I‘m still on vacation, traveling the open road with the family, so it’s time for part 2 of my series looking at shifting regional flying over the past 15 years. Last time, we looked at American Eagle. This time, it’s Delta’s turn in the spotlight with a look at both Delta Connection and Northwest Airlink. United follows.
Delta’s path looks surprisingly rockier than American’s, but it also shown the clearest progress as the airline has tried to focus on fewer, stronger regional partners in the future.
As always, I turned to Cirium to tell the tale. Since Northwest and Delta were separate entities back in 2005, both Delta Connection and Northwest Airlink are included here. There is one Airlink carrier I left off, however. Let’s see if you can guess it before I reveal at the end.
As you can see, there are a whole lot of colors here, but in the end Delta has consolidated around only three regional partners to run the entire Delta Connection network. We’ll start with the biggest, the red one at the bottom of the chart.
The biggest regional airline around, SkyWest, has had a long and lucrative relationship with Delta. It actually started in 1985 when SkyWest began flying as Western Express. Once Delta scooped up Western the next year, SkyWest became a Delta Connection carrier.
When this chart starts, SkyWest wasn’t all that big for Delta. That changed quickly in 2006 when SkyWest purchased Atlantic Southeast (ASA) from Delta. That’s the light red at the bottom left. The slightly darker red at the bottom was when ExpressJet briefly flew for Delta Connection in LA. That went away, but of course, ExpressJet and ASA ended up merging under SkyWest’s ownership anyway. ExpressJet was sold off, but by the time that happened, it had stopped flying for Delta. SkyWest had stepped up nicely to become the dominant carrier under the Delta Connection banner.
Ignore that little pandemic-related spike. This August, SkyWest will handle nearly 48 percent of all Delta Connection flights, and that looks to be fairly steady.
Endeavor’s history with Delta goes back even longer than SkyWest’s, but it has a distinctly different flavor to it. The whole company’s relationship dates back to 1983 when Mesaba began flying for Republic. The next year, Northwest bought Republic and Mesaba flew as Airlink. Eventually Mesaba bought Big Sky and that added capacity. But it was the acquisition by another Airlink carrier, Pinnacle, that really moved things forward.
Pinnacle started out as Express Airlines I and by 1985 was also flying for Republic, but out of Memphis. It followed the same path as Mesaba into the Airlink network and eventually bought the airline. By 2012, the Pinnacle corporate parent had shut Mesaba down, and the next year, it filed for bankruptcy. It emerged as a wholly-owned subsidary of Delta and took on the name Endeavor. Is that a tortured enough history for you?
Since that time, Endeavor has been one of Delta’s chosen instruments. This August, it is scheduled to run 45 percent of Delta Connection flights.
The final current Delta Connection carrier is Republic, and it isn’t very large in the Delta operation any longer. Chautauqua and Shuttle America both flew for Delta, but it has now all been consolidated under Republic. In August, the last 7.5 percent of Delta Connection flights are scheduled to be operated by Republic. The airline should be happy it’s still included in the mix considering how many others have gone by the wayside.
The Dearly Departed
With only three airlines still flying for Delta Connection, you’d think the list of former partners would be longer than it is.
- Comair had been a Delta Connection partner since 1984, and it was the launch customer for the CRJ. It was eventually purchased outright by Delta, but after a crippling pilot strike in the early 2000s, it did nothing but shrink until Delta shut it down completely in 2012. Delta learned from this that it was best to spread out operations across partners, but now it seems to have reversed course on that plan.
- Compass came to exist when Northwest bought the operating certificate from Independence Air and stood up a new regional to take advantage of a deal with its pilots to outsource some flying. Compass eventually was purchased by Trans States and became a sister carrier to GoJet which also flew for Delta. Both airlines had their contracts terminated. The final Compass flights took place in April 2020.
- Mesa and its subsidiary Freedom flew for Delta between 2005 and 2010 and it was awful. Mesa focused on New York, and it couldn’t run a good operation. Delta eventually walked away from the deal completely.
So, did you figure out which carrier I left off the chart? If you did, good on you. It was the little Pacific Island which flew as Northwest Airlink in Micronesia ending in 2005. It was so small, it didn’t even show up on the graph, so I just left it off.
