There will be one other major issue. While the maximum takeoff weight for the CRJ700 is about 75,000 pounds, the CRJ550 will intentionally be certified to just 65,000 pounds.

So they’ll intentionally be reducing the maximum takeoff weight of the plane by five tons, which will limit the amount of fuel the plane can carry, and in turn will limit the distance the plane can fly (in fairness, the plane will naturally be a bit lighter due to having fewer seats and passengers).

Why on earth would they intentionally restrict the distance the plane can fly? It all comes down to United’s scope clause. Above I talked about how United’s scope clause restrictions don’t apply to planes with 50 or fewer seats. But there’s an added wrinkle:

“50-Seat Aircraft” means aircraft certificated in the United States for fifty (50) or fewer passenger seats and a maximum certificated gross takeoff weight in the United States of 65,000 or fewer pounds.

So they’re intentionally certifying the plane to a maximum takeoff weight of 65,000 pounds to get around this restriction.

United’s CRJ550 is going to be really interesting

We live in a time where airline executives fantasize about how many seats they can squeeze into a plane. So that’s why the CRJ550 is surprising, because it’s a plane designed not to be efficient.

The plane will have 10 first class seats, 20 extra legroom economy seats, and 20 regular economy seats. So we’ll see 50 seats in an area that usually has 70+ seats.

On top of that, the plane will have four massive luggage closets, so that passengers don’t have to gate check bags (the overhead bins on the CRJ are small, so usually full size carry-ons have to be checked).

United also advertises that there’s a self-serve beverage and snack station for first class customers.

What makes this interesting to me is twofold:

  • The plane will only have one lavatory, as you’ll find on most 50 seat planes, rather than the two lavatories you’ll usually find on CRJ700s; having to share a lavatory between cabins in that way is hardly “premium”
  • Since the plane will have only 50 seats, United could operate the flight with just one flight attendant (you need one flight attendant for every 50 seats); so something tells me that the “beverage and snack station” isn’t being installed because the airline is feeling generous, but rather because this will essentially be a self service plane, with one flight attendant taking care of 50 passengers, including 10 first class passengers

Bottom line

It’s fascinating to see an aircraft manufacturer create a new aircraft type that is so explicitly intended to circumvent scope clauses. I mean, ultimately manufacturers have been taking things like this into consideration for a long time, but the correlation usually isn’t this explicit.

On one hand United is making it seem like it’s going to be a really premium aircraft, while on the other hand it will have only one lavatory and in all likelihood will have only one flight attendant, probably making this the worst plane in the fleet (mainline or regional) when it comes to service.

What do you make of the “new” CRJ550?

  1. @Sean M but the ERJ140 has different fuselage length than the ERJ145. This CRJ550 is just a CRJ700 with reduced passenger counts and reduced MTOW. A similar analogy is the CRJ440 Northwest used to have, CRJ440 are just CRJ200 with some blocked seats.

  2. “it will have only one lavatory and in all likelihood will have only one flight attendant, probably making this the worst plane in the fleet (mainline or regional) when it comes to service.”

    While it will be bad for F, it’s not too bad for Y – the 320 has about a 1:50 ratio of FAs to pax and 138 Y seats share one lav, or 1:69 ratio. Meanwhile, 20% of the plane is F and half of the total Y seats are Y+. I can’t think of any other narrowbody aircraft, even after the changes, that offer that ratio for elites looking to upgrade.

  3. The only way this could make sense is in a few select markets which are relatively thin (so need smaller planes), but have relatively high percentage of premium travelers, right? So maybe a few mid-size cities to/from Chicago and New York? Something like Cincinnati, with premium traffic from Procter & Gamble?

  4. A lot of industry peeps saying that it is a stop gap until scope clauses are relaxed. General feeling is that United feels confident that they can relax the scope clauses with pilots soon and as soon as they do so they will rip these interiors out and fill em right back up to 75 seats.

    It makes sense too, allows United to hold on to their assets and 75 seaters, while not having to worry about losing them in the mean time, and having to reorder entirely new frames a few years down the line. Might as well have them earning a little revenue while they negotiate. Some people think that they may not ever fly for United as 50 seaters, too, although personally if negotiations were that far along and they were that confident I doubt they’d even announce these.

  5. Oh, 2 other things: 1) I put the odds of this actually flying pax at about 60%, I think it is just a tactic for union negotiations; 2) those mid-aircraft luggage bins are going to stink when someone’s luggage is in the rear of the bin and they have to wait for those in the front of it to unload first.

  6. Oh God. Give me a break. Let them build the thing first and then write a flight review before getting all up in arms about the bathroom and snack bar. These tiny planes are for like 2 hour or less flights in my experience, which has mainly been ERJ-145s with United and CRJ-900s with American. I’ll gladly take a self-service snack and drink bar in first on this plane.

  7. From a passenger’s perspective – one who flies too many regional CRJ 200s, 700s, & 900s — i like what i’m hearing. Effectively the 550 is a 700 (basically a stretched 200) but with only 50 seats (that a otherwise 200 has). The single rear lav not ideal, but OK w/ only 50 pax, especially since flights are shorter with little if any meal service. I agree the First class self serve bar is to add premium drinks, snacks to First, while the sole FA is tending to coach pax.

