United Continental Holdings Inc. is exploring a deal to invest in regional airline ExpressJet to boost its pipeline of pilots and expand service in the eastern and midwestern U.S., people familiar with the matter said.

The Chicago-based carrier is looking at acquiring an ownership stake in ExpressJet among other options in negotiations that are still developing, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the talks are private. There’s no guarantee the discussions will lead to a deal with ExpressJet, an unprofitable subsidiary of SkyWest Inc. that already flies for United.

The tie-up would help United beef up the domestic network that feeds travelers to other flights, as the No. 3 U.S. carrier works to close a profit gap with Delta Air Lines Inc. and American Airlines Group Inc. United has been adding dozens of flights between smaller cities and its largest airports, trips that can be more lucrative than the heavily-trafficked routes between big hubs.

Financial details of the potential transaction couldn’t be determined. United declined to comment. SkyWest and ExpressJet didn’t respond to requests for comment.

SkyWest jumped on news of the talks, climbing as much as 3.5 percent in intraday trading. The shares rose 1.8 percent to $52.60 at 2:26 p.m. in New York, while United climbed less than 1 percent to $64.12.

Pilot Recruiting

United, which has a minority stake in CommutAir, is the only one of the three largest U.S. carriers that doesn’t own a regional airline outright. That can put United at a disadvantage in recruiting pilots.

Delta’s Endeavor Air offers pilots a guaranteed interview at the mainline airline after a certain period. American’s wholly-owned regional units have “flow-through agreements” that enable pilot hires to advance straight to a job at the major carrier without an additional interview.

United is treading carefully to avoid the labor turmoil that would come with acquiring a regional airline carrier outright, the people said. United management and leaders of the pilots union are already taking steps toward opening contract talks ahead of schedule, with a goal of forging a new agreement by early 2019, Captain Todd Insler, chairman of the United Airlines Pilots Master Executive Council, said in an Oct. 20 letter to pilots.

One of the issues expected to loom large in the talks are the restrictions on the scope of United’s Express unit, which subcontracts flying to commuter carriers. While United would like to add more Embraer SA E-175s to expand its reach to smaller markets, the regional operation has reached the maximum number of 76-seat aircraft allowed under the current pilot contract.

Annual Losses

ExpressJet, based in Atlanta, had about $1 billion in sales last year, with an operating loss of $300 million that was widened by special items. The unit posted losses of $34.2 million in 2015 and $118 million in 2014, according to regulatory filings by SkyWest.

The carrier agreed in August to end a carriage deal with Delta earlier than expected. ExpressJet also serves American.

Until it was spun off in 2002, ExpressJet had been a unit of Continental Airlines, which merged with United in 2010. The main airports served by the regional carrier include Atlanta, Cleveland, Chicago, Houston and Newark, New Jersey.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.

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Photo Credit: United Airlines may invest in ExpressJet, a regional airline. It flies Embraer regional jets as United Express. Expressjet