Deferral of 10 CRJ700s part of struggling Mesa's cash plan

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Struggling regional airline operator Mesa Air Group predicts it will become cash flow positive and profitable during its 2009 fiscal year should the Phoenix-based company's partnerships with US major airlines remain intact.

Mesa has been taking measures to help shore up its cash position. Last fall the firm reached agreement with Bombardier to defer delivery of 10 CRJ700s by three years and receive a return of $6 million of the $6.5 million previously held on deposit with the Canadian airframer, chairman and CEO Jonathan Ornstein revealed today during a conference call to discuss Mesa's 2008 fiscal year net loss of $29.2 million.

At the end of the fiscal year, on 30 September, Mesa's balance of cash, cash equivalents, restricted cash, and marketable securities totalled $64.9 million. This is down from the $208.6 million it held at the end of its 2007 fiscal year, an amount subsequently reduced in connection with a legal judgment obtained by Hawaiian Airlines against Mesa.

Asked by an analyst if Mesa is concerned with its level of cash, Ornstein said: "Clearly in the airline business, it goes without saying that everybody is always concerned about cash."

Nonetheless, at this point management believes the company "will be cash flow positive next year and in addition we believe that we will be profitable as well with obviously all the considerations that are out there given the uncertainty that the industry faces".

Should Mesa find itself in need of additional cash, however, it has been in discussions with vendors about "some non-traditional" options, says Ornstein.

An admitted risk for Mesa going forward is the company's feeder deal with Delta. In March 2008 Delta moved to cancel a contract with Mesa's Freedom Airlines subsidiary, citing Freedom's failure to meet operational targets as the reason.

The agreement covered operation of 34 Embraer ERJs in total. Mesa took legal action against Delta and in May a judge issued a preliminary injunction preventing Delta from dissolving the pact.

Delta appealed the injunction and a hearing is now scheduled for 30 January, says Ornstein.

Another risk factor is Mesa's codeshare agreement with US Airways. Mesa has already received notice of US Airways' intent to reduce one Bombardier CRJ200 this month, one in July 2009 and one CRJ200 in January 2010.

"We anticipate US Airways will continue to further reduce the number of covered aircraft in accordance with the agreement," says Mesa in a filing with the US Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC). "In addition, US Airways may eliminate the [Bombardier] Dash 8 aircraft upon 180 days prior written notice."

In the near-term, Mesa must also focus on meeting its obligations should bondholders require the company to buy back their debt next month.

Mesa in 2004 issued the notes to bondholders, resulting in gross proceeds to the company of $100 million. Under the terms of the indenture, the bondholders have the right to require Mesa to repurchase the notes on 10 February. If they exercise their 2009 "put rights" with respect to all of the notes, Mesa must repurchase the notes for about $45.4 million in cash, common stock, or a combination thereof.

"We're currently negotiating with major bondholders," says Ornstein, adding: "Our negotiations have been productive and [we're] optimistic they will be concluded in a matter satisfactory to all parties."

To that end, Mesa on 6 January received approval from shareholders to increase the number of authorized shares of common stock from 75 million shares to 900 million shares, which would be used to "effectively securitize all that debt", says Ornstein.

He says, however, that are some "alternatives" that all parties "might find more attractive".