Mesaba Airlines

Mesaba Airlines

Mesaba Airlines is an American regional airline based in Eagan, Minnesota. The airline operates under Mesaba Aviation, Inc. a wholly owned subsidiary of Northwest Airlines. All of its flights are operated under the name Northwest Airlink for Northwest Airlines.


Mesaba (an Ojibwa Native American name for "sleeping giant") was founded in 1944 by Gordy Newstrom in Coleraine, Minnesota and started operations in the same year under the name of Mesaba Aviation. It had one airplane, a Piper Cub purchased for $1,300, and it was used to shuttle employees of the Blandin Paper Mill Company from Grand Rapids, Minnesota to Minneapolis. In 1950 Newstrom moved the company to Grand Rapids.

In 1970, the Halverson family of Duluth, Minnesota bought Mesaba from Newstrom. On 4 February 1973, they started regularly scheduled airline services serving rural Minnesota communities.

The Swenson family of Thief River Falls, Minnesota purchased Mesaba Aviation in 1977. They took the company public in 1982 as the airline began flying to Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota, using a fleet of Beech 99s.

In 1983, Mesaba became a codeshare partner of Republic Airlines, flying turboprop aircraft from small regional communities to the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport. In 1986, after the merger of Republic Airlines and Northwest Orient Airlines, Mesaba transitioned their codeshare partnership, and began operations as a Northwest Airlink carrier.

Mesaba began feeder service from Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport to small airports across the east and midwest using Fokker F27 and Fairchild Metro aircraft in 1988. Maintenance bases were established both in Detroit and Wausau, Wisconsin.

In 1991, Mesaba began adding the first of 25 De Havilland Canada Dash 8 aircraft (leased from Northwest Airlines) to begin replacing the Fokker F-27's.

In 1995, Mesaba and Northwest reached an agreement to provide service with Saab 340 turboprop aircraft. By 1996, Mesaba's fleet consisted of 55 aircraft, with projections of 2006 predicting a fleet of 114 aircraft. The company employed 1,540 employees.

Growth Into Regional Jet Operations

Northwest's Memphis hub was served exclusively by Airlink partner Express Airlines I, now Pinnacle Airlines, until 1997, when Mesaba began jet aircraft service using the Avro RJ-85, the first regional jet to be flown by either Airlink airline. Mesaba was split off at this time into Airways Corporation to address objections from Northwest over their operation of a jet fleet. Mesaba also became the first regional airline to have a first class seating option. Eventually, as Pinnacle transitioned to an all Canadair Regional Jet fleet, Mesaba took over all Northwest Airlink Saab 340 operations.

The year 2000 brought many changes to Mesaba. The company took delivery of its final Avro RJ, along with 11 new Saab 340 aircraft. This made Mesaba the operator of the largest fleet of Avro BAe 146/RJ aircraft (36) in the world, and the second-largest operator of Saab 340's.

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Mesaba was forced to reduce its workforce by 20% and achieve cost savings. In the fall of 2003, Northwest announced plans to begin retirement of the Avro jet fleet, beginning with five aircraft. The Avro jets, which comprise of about half of Mesaba's revenue, were according to Northwest inefficient and aging. However, Mesaba was able to negotiate a deal with Northwest allowing the Avro fleet to remain in service for the near future. In 2005, it was announced that Mesaba would have the exclusive rights to the next 15 Canadair Regional Jets delivered to Airlink, eventually destined to replace the Avro jets. Two examples were delivered in early September.

On January 26, 2007, Northwest announced that Mesaba would operate 36 CRJ-900 for Northwest Airlink.


In early 1998, in recognition of the successful introduction of two new airliner types to the fleet (the Saab 340 and the Avro RJ-85 regional jet) while maintaining excellent operating performance Mesaba Airlines was presented with the Air Transport World "Regional Airline of the Year for 1997" award. Saab painted two new Saab 340 aircraft in special commemorative liveries celebrating both the award and Mesaba's 25th anniversary of scheduled airline service.

