Mesa Survives Again With a New, Smaller Deal with American

American, Mesa Airlines

I can’t be the only one to be constantly surprised at how many lives regional carrier Mesa Air Group has burned through. At one point or another, every major US airline that has worked with Mesa has been angry with the airline. Yet every time it seems like Mesa is going to finally disappear, it pulls another rabbit out of a hat. This time, it’s the signing of a new, albeit smaller, deal with American that has defied all odds.

Mesa was a major regional partner for both America West and US Airways before they merged. It survived that merger as well as the ultimate one with American. After the dust settled, Mesa was flying 64 CRJ-900 aircraft under the American Eagle brand from both the Phoenix and Dallas/Fort Worth hubs, but things weren’t going well for the airline.

Mesa had been whittled down to flying for only two airlines, United and American, and the United deal was at risk of disappearing. Presumably a long-standing relationship between Mesa CEO Jonathan Ornstein and United’s CEO Scott Kirby and Chief Commerical Officer Andrew Nocella had something to do with that. Once things settle out as planned, Mesa will fly 80 Embraer 175s for the airline for the forseeable future. That saved the airline with United, but American was a different story.

With Scott and Andrew gone from American, many assumed that Mesa would eventually go as well, especially considering its performance. After several problems with reliability, American was allowed to remove airplanes from the agreement. It has since removed 10 airplanes so that only 54 are in the contract today. Many of those airplanes were reaching the end of their agreements, and I assumed Mesa would finally lose out. I was wrong.

On November 24, Mesa and American signed a new deal for a five-year term starting January 1, 2021. Under this new agreement, Mesa will have only 40 CRJ-900s flying under the American Eagle banner. But hey, that’s still 40 more airplanes than I would have guessed.

Which airplanes will Mesa use and what will it do to fix them all? If you’ve flown Mesa, you know it has quite the motley fleet, and the interiors are in rough shape. Mesa is the primary American Eagle operator from Long Beach, so I’ve flown it several times. While I find the crews to be generally fantastic, I’m always appalled by the state of the interiors. Here’s a photo from 2016 that sums up my general experience.

The airplanes appear to be touched up ever so slightly. I’ve seen paint used to cover up blemishes, but anything that takes real effort is deferred until American makes Mesa actually do the work. For example, fixing up disgusting, scratched windows…

That usually only happens when it’s time for a new contract, so I have no doubt that the remaining 40 airplanes will be getting an upgrade as part of this new deal. But wait, that’s not the only issue.

Mesa has these airplanes in — check notes — 40 different configurations. Wait, no, that’s not right. But there are multiple configurations thanks to random airplanes that came into the fleet from other airlines, so it can be quite the adventure. As I understand it, the hope is that eventually they will be able to standardize in a single configuration, but nothing along those lines has been approved thanks to the current economic climate.

Here is how I understand things will play out in the near term:

There are 38 so-called “classic” CRJ-900s that aren’t like the rest of the fleet. They were the original Mesa order from Bombardier and were delivered in 2004 or 2005. These airplanes all have 79 seats on them instead of 76 and are grandfathered into the fleet with that capacity. Eighteen of these will make it into the new agreement, and right now there isn’t an approved plan to reconfigure these with only 76 seats, but that may change.

For the remaining 22 airplanes, I’m not sure what will stay, but there are many options.

  • 1 random aircraft (N243LR) was built in 2006 and came from defunct Turkish airline Atlasjet. That airplane is currently parked, and I imagine it won’t come back.
  • 2 airplanes (N326MS and N329MS) came from the ironically-named, defunct UAE-based airline HeavyLift International. Those were built in 2007 and are currently flying.
  • 6 airplanes (N244LR – N249LR) came from defunct Uruguayan operator PLUNA and were built between 2010 and 2011. Three of those are currently flying, two are parked, and one was ferried from Tucson to Jacksonville earlier this week, so maybe a return to lessor? I’m not sure.
  • 7 airplanes were taken directly from the factory when they were built in 2015. These are probably the nicest planes in the fleet, and I can’t imagine they’d be going anywhere.
  • 10 airplanes were delivered to Air One Cityliner and eventually flew under the beloved Alitalia Cityliner brand. They were built between 2006 and 2007, and 3 are currently parked.

If we assume those 7 airplanes taken direct from the factory aren’t going anywhere, that means there are 15 airplanes that will remain from the rest of the ragtag group. I assume American will just choose whichever airplanes are not in the worst shape.

The new agreement takes effect on January 1, and Mesa will continue to fly out of both Phoenix and Dallas/Fort Worth for American. I look forward to seeing the updated schedule when that gets released. I also will hold out hope that soon flying on Mesa will not look much different from flying any other Eagle regional partner. One can dream…

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25 comments on “Mesa Survives Again With a New, Smaller Deal with American

  1. I have flown Mesa from BUR-PHX severe times and every time I do, I wonder how these people stay in business. The interiors of the planes are always, always so nasty! And when you’re flying and you see they don’t care about the interior, it makes you think about where else they are skimping. Also, it reflects poorly on AA.

  2. Touching up the interior is less essential and probably cheaper than heavy maintenance checks when those come around, so I’d think that they might use that to determine which aircraft should be kept and which should go. Mainline carriers do this with older or used aircraft, retiring them right before a D check is due.

  3. I view this as a necessary win / win for both parties. Mesa desperately needed a partnership with another major and was most likely willing to offer up favorable terms. American was probably looking for a cheap option given their precarious financial position and willing to sacrifice the customer experience. The added capacity on some of the planes (79 vs. 76 seats) was added incentive for AA. All speculation on my part, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was how it played out.

