Failure to be allocated any CRJ200s by major forces Airlink regional operator to seek new partner

Mesaba Airlines is casting around for another US regional carrier to acquire, to allow it to forge a feeder partnership with a new mainline carrier. The move comes as growth opportunities with its major partner Northwest Airlines continue to be stymied by the allocation of new Bombardier CRJ200 deliveries to fellow Airlink operator Pinnacle Airlines, formerly Express Airlines I.

Northwest has refused to allocate any of the 129 CRJ200s on order or 75 on options to Mesaba until the carrier has reached a new labour contract with its pilots. Talks have stretched over a year with little development. Pinnacle, meanwhile, has taken delivery of 35 CRJ200s and been allotted another 48, tying up Airlink deliveries for the next two years.

"We can't continue to have our growth strategy held hostage by the pilot negotiations or by Northwest. We have over $100 million in cash and no articulated growth strategy," says Paul Foley, Mesaba chief executive. The airline needs around 50 new regional jets to establish a "critical mass" and will have to look beyond Northwest to expand.

However, Mesaba's ability to fly regional jets in its own right for another carrier is restricted by Northwest's scope clause agreement with its pilots. "We would need a major partner and the most likely option would be to acquire another airline," adds Foley.

The contraction of the mainline Northwest fleet has lowered the scope clause limit on 50-seat regional jets from 54 to 33, forcing Pinnacle to switch to the smaller 44-seat configured CRJ440 earlier than planned.

All remaining deliveries from the 83 CRJ200s allocated to Pinnacle will be certificated and configured to the smaller capacity.

BAE Systems Regional Aircraft and Avro RJ operator Mesaba will open a new US maintenance site in Cincinnati this month, which will provide component and accessory maintenance and modifications for BAE's regional aircraft in North America. Pinnacle Airlines, which Northwest Airlines plans to float, expects to complete its transition to an all-jet fleet on 13 December when the last of 14 Saab 340s will be retired. The airline expects to take delivery of a further 17 CRJs by the end of the year, expanding its jet fleet to 53 aircraft. As part of the Northwest commitment to support the public offering, Pinnacle vice president of marketing, Phil Reed, says its major airline partner is "obligated to provide 83 CRJs [a mix of CRJ200s and 440s] by April 2004".

Source: Flight International