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.