US Airways CRJ-900 with United Airlines nose, operated by Mesa Airlines

US Airways CRJ-900 with United Airlines nose, operated by Mesa Airlines. Photo by Alastair T. Gardiner.

There are a lot of regional airlines out there. Most are independently operated and contracted out to larger carriers. In most cases, the regional carrier will wear the livery of the larger airline and flying under a capacity purchase agreement.

This relationship is well known to many of us airline nerds, but most of the general public might have a basic idea, but see them as the same airline.

Most regionals are flying just using a bigger airline’s brand. In many cases there are more than one regional airline flying under the same legacy airline’s brand. For example there are nine individual regional airlines currently flying under the same “United Express” brand. When most passengers see “United” or “United Express” they come to expect the same level of service, even if technically the same airline is not flying them.

For me, it is that brand the airline wears that makes all the difference. I have blogged about quite a few instances where employees of a regional airline screw up. When bad things happen with a regional airline, I question whether I should just blame the contracted airline or the legacy carrier whose name is on the side. In most cases I decide to point out that it is a regional airline, contracted out, but blame the legacy carrier.

I have had quite a few people disagree with me on this, even take offense. I can understand the frustration, but the legacy carrier has decided to put their name on the side of the regional carrier’s plane and people expect a certain level of service. The legacy airline’s name is on the ticket, reserved off their site and the employees wear their name tags. As you enter a regional plane, you might noticed the “Operated by ______”, but most people won’t. When the average Joe flies on a regional airline, they feel and expect it is just like them flying on the legacy carrier and I feel the legacy carrier is responsible for the service received.

United Exprees CRJ operated by Skywest Airlines.

United Express CRJ operated by Skywest Airlines.Photo by Paul Filmer

When an airline puts their name on something, it is putting their seal of approval for the way they do business. If a passenger has a horrible experience flying on US Airways Express operated by Mesa Airlines, do you think they will be say, “I am never flying Mesa Airlines again?” Of course not, they will blame it on the parent company, US Airways.

Some might think my opinion enforces most passengers’ ignorance to the differences between regionals and their legacy counterparts, but I feel it is important that the legacy airlines hold a lot of responsibility for the actions of employees wearing their uniforms and flying in their colors.

Let’s face it, the use of regional carriers is probably going to continue to grow. Personally, I enjoy the smaller aircraft experience, even when I know most passengers don’t. The reality is it is more cost effective to fly smaller planes and routes where you used to see Boeing 737’s or Airbus A320’s you are starting to see regional jets and props. Where most passengers complain about the smaller cabins, the regional airlines provide cheaper and service more often to more airports than their legacy carriers can accomplish.

Do you know what airline you will be flying on next time you are on a regional flight? I tried to create a list of smaller airlines that fly under the flag or legacy carriers and it wasn’t easy (let me know if I missed anything):

US Airways Express
* Air Wisconsin
* Mesa Airlines
– PSA Airlines
* Chautauqua Airlines
– Piedmont Airlines
* Republic Airlines
* Colgan Air
* Trans States Airlines

Delta Connection
* Atlantic Southest Airlines
– Comair
* Pinnacle Airlines
* Skywest
* Chautauqua Airlines
* Shuttle America
* Freedom Airlines
* Skywest Airlines

Continental Express
* Chautauqua Airlines
* ExpressJet

United Express
* Mesa Airlines
* Atlantic Southeast Airlines
* Chautauqua Airlines
* Republic Airlines
* Colgan Air
* Shuttle America
* GoJet
* Mesa Airlines
* TransStates Airlines
* Skywest
* ExpressJet

American Eagle
American Eagle
Executive Airlines

Note: Airlines in italics (with a “-” in front) are actually owned by the legacy’s parent company

I would like to hear your thoughts on this. How do you perceive regional’s relationship to legacy airlines? Should the airline business make more of a distinction?

Images (both used with permission):
USAirways by Alastair T. Gardiner
United by Paul Filmer
Thanks Court for your help!
UPDATE: Some readers have pointed out some regionals I missed under the legacy headers and I have updated them. Thanks!

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & FOUNDER - SEATTLE, WA. David has written, consulted, and presented on multiple topics relating to airlines and travel since 2008. He has been quoted and written for a number of news organizations, including BBC, CNN, NBC News, Bloomberg, and others. He is passionate about sharing the complexities, the benefits, and the fun stuff of the airline business. Email me:
Airline to Flight Attendants: Lose Weight or be Reassigned!

Should we make it even more complicated? Republic Airways Holdings owns Republic Airlines, Chatauqua and Shuttle America Mesa Air group owns not only Mesa, but also Freedom Airlines. go!Mokulele has its own branding, but it is 75% owned by Mesa, 25% by Republic Airways Holdings.

So if one gets bad service on Freedom Airlines operated by Mesa Air in Delta Connection Colors, it gets more complicated.

To some degree one has to say let the buyer beware, given the disclosures by the mainline operator. Most regional flights i’ve been on include an announcement along the lines of “Welcome aboard Delta Connection fligt XXX, operated by Comair” or something along those lines.