If you missed the look at American Eagle, you’ll find it here. The last part of the series on United will be published tomorrow.
Republic is only still a Delta Connection carrier because it controls slots at DCA and LGA which Delta does not want to part with. Endeavor and Skywest are both higher quality carriers. ASA and Comair were both instrumental in helping Delta build its regional carrier network but have been displaced by other carriers; the fact that Skywest has adapted and remained competitive despite its age shows how well run it is.
Delta played one regional carrier against another in order to lower costs but now sees that exercise as futile; their pre-covid strategy was about converting regional jet flying to mainline operated – the chances of flying a regional jet on a Delta coded flying are the lowest among the four legacies that use regional carriers including AA, AS and UA.
CRJs are within a couple years of the end of their lives which will shape the future for Endeavor and Skywest while the Ejets and CR9s could soldier on for another 10 years. By that point, the A220 will likely be the smallest aircraft in Delta’s consolidated fleet. Delta could well be the first of the 4 to get rid of its regional carrier operations.
Not sure how far you wanted to go back, but when I flew for Business Express in the late 90s we had the logos of Delta Connection, American Connection (Not Eagle!), AND Northwest Airlink on the Saab 340s. When AA bought BEX in 1999 it transitioned to all AA flying until the merger completed in December 2000.
Wow. Blast from the past. I remember going to the Manchester, NH, airport in the early 80s to watch Pilgrim land there and BEX (but can’t remember if it was pre or post Pilgrim acquisition). Loved watching those Shorts come in.
The Shorts were gone when I got there but the Captains I flew with had lots of stories about them!
Link to AA Eagle part 1 isn’t working…..
Here it is…..
Jeff – Whoops, links are fixed.
You forgot AC Jet. I thought that would be the one intentionally left off.
Phllax – AC Jet was gone before 2005 when this started.
The ‘New SLC’ will open the main terminal and multiple gates for Delta in mid-Sept., the new satellite terminal will open by late October at which time all airlines will be in the new terminal facilities. From mid-Sept. to late Oct., the main terminal will serve as Security entrance and pax for non-Delta carriers will ‘walk back’ inside Security to the old terminals (not sure if they exit the same way.) You may want to cover this in a future column as the New SLC should be a big improvement for the Salt Lake air market.
Didn’t Delta codeshare with American Eagle out of LAX for years? I’m wondering if they should have been included. It was a codeshare and not a traditional Delta Connection carrier, though. Maybe it deserves an honorable mention.
Bill in ATL – Yep, that’s a good memory. That agreement was a traditional codeshare, so it’s not included here. That was ended back in 2012.
Just to add a bit of context to the rather sparse paragraph regarding Mesa’s (Freedom – F8) time as a DCC..
DL initially contracted with Mesa (F8) for 36 E-145s all based In MCO. Performance was well above all other DCC at the time. After DL decided to scale down the MCO focus city ~ 2006/2007 they split the 36 jets initially between ATL & MCO while adding to the initial contract with Dash-8 and Crj-900 aircraft based in JFK. While admittedly the Dash-8 program was hamstrung from the start, the jet fleet continued to post peer in-line performance metrics.
The stuff hit the fan in 2008 when JFK was parking lot even on good weather days. 6p-11p you could count on a 2-3hr taxi. Add in wx and the entire operation was a disaster.
Where it gets more nuanced (and more interesting than your article alludes to) is during IROP days where DL would instruct F8 to cancel regional flights to free up landing slots for mainline operations. I personally remember getting trips cancelled a few hours prior to departure due to ‘Delta request’. I could immediately verify that the aircraft was in base and not MX’ed and that the crew was in base yet we were cancelled and not pay protected. Delta used these instructed cancellations as a means to terminate it’s contract with F8 as it sought to reduce capacity. It was a totally underhanded move by DL that resulted in litigation, injunctions, and settlements and ultimately the F8 brand to shutdown.
Sorry for the long explanation, bit the simple ‘Mesa could not run a good operation’ (in this context alone) is not sufficient.
Also, there was a time that Delta was going to wind down SkyWest. But, Skywest owned or had exclusive leases on their gates in SLC and threatened to go head to head with 737s similar to Morris. Shortly there after, Delta signed a long term agreement with SkyWest.