When thinking about the North American airline market potential for aircraft in the seat capacity range that crossover narrowbody jets occupy, two words come immediately to mind: “scope clauses”.

As most industry observers know, these agreements define the weight, seat capacity and number of aircraft a partner airline can operate for U.S. major carriers, with each of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines having different figures. Across in Canada, similar limitations exist for Air Canada.

Crossover narrowbody jets such as the Airbus A220-300 and the Embraer 195-E2 have capacities well above the 76-seat limit currently imposed and generally they are not seen as crucial in any scope clause discussions. The key crossover jets in scope negotiations are the Embraer 175-E2 (80 seats in single class) and the Mitsubishi MRJ90 (88 seats). Under current scope limits, neither of those aircraft could be operated by a major’s regional airline partner, which is where the majors want to place them.

With new scope negotiations due between now and 2022, the manufacturers in question are hopeful enough changes will enable their new crossover narrowbody jets to penetrate the North American market to at least the same extent as first-generation. One of them, however, is slightly less worried than the other.

“Our approach with the MRJ family of aircraft (MRJ90 and MRJ70) has always been global and I would say that the MRJ family is perfectly positioned regardless of scope,” explains Eddie Jaisaree, head of North America sales for Mitsubishi Aircraft Corp. “If it does relax, then U.S. customers can take advantage of the double-digit cost savings offered by the advanced aerodynamics and new technologies of the MRJ90. If it doesn’t relax, the MRJ70 is the only clean sheet design jet that will operate under current scope clause.”

Whether a scope change may occur, Jaisaree notes, “The 50-seat and 70-seat jets of the early- and mid-1990s went into service with U.S. carriers following EIS in Europe [where crossover jets are already operating]. We are certain that at the right time, the latest in technology, as with the MRJ, will ultimately be adopted into U.S. carriers.”

Victor Vieira, head of market strategy at Embraer Commercial Aviation, points to the scope concessions that US majors have negotiated over the last decade – “sometimes taking advantage of Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection” – which have enabled them to move up from 50 seaters to “much larger fleets of 76-seat aircraft with dual-class cabins”. In this context, he declares, “the E175 is the undisputable leader with more than 400 net orders in the last five years, resulting in 80% market share.”

Vieira moves on to the upcoming scope negotiations. “Typically, contracts between major carriers and the union last about three years. All majors are set to open contract negotiations with their pilots in 2019 with the subsequent round likely to be in 2022, when the E175-E2 will offer 6% advantage in terms of fuel burn and 20% in terms of maintenance, on both per trip and per seat basis. The most efficient aircraft is actually in all their best interests and the relaxation will happen in that window to make the E175-E2 scope compliant,” he predicts. Embraer will certainly be hoping that forecast come true soon as it forecasts that the region will require more than 2,500 crossover narrowbody jets the next 20 years.

There is, of course, a further scenario for the success of crossover jets in North America and it is already underway. That is for these aircraft to be flown as mainline aircraft by mainline pilots, regardless of the business model a carrier operates. This is also where the larger crossover jet models come into play in a big way.

Delta and Air Canada have chosen a crossover type, in the shape of the A220-100, for mainline legacy service, while JetBlue has ordered the A220-300 for low-fare airline service. There is also David Neeleman’s Project Moxy with a commitment for up to 60 A220-300s for a new airline. With such operators already taking on these aircraft, it seems likely that more legacy carriers or low-fare airlines will follow suit.

“We think that the step-change improvement in economics and cabin comfort benefits, as in the clean sheet design of the MRJ, opens up possibilities for replacement of older equipment, and as an opportunity for growth. Air Canada and Delta were long-time operators of the DC-9, and up until now, there has not been a suitable replacement,” says Jaisaree.

Embraer’s E2 family has a single cabin configuration range from 80-146 seats, which Vieira believes is suitable for any airline business model. “Not only can they improve connectivity by tapping the ‘crossover’ gap between regional and large narrowbody aircraft, but they can also launch service on ‘long and thin’ routes currently bypassed by a route network that primarily connects major markets. United Airlines and Spirit Airlines, for example, have already expressed interest in purchasing crossover narrowbody jets for that matter,” he reports.

“In addition, the category also enjoys the huge benefit of directly replacing aging fleet in the 100 to 150 seat segment, since North American carriers are, combined, the largest operator of this aircraft type, nearing 1,500 jets in service with an average age of 16 years,” Vieira states.

While carriers in North America have been doing rather well in recent years, it is never too soon to ‘future proof’ a business in case of a market downturn. New types created from clean sheet designs (and bar the exception of the fuselage, the Embraer E2 family pretty much qualifies) will need to be brought online one way or another in the not-too-distant future.

As with many elements of aviation, the technology is already there; now it just needs the politics to be sorted out.