Air Transport World

'Takes a licking, keeps on ticking.' (Mesaba Aviation) (includes related article on flight crew training by Northwest) (Company Profile)

Mesaba Aviation is the American Gothic of the regional airline industry. Quiet, conservative, determined.

This once-tiny carrier, which once had to supplement its commercial air service by selling Cessnas and flying mail to the northern points of Minnesota, has burgeoned into a healthy, profitable regional airline that carries around 1.3 million passengers a year, using 56 aircraft. More than 80% of Mesaba's passengers connect to its Northwest Airlines partner's flights from 53 upper Midwest cities and one Canadian province.

Aside from being the first Airlink partner chosen, Mesaba is the major airline's connection in 34 cities. It shares Airlink duties with Express Airlines II in Minneapolis and is Northwest's exclusive partner at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

While Mesaba's growth and profit margins have eroded in the last few years, in part because of its partner, the regional carrier has been able to land on its feet.

The confidence of this revitalized Northwest Airlink was demonstrated last year by its $2.5 million acquisition of Conquest Sun Airlines, a Florida-based new entrant. Now named AirTran Airways, this subsidiary of AirTran Corp., Mesaba's parent company, provides charter flights and affordable scheduled service between Orlando and Ft. Lauderdale, and five cities, using two Boeing 737-200s. More aircraft will be ordered soon.

Festooned with a distinctive green, magenta, blue and beige livery, Airways aircraft fly operations to Florida from locales such as Providence, R.I., and Knoxville, Tenn. As does the leading low-cost carrier among the new entrants, Atlanta-based ValuJet, Airways offers ticketless service.

The move eastward surprised industry observers, who had felt that AirTran would concentrate on strengthening Mesaba's Minneapolis and Detroit hubs further, now that Northwest is revitalized financially. Jumping into the already-crowded, lowcost jet market also seemed very. out of character for an airline known to be tightfisted with a buck. "It's not a reach for us," insists Mesaba CEO and President Robert Swenson. "For over five years, prior to valuJet's success, we have studied this low-cost jet market. …

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