I generally don’t mind smaller aircraft,but I find I really don’t like the CRJ series or the 35-70 passenger Junglejets (Embraers). I’m still looking for my first EMB-170 or -190 flight, though. For now, I’ll stick with the Dash-8s, thankyouverymuch.

Hey Chris!

I think you are in the minority with the Q400’s over the regional jets, but I am with you there :).


Another facet is the liability of the major carrier in the event of an accident. The Colgan crash in Buffalo NY highlights how CAL is legally insulated from liability because it is Colgan who is responsible. When people buy a ticket on CAL, UAL, DAL etc they expect and deserve the level of professionalism and safety of that airline. As an example, United Airlines has great safety record. They have not had a plane crash that was pilot error since 1978. Sounds great and makes you want to fly on them perhaps and maybe even pay more for it. The facts is that half of their domestic flying is done by the Fee For Departure regional airlines. Since Colgan operates flights for United and Continental you van now longer count on the safety record to be a factor in your decision. How would you like it if you went to the Mayo Clinic for heart surgery because you knew they had the best and most experienced and expensive surgeons and had the highest success rate in the country then to discover your doctor farmed out your heart transplant to a new internist? That is what you get when buying a plane ticket.


On another note. The Scope protects in pilots contracts have been loosened up in the last decade to allow te majors to farm out more of their flying. The UAL scope provisions are the least restrictive of all the majors today. Continental has the most restrictive with the exception of Southwest which farms out none. The pilots of CAL and UAL are drawing a line in the sand so that the “New United” will have to live with the more restrictive CAL Scope language and not United’s. This means that anything over 50 seats will have to be flown by the UAL/CAL pilots and not farmed out to someone else. This would take a period of time to transition and could take several years to do. As a passenger/consumer that should provide you more confidence when deciding to fly them. The days of rapid growth for the regionals at the expense of the majors is coming to an end.

While I agree with your premise of a line drawn in the sand, it’s virtually impossible for them to adopt the Continental scope clause (of course they won’t tell you that, though). Scope clauses are largely a case of Pandora’s boxes. Once they’re open, you can’t really close them. This is the case at United/Continental. United has about 180 66 and 70-seaters already “out of the box,” so to speak. There’s no way they could get rid of those. Let me put it another way. There’s no way the pilots would take the pay cuts required to buy back that scope.

Even assuming that they would grandfather those 70’s in and allow no more, there remain major 50-seat replacement problems. Continental has already hinted at 70-seat jets and Skywest was even able to negotiate 50-seat replacement exclusivity with Continental as a part of the Expressjet deal. I can assure you that Skywest has some guarantees in place to make sure this deal works out for them.

I think you’ll see scope settle at the United clause. Nothing larger than 70, but unlimited 70’s including Q400’s. In order to back stop the scope creep and actually draw the line in the sand, the pilots need a 110-seater a la the 737-500. There is no airplane right now that fits that. The 195 doesn’t go far enough and the only thing that does fit the economics and performance requirements is the CS100 due out in 2013. Without this aircraft, the seat gap goes to 70-125, which is too big. Scope would then be inevitably relaxed to fill that gap with 80-90 seaters.

I know the union says other things, but trust me, they’ve been chanting this “hold the line” thing since 2000. Each time they find out how much it will cost them to hold the line, and they sell out. Bringing United under Continental scope is just too expensive.

I apologize for any typos. The auto correct on my iPhone changed a few of the words in both of my last posts

You can add express jet flying united express

Thank you, it was one I missed 🙂


I disagree with the idea that the 70 seaters are out of the box for good. Fee For Departure contracts are constantly being modified. With the merger process in full after burner mode right now the company wants to get a Joint Collective Bargaining Agreement in place by October. I can assure you that Scope is the #1 issue on the minds of both pilot groups. That goes above and beyond any pay raises. There is no way that the new U will have the old UAL scope provisions. The current scope provisions at UAL were forced upon the pilots with the leverage of the bankruptcy court. That fantasy land does not exist today for management. There will be limited 70 seaters and everything above will be mainline regardless. Not only can United renegotiate regional agreements and reduce the express RJs they can pull the rug completely out from under any of the regional carriers if they wanted to. It has been done before. The regionals like Skywest have been operating in a gray zone by operating for competing companies like Delta and United. Now days a line has been crossed in which Republic who operates as United Express has gone off and is using that money to finance buying Midwest and Frontier to directly compete with United. This kind of absolute conflict of interest is the kind of thing that can and should kill an existing express agreement. Once daddy’s money is no longer coming in I wonder how long they can maintain their existence.

The biggest reason for the expansion of RJs is due to the marketing departments fixation on having higher frequency lower seating a/c to many smaller cities. The higher unit cost of doing this with RJs was looked at as the price of doing business for having high frequency. This cost structure was a reasonable expense when when fuel was under $30/ barrel. In today’s world of $70 oil the smaller jets are money losers regardless of who is flying them. Having larger planes like the 737,A320/319, E190 or new C Series are much more efficient. The massive influx of RJs has exponentially increased the problem of congestion and ATC delays. Now with the new massive $27k per passenger fine imposed with the new Tarmac Delay Law it alters the risk/reward benefit of the smaller jets.

