Editors' Choice: Jonathan Ornstein makes waves in regional circles

 - May 28, 2008, 7:25 AM

In an industry led by comparatively conservative, low-key individuals, one regional airline executive not only tolerates the spotlight, he welcomes it. Mesa Air Group chairman and CEO Jonathan Ornstein–now in his fourth year as head of one of the country’s largest regional carriers–has become one of the industry’s most controversial figures.

Ornstein grabbed headlines again last spring for withdrawing his airline’s long-standing membership from the Regional Airline Association and founding his own group devoted to the support of small- community air service called Regional Aviation Partners. Never one to squander a public-relations opportunity, Ornstein announced his plans to start the new lobbying alliance during the annual RAA Convention on April 30. Ornstein blasted the association for its lack of effectiveness in winning support for air service to small communities and for what he perceived as the RAA’s apathy toward the plight of small, independently owned member airlines.  

Ornstein’s concern for small community air service stems directly from the losses generated by Mesa’s 19-seat turboprop operation, the high cost of which the Mesa CEO continues to lament–much to the dismay of Raytheon Aircraft. After Ornstein deliberately defaulted on debt payments in a maneuver to renegotiate the terms of the loans on Mesa’s 55 Beech 1900s, Raytheon recognized the futility of its position and agreed to a new payment structure based on significantly lower aircraft values.

After September 11, Ornstein reinforced his reputation as an industry maverick when Mesa began placing private security guards on its airplanes and announced plans to issue taser weapons to its pilots. Despite the continued debate among legislators and aviation officials over the issue of arming pilots, Mesa began training its cockpit crews to carry the weapons with the intention of issuing the weapons by the end of this month. However, under the guidelines of the new aviation security act, Mesa must wait for the National Institute of Justice to complete a 90-day study and submit its findings to the DOT secretary, attorney general and secretary of state for approval–a process that could last well into the spring.