On August 31, 2005 Mesaba Airlines was named the winner of the 2005 Operational Excellence Award by AIG Aviation, a U.S. based underwriter of aviation insurance. The award has been presented only four times since its creation in 1998 and recognizes clients that exhibit a strong commitment to building quality safety and loss prevention programs. Mesaba was the unanimous selection out of an entry pool of more than 650 companies.

Bankruptcy Filing

On 14 September 2005, Northwest Airlines filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection. Subsequently, the airline withheld over $25 million in payments from their regional partners Mesaba and Pinnacle. Northwest proceeded to announce plans to ground the entire Avro fleet by Q1 2007, 10 Saab 340B aircraft by 24 January 2006, and to halt the delivery of the 13 remaining Canadair Regional Jets, leaving Mesaba with an awkward and expensive fleet of two aircraft. Facing rising fuel costs, downsizing plans, and lack of income from Northwest, Mesaba Aviation filed for Chapter 11 on 13 October 2005.

In an interview in January 2006, Mesaba President John Spanjers announced that the Mesaba fleet would be cut in half by the end of the year. Twelve Avro jets had already been removed from the fleet, and the balance would be grounded by the end of the year. 10 Saab 340 "B" model aircraft were returned to Pinnacle Airlines (from whom they were leased) during January 2006 while the 3 remaining "A" model Saab 340's and the two Canadair Regional Jets that had been delivered to Mesaba prior to bankruptcy will leave the fleet before mid-year. These changes left Mesaba with a fleet of 49 Saab 340 turboprops.

As of January 2006, the company employed 3,707 people.

On 14 April 2006 the company announced reductions of the RJ85 fleet, at Northwest Airlines' direction. RJ-85's ceased flying out of Memphis on June 8, and on October 31 the last RJ85 disappeared from Minneapolis/St. Paul. The last RJ85 aircraft was retired in Detroit on December 4, 2006.

Separately it was announced that one of the two 50-seat Canadair Regional Jets operated by Mesaba would be taken by Northwest to start the flying operations (expected in late 2006) of newly-formed Northwest Airlines subsidiary Compass Airlines.

By the end of October 2006, all three of the major unions representing the Pilots, Flight Attendants, and Mechanics reached tentative agreements that still must be approved by the membership. On November 27, 2006, the three unions announced that their membership had ratified the new agreements.

In December 2006, Northwest Airlines said it may purchase Mesaba Airlines from current owner MAIR Holdings and operate it as a wholly-owned subsidiary. Tentative agreement to the sale were made; however, the merger could not have been approved without going through bankruptcy board proceedings and approvals of regulators and various interest groups.

On April 24, 2007, Mesaba Airlines emerged from bankruptcy protection and was officially acquired by Northwest Airlines.


Mesaba operates a fleet of regional jet and turboprop aircraft from Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport, Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, and Memphis International Airport on short flights primarily to small-to-medium sized cities and towns.


As with all Northwest Airlink partners, the aircraft Mesaba operates are owned by Northwest Airlines. The Mesaba Airlines fleet consists of the following aircraft as of September 2008:
Aircraft Total Passengers
Routes Notes
Bombardier CRJ-200LR 17
50 Northwest Airlink 15 transferred from Pinnacle Airlines
Bombardier CRJ-900 32
(4 orders)
(36 options)
76 (12/64) Northwest Airlink First Operator of the CRJ900 Next Gen
Saab 340B+ 49 34 Northwest Airlink


Aircraft Year Retired Replacement Notes
Avro RJ-85 2006 Bombardier CRJ-900
Fairchild Swearingen Metroliner 1997 Saab 340
De Havilland Canada Dash 8 1998 Saab 340
Fokker F27 Dash 8
Beechcraft Model 99 Metroliner
Saab 340A 2006 None


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