Pinnacle May Lose Planes to Mesaba

Pinnacle Airlines and its pilots union failed to negotiate a new contract by a Saturday deadline, which could prompt Northwest Airlines to begin shifting 17 regional jets from Pinnacle to Eagan-based Mesaba.

Phil Reed, Pinnacle's vice president of marketing, acknowledged Monday that by missing Northwest's labor-deal deadline, Northwest "has the right to take back three aircraft per month."

Reed said that talks between Pinnacle management and the pilots union have been going on "in excess of 18 months."

In December, Northwest reached a long-term services agreement for Memphis-based Pinnacle to operate 124 Canadair Regional Jets (CRJs), which seat 50 passengers. The agreement further stated that Pinnacle could fly 17 additional 50-seaters for Northwest, but the big airline would have the option of removing those airplanes if Pinnacle didn't negotiate a new agreement with its pilots union by March 31.

Northwest is expected to close its purchase of Mesaba in the coming weeks, and the Minnesota-based regional carrier already has federal certification to fly the 50-seat jets now operated by Pinnacle.

Wakefield Gordon, chairman of the Pinnacle branch of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), said Monday that no talks are scheduled and the two parties lack agreements on key money issues, including wages, health care and retirement benefits.

"This is a $340 million deal over five years," Gordon said. "We were $20 million apart at the end, and they couldn't come up with any more money to close the deal. They are going to risk the loss of 17 aircraft for that amount of money."

Pinnacle employs about 1,200 pilots. Recently, Reed said, Pinnacle has had to cancel some flights for lack of flight crews because so many Pinnacle pilots have left the carrier to accept jobs elsewhere.

"Pilots are not getting cheaper in the regional industry," said Gordon, who added that 30 to 40 Pinnacle pilots per month have left for other carriers.

A Northwest spokesman declined Monday to say whether the airline intends to remove planes from Pinnacle's fleet.

But there are a number of reasons that Northwest could view Mesaba as a logical home for the planes.

Currently, there are 16 pilots on Mesaba's payroll that are flying one 50-seat CRJ for Northwest. Two years ago, Mesaba geared up to operate 15 of the CRJs, but Northwest halted delivery of those planes after Northwest filed for bankruptcy. In 2005, Mesaba President John Spanjers estimated his carrier's workforce would grow by 300 people to accommodate the new flying.

Now, Mesaba is getting ready to take delivery of three dozen CRJs that seat 76 passengers. Mesaba will be Northwest's sole operator of the 76-seat CRJs.

The cockpits for the 50-seat and 76-seat CRJs are similar, and the pilots who fly them get the same license from the Federal Aviation Administration. So it would not be difficult for Mesaba to shift pilots from one CRJ model to another.

"Mesaba, like any other regional airline with certification for CRJs, is competition," said Pinnacle's Reed. "However, we've always been confident in our ability to provide a high-quality, low-cost product."

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