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Delta plans to fly fewer 50-seat planes with cramped cabins

Its new deal with the pilots union eventually would remove 218 small planes from its fleet.

If you dislike flying in 50-seat regional jets, you’ll love the labor deal that Delta Air Lines recently struck with its pilots union.

Delta LogoUnder the new labor pact, Delta Air Lines would remove 218 small 50-seat planes from its fleet, meaning passengers would get to fly on larger and roomier planes.

Delta pilots will start voting on their labor agreement later this month. If they ratify the tentative agreement, a 4 percent pay increase would take effect immediately and by Jan. 1 pay rates would be 12.8 percent higher than they are today. The pilots’ tentative agreement boosts pay by 19.7 percent by Jan. 1, 2015.

The labor deal was negotiated at a feverish pace by the Delta unit of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). Airline industry insiders were stunned that Delta could reach a deal with its union pilots more than seven months before the current contract’s amendable date of Dec. 31, 2012. It often takes years for big airlines and their pilots unions to negotiate labor agreements.

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Delta was eager to get a speedy deal because it wanted to accelerate the restructuring of its fleet. The pilots union saw the opportunity to improve pay scales for its members, but the deal also increases the amount of flying that is done by Delta mainline pilots, as opposed to regional carrier pilots.

For example, many Twin Cities customers who book Delta flights to regional centers end up flying out of the airport on 50-seat regional jets flown by pilots who work for Pinnacle or SkyWest. They are both Delta Connection carriers and they supply service to Delta.

The Delta ALPA labor agreement is a complex document that specifies the scope of flying that will be done by Delta pilots and by regional carrier pilots.

There is a strong and mutual interest in the new labor pact, because Delta management wanted to operate more large aircraft and the Delta pilots wanted to fly them.

In a “Negotiators Notepad” that the union recently circulated to pilots, ALPA leaders stated that Delta currently contracts with regional carriers to fly 343 50-seat airplanes. The new labor deal caps the number of 50-seaters that can be flown for Delta to 125 airplanes, so Delta would eliminate 218 small planes from its fleet.

Delta plans to add 88 Boeing 717s, which seat 117 passengers and have first-class cabins. Delta reached a deal with Boeing and Southwest to lease the planes, which have been operated by AirTran Airways that was acquired by Southwest.

“If the pilots agreement is ratified, we would be in a position to begin adding these 717s to our mainline fleet next year,” Delta CEO Richard Anderson said in a recent message to Delta employees. “We would mostly use them to replace inefficient 50-seat regional jets.”

The chief executive emphasized that the Boeing 717s would improve the “onboard experience” for passengers. No doubt tall passengers would concur as well as people who feel cramped in the 50-seaters.

Anderson and the union indicated the deal also gives Delta quicker access to 70 additional 76-seat aircraft that feature first-class cabins. The “Negotiators Notepad” said the Boeing 717s would be incorporated into the fleet first. Then Delta could start adding 76-seaters and phasing out more 50-seat airplanes.

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“The Company plans to accomplish this reduction by exchanging with the [Delta Connection regional] carriers 76-seat aircraft for 50-seat aircraft on approximately a 2 for 1 basis,” the union memo stated. Two 50-seat planes would be taken out of operation for every 76-seat jet placed into operation.

Delta ALPA reported that Delta management wants to dramatically reduce the 50-seat plane fleet because of “looming maintenance costs, high fuel prices and customer preferences.”

Delta pilots handle international flying, but a large portion of domestic routes are being operated by regional carriers under the Delta Connection banner.

In a memo to Delta pilots, the union said that Delta pilots have been doing about 54 percent of Delta’s domestic flying, while the rest was handled by regional pilots. After the fleet plan restructuring is completed, the union said that Delta pilots will be operating 64 percent of Delta’s flights within the United States.

Delta acquired Eagan-based Northwest Airlines in October 2008, and thousands of the pilots who’ll be voting on this new labor deal took hefty pay cuts during the Delta and Northwest bankruptcies. If Delta pilots approve the deal negotiated by ALPA, they’ll see pay increases in their scales and many first officers can move up to captains as mainline domestic flying expands.

While pilots will get bigger paychecks, passengers can look forward to bigger planes and more head room.

Fedor can be reached at