Clearer skies ahead for Air Wisconsin

 - October 5, 2006, 7:16 AM

US Airways’ plans for new code-share partner Air Wisconsin finally crystallized last month, when the major airline loaded new schedules showing the Appleton, Wis.-based regional’s Bombardier CRJ200s on a host of routes from Philadelphia and Charlotte, N.C. The outlook remains murky for soon-to-be-ex-US Airways partner Mesa Air Group, however, as it prepares to move 60 of its regional jets out of the US Airways system to make room for Air Wisconsin.

Now flying predominantly from Chicago and Denver as United Express, Air Wisconsin expects to start its transition out of the United system this month, as it flies its first US Airways Express CRJ service on August 13 between Minneapolis and Philadelphia, a route served now by both Mesa and wholly owned US Airways subsidiary PSA Airlines. On August 21 it expects to take over Mesa’s Milwaukee to Philadelphia route and PSA’s Milwaukee to Charlotte service.

September schedules show Air Wisconsin flying 22 more round trips from Philadelphia and another two– Cleveland and Tri-Cities, Tenn.–from Charlotte. The new US Airways partner will supplant Mesa Air Group in most of the cities.

Mesa, meanwhile, needs to find homes for 23 CRJs and 36 Embraer ERJ 145s, all of which Air Wisconsin CRJs will replace by February. Mesa plans to use all the airplanes for a new code-share deal with Delta Air Lines and an expanded presence within the United system. A Mesa spokeswoman said her airline would know precisely where all the airplanes would fly “in the October time frame.”

“We’re still working with the airlines on a transition schedule,” said the spokeswoman. “We’re hoping for a smooth transition. Obviously the airplanes have to be repainted, but our goal is to continue service as regularly as possible.” She added that the airline hasn’t arrived at a firm number of expected job displacements “because we don’t have the exact hubs and locations will be flying to and in and out of.”

As an America West Express partner, Mesa will return to the fold if the planned merger between US Airways and America West wins government approval. In fact, Mesa will likely return to the East Coast with 86-seat CRJ900s, 18 of which the newly merged company would use to replace Boeing 737s now flown by the US Airways mainline.

Meanwhile, some 90 PSA employees know for sure they’ll no longer work in Philadelphia now that US Airways has notified them that it will move their jobs–mainly pilot, flight attendant and training positions–to stations in Charlotte, Akron, Ohio; and Knoxville, Tenn. A US Airways spokesman said the changes will not result in any reduction in employment at PSA, however, and that all but one employee have bid on and accepted their transfers.

Exodus from Appleton

Employees at all four of Air Wisconsin’s bases must prepare to move as well, starting with 140 pilots and flight attendants stationed in Appleton. Although it plans to keep its headquarters and administrative staff there, the airline will close the flight crew domicile by October 1. Over the next six to eight months Air Wisconsin will close Denver, Chicago and Washington Dulles International as it moves most of its people and equipment into Philadelphia, Ronald Reagan Washington National and perhaps Charlotte. It will continue to perform ground handling for United at Washington Dulles.

With its $125 million investment in US Airways, Air Wisconsin will hold a 13-percent stake in the merged US Airways-America West, making it the company’s second largest shareholder.

Fellow US Airways Express partner Republic Airways in late June agreed to buy some $100 million in assets from the bankrupt major airline, including “certain” Embraer 170s now flown by US Airways’ Mid-Atlantic unit. Under the terms of the deal, Republic will buy 10 and assume the leases on 18 of the 72-seat jets and fly them as US Airways Express starting “this summer.”

The Republic transaction also includes a flight simulator, spare parts and support facilities, as well as the sale of 113 commuter slots at Reagan National and 24 commuter slots at New York La Guardia Airport. Plans call for Republic to lease the slots back to US Airways, which will hold the right to buy them back any time after the second anniversary of the transaction.