United reportedly in talks with Embraer, Bombardier about regional-jet buy

United Airlines is in talks with Embraer and Bombardier to buy new narrow-body planes amid a fleet makeover to reduce its reliance on unprofitable regional jets, people familiar with the matter said.

The discussions involve the largest models in Embraer’s updated E-Jets family and Bombardier’s smallest CSeries, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the details are private. An order isn’t imminent, the people said.

An Embraer or Bombardier purchase would be a departure for Chicago-based United, whose pilots only fly Boeing Co. and Airbus Group NV aircraft on its main jet routes. The jets under consideration would fill a gap between United’s narrow-bodies, most of which seat more than 150 people, and commuter planes carrying a maximum of 76 passengers.

Choosing one of the new planemakers also would let United place a separate order at the Express regional unit to replace its inefficient 50-seaters. United’s pilot contract lets it take more commuter aircraft, starting in 2016, as long as larger Embraer or Bombardier jets are added to the main fleet.

For regional-jet pioneers Embraer and Bombardier, a deal with United would boost their quest to weaken Boeing and Airbus’s grip on sales of bigger aircraft to major U.S. airlines. Embraer’s two largest E2 planes will have about 140 seats, while the CS100 from Montreal-based Bombardier will carry 108 to 125 people.

United isn’t giving details on its fleet strategy, which includes assessing new and used planes, said Megan McCarthy, a spokeswoman for parent United Continental Holdings.

“We’re talking to all the manufacturers,” McCarthy said in a telephone interview.

Spokesmen for Airbus, Boeing and Sao Jose dos Campos, Brazil-based Embraer declined to comment on talks with United. Marianella de la Barrera, a Bombardier spokeswoman, said “United is obviously an airline that we’re very interested in showing the CSeries to” while declining to give details.

While Embraer’s E190-E2 and E195-E2 are re-engined updates of existing models, Bombardier’s CSeries is an all-new aircraft. The planemaker has struggled to find buyers for the CSeries, whose commercial debut is now set for 2015’s second half after missing a planned 2013 target.

The E2s, which won’t start entering service until later this decade, list for as much as $62.4 million. The CS100’s catalog price is $63 million. Airlines typically get discounts.

United’s results have been hurt by its dependence on 50- seat jets flown under contract by regional affiliates. Even with fuel prices retreating this year, a gallon of jet kerosene still costs about 50 percent more than a decade ago, eroding the economics that once made the small planes attractive.