After all these years of stuffing people into cramped small jets the passengers aren’t in love with these planes either. The flying public does not like being separated from even their smallest carry on baggage. The 50-70 seat RJs are very cramped inside. It is like being stuffed into the back of a Prius as opposed to the back of a Lincoln. The flying public is now more aware that they are not riding on the airline they bought tickets on, instead they are riding on someone else who has insulated the mainline from any kind of liability. Passengers will gladly accept a few less daily departures to and from XYZ in exchange for riding on a bigger jet flown by the company they paid for.


The cost/seat mile for these 70 seaters flown at the regional level is still more than operating a 737/320 at the mainline. Nothing will happen over night but just like how the RJs expansion was phased in it can be phased down the same way. The language of Scope will be defined in the next 2 months for the new United and I think it will include more restrictive RJ flying at express not less. Everybody knows that the Fee For Departure contract flying has been stagnating and the only hope of expansion is for relaxed Scope at the new United. I can assure you that will not happen.

Under the American Airlines header you can add Chautauqua as “American Connection” out of STL and ORD. Also, Executive Airlines is simply a partition of American Eagle, which is wholly owned by AMR, at least for now.

Just an update for Delta Connection, you forgot Mesaba Airlines and Compass Airlines plus Freedom Airlines ends August 31st (which makes me very happy since they seem to have a 50% ontime performance).

On that point, I really think that the smaller airlines and pretty much all airlines should be required to report to the FAA ontime performance and all thos lovely parameters that we enjoy.

Also, I do expect the same service from regionals as mainlines and sometimes the service is better. ASA flight attendants are so much better than pre-merger NW flight attendants.

Hmmm, interesting you found better flight attendants on a regional like that. I would like to see on-time performance reported as well.


For those who haven’t seen it, this episode of PBS’ Frontline was interesting.

I agree that the legacy carrier should be held accountable for the actions of the contract carriers ie the regionals. However, on the same note I strongly believe that at the same time the passengers also need to know that it is a reional contracted by the flag company. While the complaint is being made it should along the lines of “How can United contract a carrier like Mesa airlines who provides a much lower class of service, has a less than stellar ontime or reliability with employees of a much lesser experience and maturity group” Call me bitter, but the cost of operating an RJ is not to the degree of savings as one might think. Look at Alaska/Horizon. The seat mile cost of those two companies makes Horizon’s cost higher than Alaska. United, US Airways, operate now regional jets into markets that could be servedd by mainline jets. Yet they operate regional jets who are often way over sold and highly weight restricted. This causes passengers to be bumped, bags left behind and the flight leaves with open seats. If airlines want to benifit from true cost savings they should focus on their employees, bring back larger jet service and customer service we can be proud of and make an honest effort to strive for EFFICIENCY. Regionals will never go away but they should be used more appropriately ie used as filler flights to increase frequency or launch service into a new market and serve smaller communities. I have seen RJ’s flying flights where once was a B737 that was always full and now the problem is compounded worse by replacing the B737 with an RJ cutting an already full flight by another 78 seats. Regionals are a problem and should be controlled and the flying public should know the truth about regional carrier’s and voice their concerns to their mainline partners, as you said they gave the regional’s the seal of approval but when things go wrong they deny any knowledge of the regional’s operation. I have been there I have seen both sides of the equation and some regionals are great but some I will not let my family on. This is my opinion and you can choose to agree or disagree with me.

Hey Tom!

Thanks for your comments. I think one of the benefits why airlines keep running regionals versus larger aircraft is the frequency of flights. When you see regionals competing with mainline carriers head-to-head you might see 1-2 flights per day using a B737 and maybe 7-10 using a smaller regional aircraft. Normally these regionals also fly into airports that don’t have slot issues so they can bring as many flights as they want. Airports that are busier (and as airports do get busier), you are going to see larger aircraft being used.


The legacy carrier should be 100% responsible for anything that occurs on a regional that they contract with. When I purchase a ticket on a carrier and a leg is flown by a regional, I expect the regional to provide the same service as the main line carrier. I work for a small manufacturing company that frequently hires outside contractors to perform services in the field. Our customers expect and we provide 100% responsibility and warranty for any equipment or services they purchase from us, regardless who provides the actual equipment or services. The contract between my company and our contractors may have clauses and stipulations but the customer is exempt from any of these issues. The customer always deals with my company on any issues and not the contractor. If it would happen any other way, there would be no advantage in purchasing the equipment or services from our company.

Hi David,
Thanks for your response. I have seen how the mainline carriers operate with the utilization of regionals. As you stated you would think it would be to increase frequency of flights and most of the time it is not the case. Look at Spokane for example. There used to be 3 flights a day with B737’s from Spokane to Denver these flights were always full and tough to get on. Now they operate 3 rjs on the same route. This is a common accurance throughout the system and not isolated to Spokane.

Thanks for publishing this it was essential for a paper I am currently writing for my thesis. Thanks

Susan M Stich

What is your take on these regional carriers and passenger safety? I am thinking of events like the one chronicled in the above blog.

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