  8. actually several airlines fly these little planes on routes longer than 2 hours

    From a passenger point of view it sounds nice to me. But I refuse to fly UX/UA

  9. Here is a report from flightglobal. https://www.flightglobal.com/news/articles/united-expands-premium-push-with-new-dual-class-crj5-455565/

    It states UAL is just going to reconfig and recertify some existing Crj-7s Gojet already has on property. . Seeing how UAL is in contract negotiations if company gets their desired relaxation on scope (not going to happen) boom they can get these recertified and back to 70 seats we go.

    So it’s still a crj-7 with just different paperwork. It can be changed. Continental recertified some of their emb-145s. Went from er to ep with an increase in MTOW.

    Kirby is a known RJ lover and loves outsourcing.

    Not a fan but if they want to fly inefficient airplanes so be it. If nothing else it will make the 50 seat market a little more bareable.

  10. “Only one flight attendant, probably making this the worst plane in the fleet (mainline or regional) when it comes to service.”

    So sit down, stare out the window or read a book for the ninety minute flight and re-engage with the lux life once you are back on the ground. You’ll live.

  11. I read that the first route for this plane is ORD-XNA (NW Arkansas) as Wal-Mart suppliers were unhappy with the RJs on that route and were choosing other carriers. Have no idea whether or not that’s true.

    As someone who is usually stuck on RJs for the first leg of my UA flights I’m glad to see this and hope it expands to MEM soon. I think the MEM-IAH route gets maybe one flight per day with a premium cabin. Always a let-down when I return home from flying international first class thanks to my miles and I end up in a tiny 1-cabin plane for the last leg home.

  12. Only mentioned in passing, but maybe the most important improvement, is the closet space for roller bags. Not having to constantly gate check on a regional, then wait nervously checking my watch while ground staff unloads and brings bags back to waiting pax, and then running to the connection will change my life. Extra legroom / First seats are great, but I’ll gladly trade those for that extra 10-15 minutes upon arrival at the hub.

  13. @Lea- that’s exactly the type of route I am talking about, and actually it came into my head right I after I typed my post about Cincinnati. I think there are a few of these types of markets that it would work on, and not many more.

  14. In many ways, this seems like the same conversation we had over the 787 making long and narrow international routes possible. I’m based in a mid-sized Midwestern city and take a lot of one-stops because the market just isn’t present for direct flights to a lot of cities. A plane like this would make a lot of those domestic routes more reasonable. I imagine there are a lot of mid-sized cities like mine that would benefit from routes like this.

  15. Is only one lav a big deal on flights that are relatively short? The lavs don’t seem to get a lot of use on my flights that are less than two hours.

  16. Delta’s CRJ-700s only have 1 lavatory, not 2. The CRJ-900s have 2 lavatories.

    I bet this plane flies Dulles and Reagan to Newark and maybe even Chicago and Boston. Big money routes.

  17. I see this as an improvement to the CRJ 200’s, E145’s, and CRJ 700’s. There really is nothing special about this plane, but everyone should be thankful that this may signal the beginning of the end to CRJ 200 and E145 aircraft which are without a doubt far worse than what this will ever be.

  18. “it’s only for use in short flights!”

    Eh, United used an E175 (same size) for the Fresno to Chicago flight, which was blocked just over 4 hours.

    Its being upgraded to an Airbus this year

  19. It’s not a a new type all it is is a CRJ 700 with an STC to remove 20 seats. These planes already exist they’re just gonna rip 20 seats out. UAL Pilots are gonna stand hard on the scope clause.

  20. An added benefit of the large bins and closet is that bags in the cabin are weightless.

    But if UA really wanted to split hairs, they could just install 70 seats and “certificate” 50! LOL

  21. I am STOKED about this. 60% of my home airport is CRJ200 and ERJ145 both of which are not nice from a seating and luggage perspective. There’s better for travel stress levels than not knowing when you’ll randomly have to gate check and have your bags dropped on the tarmac (it’s happened) because an FA is on a power trip. I travel with a duffel bag specifically due to those plane types which is less than ideal when running for a connection.

    This is the single largest thing UA has done in the last couple years to keep me flying with them (was seriously considering changing to Delta this year). Here’s to it happening as soon as possible.

  22. I love everything about this. United has been guilty, too, of cramming in seats, but since I’m 6’6″ tall but can’t afford to fly first class, I’ll happily get up to use the snack bar and retrieve my own drinks if it means I can actually have some room in my seat. One bathroom isn’t a problem either. Use the bathroom in the terminal before takeoff and on most flights, you can make it to your destination before having to go.

  23. I’ve flown this aircraft frequently between Asuncion (Paraguay) and Montevideo (Uruguay) which is just under a 2 hour hop. Only one flight attendant and one lavatory as you mentioned. However I did notice that they have two jump seats (one in the front and one in the back). Its quite likely that they will have two attendant’s i.e. one for the First and Economy PLUS passengers and another for the rest.

  24. I am with CM – between Lucky and Gary Leff – both AA fans (Lucky – did you finally decide to let go of AA for its rotten ops?), not much attention is given to an airline that actually seems to lead the old legacy pack with something of a reasonably good service. A220 is exciting.

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