If there’s a regional airline with more lives than a cat, it’s Mesa. Somehow, despite all odds, the airline has rebuilt itself time and time again. Just when you think it’s going to go away, it somehow squeaks out a survival plan. Not only does the airline find a way to keep going, but it has done so without changing top management. The airline has been under the continuous leadership of CEO Jonathan Ornstein for more than 20 years. And it’s one of Jonathan’s old buddies who is helping the airline’s resurrection once again.
United President Scott Kirby and Mesa CEO Jonathan Ornstein have a long history. Ever since Jonathan took over running Mesa in 1998, he and Scott have worked together, initially with the America West Express relationship.
The Mesa of 20 years ago is nothing like the Mesa of today. The airline was founded in the 1980s as a little commuter out of New Mexico. In the 1990s, it went crazy buying airlines and growing. At one point or another, Mesa had these airlines under its vast and confusing umbrella:
- Skyway Airlines (started by Mesa to operate for Midwest Express)
- Aspen Airways (bought Aspen’s Denver hub to operate as United Express)
- Air Midwest (bought the Beechcraft operator flying as USAir Express)
- FloridaGulf (started to operate USAir Express in Florida)
- WestAir (bought to get west coast hubs under United Express)
- Superior Airlines (started to fly America West Express in Columbus)
- CalPac (started to fly United Express in LA for some reason)
- Liberty Express (bought Crown and repurposed to fly USAir Express in Pittsburgh)
- Desert Sun (started to operate Fokker jets for America West Express)
- Mountain West (random name to operate United/America West services for a year)
- Freedom (started to operate regionals for some airlines due to scope clause issues at other airlines)
- CCAir (bought to operate US Airways Express in Charlotte)
- Kunpeng Airlines (started a joint venture with Shenzhen to operate CRJs in China)
- go! (started in Hawai’i after stealing info from and killing Aloha)
Did I miss any? I probably did, but you get the point. This company has flexed up and down and done all kinds of crazy things. It has operated regional service for America West, American, Delta, Frontier, Midwest Express, United, and US Airways at some point in time. That doesn’t include the self-branded operations it ran in the desert southwest and Texas along with those misadventures in Hawai’i and China.
Here’s a snapshot I compiled showing the aircraft Mesa operated for different partners over the years. This should be mostly accurate, though it’s hard to get perfect information since Mesa was private for a decade.
You can see that the flirtations with Frontier, go!, Kunpeng, and Delta were short-lived. The longest relationships were with United (until it disappeared in 1998 and re-emerged in 2003), America West, and US Airways. The latter two combined to form the American relationship that exists today.
With all that messiness, you’d think Mesa would have a tangled corporate structure to rival Norwegian, but it no longer does. Along with losing many contracts, it has shed all its airline subsidiaries. It is now just one airline operating for only those two primary partners, American and United. And until recently, both relationships were in peril.
American on Thin Ice
The legacy US Airways and America West relationships all came together into a nice, neat package when the two airlines merged. The continuous America West management team that has gone all the way through the later merger with American has ensured a consistent relationship over the last two decades.
Mesa used to have a variety of turboprops buzzing around the country for these airlines, but those were all removed in favor of regional jets over time, and that led to a dramatic shrinking. But then, growth returned.
Mesa became the American Eagle CRJ-900 operator out of the airline’s Phoenix and Dallas/Fort Worth hubs. After the merger, it actually grew its fleet with American up to a peak of 64 aircraft. This wasn’t just because American loved Mesa. No, some of it was dumb luck.
Mesa operates some of the oldest CRJ-900s flying. In the fleet, there are 21 that are configured with 79 seats. Regionals are generally capped at 76 seats due to scope clauses, but these aircraft are grandfathered in. So they are quite valuable airplanes to have since they get 3 extra seats that another regional airline couldn’t offer. For that reason alone, Mesa isn’t likely going to be kicked out entirely at American.
That being said, American isn’t happy. Mesa’s operational performance has been poor, and American has had the right to remove airplanes from the contract. Right now, there are 62 airplanes flying. That drops to 60 in the first quarter of next year and 59 in the second quarter.
I believe Mesa still also operates one lonely CRJ-100 that it uses to sub when planes break. At least, it used to do that. Now with more CRJ-900s sitting on the ground, it probably doesn’t need that little guy anymore.
With American obviously displeased, Mesa was unlikely to be able to grow that business, even if it won’t lose it entirely. That means Mesa had one great hope for the future, and that was United Airlines.
United and Mesa Renew the Love Affair… Again
Mesa and United have had a long and rocky relationship over the years. It looked like the end was near when Jonathan took over the CEO job. In 1997, Mesa had more airplanes (80) flying for United than any other partner. In 1998, United walked away. It wasn’t until 2003 that the airline could get its foot back in the door again. During United’s bankruptcy, Mesa became an attractive (read: cheap) option for regional feed, so the airline came back in a big way flying CRJ-700s, CRJ-200s, and Dash-8s. That re-kindled love affair did not last long.
In 2009, United decided to let the CRJ-200 contract expire and it cut the Dash-8 contract early. By 2010, Mesa had dropped down to operating only 20 CRJ-700s for United, and it didn’t seem like that would last beyond the end of the contract. The airline had also lost its short-lived Delta contract, and it was forced to file for bankruptcy protection. But then, Mesa’s ability to operate for cheap saved the airline again.
By 2013, Mesa was still on the ropes. Then it pulled a rabbit out of a hat. Not only did it get United to extend the 20 CRJ-700s, but it convinced United to place 30 Embraer 175s with the airline. It kept getting more and more added to the fleet until it reached 60, an impressive feat. But the deal for more than two-thirds of those only went through 2019. The clock was ticking.
Would Mesa be cut out entirely as its contract came up? Scott Kirby and Jonathan Ornstein again renewed their magic and came to an agreement earlier this month with the following terms:
- Extend the expiring 42 Embraer 175s already in service by 5 years to 2024 with rights to extend to 2027
- Add 20 new Embraer 175s (limited to 70 seats) for a 12-year term
- Lease out the existing 20 CRJ-700s to another United Express carrier, presumably to be converted into CRJ-550s
This deal lets Mesa keep flying the same number of airplanes, but it does two things. First it gives Mesa a lot more time under contract. Second, it gives United the ability to source (I assume) 20 more CRJ-550s since CRJ-700 airframes that aren’t being used are scarce.
This relationship between United and Mesa has had all kinds of ups and down, but with Scott onboard at United, it looks like that is where Mesa is putting all of its eggs.