Mesaba Airlines is eyeing a potential second regional feeder tie-up with either Delta Air Lines, United Airlines or US Airways, as the carrier dusts off plans to diversify and expand the business in the wake of Northwest Airlines' recent decision to abandon its bid to fully acquire the Airlink affiliate.

"We feel liberated by Northwest's decision. It now gives us the freedom to step outside of the scope of Northwest and pick another major partner," says Paul Foley, Mesaba president and chief executive. Mesaba confirms that it is looking at a tie up with one of the three major carriers, possibly under the guise of a separately certificated but wholly owned subsidiary.

Mesaba is in talks with Embraer and Bombardier to order a "minimum of 35 to 40" 40/44-seat aircraft - either Bombardier CRJ200s or Embraer ERJ-140s. The carrier does not own its fleet of 36 BAE Systems Avro RJ85s, but instead leases the regional jets from Northwest for its Airlink operation.

These plans remain contingent on Mesaba striking a deal with a new partner airline, reaching a pay agreement with its pilots and ultimately securing board approval. Foley adds that Mesaba's finances would not be an impediment to ordering its own aircraft, as it has over $100 million in cash reserves, a strong balance sheet and no debt.

Mesaba is also preparing to bid to operate some, if not all, of the 75 new 44-seat regional jets that Northwest is set to order shortly. The Memphis-based carrier missed out on the first tranche of 54 CRJ200s ordered by Northwest, all of which are going to its wholly owned Airlink carrier Express I.

Foley contends that, after the overhaul of its management over the last two years, the introduction of a new operating infrastructure, and a 99.2% flight completion and 87% on time arrival rate, it is well positioned to absorb additional capacity. Mesaba's six-year fixed price feeder agreement with Northwest still has four years to run.

Mesaba at the same time is pursuing plans to launch a regional freighter service and says it is in contact with four potential partners including FedEx, UPS and the US Postal Service.

Source: Flight International