US regional carrier SkyWest Airlines has acquired partial ownership of Tennessee-based Part 135 operator Contour Airlines.
The Utah-based carrier now has a 25% stake in Contour, SkyWest revealed during its 1 February quarterly earnings call. Additionally, SkyWest has agreed to provide Contour with Bombardier CRJ airframes, engines and parts, but has not disclosed financial terms of the deal.
Chief commercial officer Wade Steel says SkyWest owns roughly 150 CRJ200s – and as many as 60 of those are not currently contracted to fly with one of SkyWest’s major airline partners. ”Our CRJ700s and -900s, the vast majority of those are under contract, and we have very high demand for those,” he says.
SkyWest is also interested in Contour as a potential source of pilots, with captains in particularly short supply.
“We’re working very diligently with partners on creative ways in which we can produce captains faster than what we’re producing today,” says chief executive Chip Childs.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s Part 135 guidelines apply to non-scheduled commercial passenger service, such as air taxis and charters.
Flying under Part 135 rules allows carriers to operate in a less strict regulatory environment. For example, those operators can use pilots with fewer than the US standard of at least 1,500h of total aviation time and pilots older than the usual mandatory retirement age of 65.
Critics of the operating model – including major pilots’ unions – allege that Part135 carriers are exploiting a loophole that allows them to skirt safety rules.
Contour launched its first scheduled passenger route from Tupelo, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee. Now, it flies to 26 cities in the USA and moves 330,000 passengers annually. It claims to be the largest Part 135 operator in the Southeast USA.
The charter carrier operates a fleet of more than 30 Embraer E-Jets and several business jets available for private charter. It employs some 200 pilots, according to SkyWest. An interline agreement established in 2019 feeds Contour’s passengers into American Airlines’ broader network.
The carrier operates under a model that SkyWest would like to emulate with newly-launched SkyWest Charter (SWC).
“To be candid, Contour is almost exactly like SWC and what we would like to accomplish with SWC,” Childs says. “There is a lot of alignment… with what both of the carriers could do.”