Northwest Assigns 36 New CRJ900s to Mesaba

Jan. 27--Mesaba Airlines has won the right to fly 36 more planes for Northwest Airlines, its future parent company.

The expansion will let the regional carrier recall hundreds of furloughed employees and possibly hire new workers.

Mesaba told employees Friday in an e-mail that it will sublease the 76-seat Bombardier Canadair Regional Jets from Northwest, giving Mesaba 86 planes, still below the more than 100 it flew a year ago. The first new CRJ900s are expected to arrive in May and the last one in December 2008.

Company officials said the new planes are a step in the right direction for Mesaba, which like Northwest is in bankruptcy reorganization.

"We see it as a good thing to build the fleet back up and to move forward," said Mesaba spokeswoman Elizabeth Costello. The airline still awaits Federal Aviation Administration approval to operate the new jets.

Mesaba has flown exclusively for Northwest for more than 20 years, leasing its planes from the larger carrier and shuttling passengers between Northwest hubs and 72 smaller cities. Both airlines are based in Eagan.

The CRJ900s will be the biggest planes in Mesaba's fleet, which also consists of 49 34-seat Saab turboprops and one 50-seat CRJ.

Last year, Northwest slashed Mesaba's fleet to 50 planes. Mesaba's traffic fell 42 percent and its passenger count fell 34 percent to about 3.8 million.

The CRJ900 flight agreement is part of Northwest's pending purchase of Mesaba, which was finalized earlier this week in a deal valued at about $145 million. The courts overseeing both airlines' bankruptcy cases must separately approve the deal.

It had been a big question as to whether Mesaba or one of Northwest's two other regional carriers -- Eagan-based Compass Airlines or Memphis, Tenn.-based Pinnacle Airlines -- would receive the new CRJs. In October, Northwest awarded the flying of 36 new 76-seat Embraer 175 regional jets to Compass, its new regional subsidiary that's on track to start flying in the third quarter.

Pinnacle spokesman Phil Reed said his airline is "very content" with its 10-year contract it renewed last month to fly 124 CRJ-200 planes and 17 new CRJ-200/440s for Northwest. Also, Pinnacle last week said it would buy a Manassas, Va.-based regional feeder for Continental Airlines.

Mesaba President John Spanjers told employees in Friday's e-mail that the airline expects to recall a number of furloughed pilots and flight attendants and hire additional mechanics for the new jets.

Tom Wychor, chairman of the pilots union at Mesaba, thinks the airline will have to hire new pilots. Mesaba has about 550 active pilots and more than 200 furloughed pilots.

"This is extremely good news," Wychor said. "When we lost our fleet of 36 Avro (aircraft) that created huge hardship for our pilots. That, combined with the horrible bankruptcy process, created well over a year of turmoil for all employees at Mesaba. These aircraft represent the end of that turmoil."

The new planes also will extend the career ladder for pilots: As the most senior pilots shift to the larger planes at higher wages, lower-level pilots will fill their posts. A CRJ900 pilot with 10 to 18 years of seniority would make between $77,400 and $97,000 a year. While the new plane pay is higher than current wages, it's still less than it would have been a year ago because of bankruptcy-related wage cuts, Wychor said.

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