    1. Eric – Actually, the 79 seats is not an advantage. The problem is that those airplanes don’t get dedicated to certain routes, so American has to sell only 76 seats for every flight. The extra 3 seats are great for nonrevving employees, but it doesn’t help American with revenue. It’s actually more of a pain because the varying seat map means they have to move people around sometimes.

      1. The 79-seaters are probably the worst configuration IMO because they do not have a “designated” MCE section (just bulkhead and exit rows).

        I wish they would standardize all aircraft to the 12F / 64Y configuration to match PSA’s CR9s, but that’s probably asking for too much.

  4. Are you okay, Brett? Have you slept well?

    I’m asking because seeing you write ‘beloved’ and ‘Alitalia’ in once sentence is way off. Even if it’s sarcastic, you should watch out with those comments. This can only go wrong.

  5. Aren’t the PLUNA and the 2015 builds what Bombardier considers “NG’s?” If so, I expect those would stay.

    1. Phllax – Yep, the PLUNA aircraft are NG and the factory builds from 2015 are NG Enhanced. But several of the PLUNA aircraft are already parked, so that’s why I wasn’t so sure. But I would agree it would make sense to keep the better airplanes.

  6. “While I find the crews to be generally fantastic, I’m always appalled by the state of the interiors.” This is so true. Which is surprising with the crew. Since I wouldn’t consider Mesa an airline with high-morale.

    1. Pilotaaron – It is really strange, isn’t it? But the Mesa crews are always so incredibly friendly. I don’t get how they do it.

      1. Mesa FAs seem awfully young every time I fly them, so maybe they haven’t been on the job long enough to develop a nasty attitude.

        I am not complaining; they’ve always been good to me and pre-COVID I was flying a lot of Eagle to small markets via DFW.

  7. I’ve seen some aircraft around DFW flying in either a Mesa paint scheme or completely blank. I’m guessing these are part of the 10 aircraft removed from the agreement, but I wonder why they are still flying for AA and not just stored?

    1. Andy – Yeah, they have some floating around with white bodies and a black Mesa tail. I know 939, 941, 942, 943, and 956 are. These are mostly from the original batch of deliveries or Alitalia/Air One. So I think it’s probably a safe bet that they will be exiting the fleet when the new deal starts.

    1. Chris – Because it’s hilarious? There is nothing heavy about a CRJ-900s lift capability! By the way, it had 4 other aircraft before going under.
      Two of those were ex-America West 737s that were converted for cargo. The others were DC-8s.

      1. It’s almost like someone in marketing had a solid sense of humor.

        As for the rest of the fleet, there’s no better way for a DC-8 to go out than as a converted freighter, spewing black smoke and all.

  8. I used to work in planning for Mesa. The operating partner is the one that sets the interiors, and if they want them changed/updated, then the major carrier has to pay for it – and also the time out of service. They set the configuration/layout. This also includes operational spares. Its only white tails/voluntary spares that the majors have no control over (but they PREFER the configuration to be in a standardized one). If AA wanted a single configuration and it was important to them, then Mesa would have the planes done in that layout. The CPA is negotiated down to the tail #, so it will be interesting to see what is still flying after January. I’d guess the older 79 seater planes will stick around, because 3 seats is still 3 seats it can sell.

    US didn’t want to pay to refurbish the planes after the HP/US merger, that’s why you saw green seats in the CRJs for a few years.

    Now for the “NEF” – non-essential flying items – arm rests, seat covers, windows – those get deferred until the plane goes in for a heavy check. CRJ windows have never had a good lifespan on them, I even remember flying on Atlantic Coast and having scratchy windows!

    1. ACA solved that problem by committing airline Hari Kari, incinerating the entire company in 18 months via the ill fated Independence Air experiment. Guess they should have taken United’s moderately draconian terms instead.

      I’m just bitter about ACA because B6 was set to make IAD their second hub after JFK but redirected to BOS after the flood of unsustainably low fares hit the Dulles market in 2004 and 2005 with Independence, United matching them (of course) and WN’s announced arrival in 2006. Oh well, I probably wouldn’t have hiked out to IAD very often anyway.

      1. I remember flying Independence Air home from college a few times. They weren’t a bad airline the few times I flew them, and weren’t really as cheap as modern ULCCs (which may have contributed to their failure) in terms of amenities etc. That said, other than the lost routes and higher fares once they left, there wasn’t any thing that really made me miss them.

  9. The new contract was probably the most hassle-free (and least costly) way to get the large RJ lift American needs for the next five years. The 24 Mesa aircraft will likely be at least partially replaced by the 20 E-175s Skywest has on order for American. The reduced Mesa 76-seat flying should also help bring American into compliance with its near-term scope restrictions, as it has retired, or will retire, a significant number of narrow-body aircraft. In any event, it should be interesting to see the changes the next five years bring to the regional space.

    1. Bill – Well, they do in the form of CRJ-700s but those are going away and Mesa will only operate Embraer 175s which are relatively new.

  10. Mesa is the Keith Richards of airlines. No one’s quite sure how they’re still standing, but here we are.

  11. I flew 6 segments on Mesa last year and three of them were delayed at least 30 minutes (one delay was 2.5 hours). Many of the interiors were held together with duct tape (no exaggeration). I now try to avoid them whenever possible. Hopefully the reduction in planes will allow for more spares and/or better maintenance planning. I also hope that Mesa/AA spends some money on the interiors. I’ve been on newer PSA CR9’s and they are actually quite nice (although I still prefer the E75).

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