PAUL LEWIS / WASHINGTON DC Order decision on CRJs clears way for Airlink operators, Express I and Mesaba, to bid for additional capacity

Northwest Airlines is exploring the possibility of adding a third regional feeder carrier to further broaden its Northwest Airlink network following the carrier's new order for 75 Bombardier CRJ440s, a planned 44-seat lower weight certificated version of the CRJ200 regional jet designed to circumvent the present scope clause cap of 54 50-seaters.

The decision to opt for the CRJ440 over the competing Embraer ERJ-140 clears the way for Northwest's two Airlink operators, Express I and Mesaba, to bid for additional capacity. The first aircraft is scheduled for delivery in the third quarter of next year. "We're in the process of looking at what role either carrier will play, or whether an additional carrier would make sense," says Jim Cron, Northwest vice president market planning and airlinks.

Express I, a wholly owned Northwest subsidiary, has already absorbed 20 aircraft from an earlier order for 54 CRJ200s and is expected to take the others. "The new aircraft are for growth rather than replacement, creating new routes and adding frequencies to existing destinations," says Cron.

Northwest wants to expand the Airlink network out of its Memphis hub to smaller US East Coast destinations, as well as add regional capacity to its Detroit and Minneapolis/St Paul hubs. Industry speculation on a third carrier tie-up has focused on Mesa and Atlantic Coast Airlines, both expanding CRJ200 operators and independent of mainline airline ownership.

Northwest recently dropped plans to take full control of Mesaba, but claims this will not impact the allocation of the next tranche of CRJ440s. Mesaba, which has so far not been allocated any CRJs, has been under pressure to cut pilot costs and, in turn, has indicated it is looking to expand outside of Airlink.

The first 10 CRJ440s are to be delivered next year, along with 10 CRJ200s. A similar number will be delivered in 2003, 24 in both 2004 and 2005 and the remaining eight in 2006. Northwest has also taken options on 25 more aircraft in 2006 and purchase rights on 150 others.

Source: Flight International