Buoyed by Go!, Mesa Air Group is boosting PR to help a variety of audiences get on-board
Mesa Air Group is one of the world's most successful regional airlines, yet most of its passengers aren't aware that they're flying Mesa. Codeshare agreements have fueled the company's growth, insulated it from the turbulent market, kept it under the cover of partner airlines, and all but exempted it from external PR needs.
Founded in 1982 as Mesa Air Shuttle with one nine-passenger plane in New Mexico, Mesa Air Group now operates nearly 200 aircrafts and has about 5,000 employees. It has been profitable every quarter since December 2001 and last year was named Air Transport World's regional airline of the year.
Projected 2006 revenue is $1.3 billion, nearly all derived from codeshare agreements wherein Mesa is paid a flat rate or a percentage of ticket cost to staff and flies planes under other airlines' brand banners. It currently operates as US Airways Express, Delta Connection, and United Express. So, what appears to be, for example, a Delta Connection flight is actually a Mesa flight.
"We've been a sleeper," says Joe Bock, who manages PR for Go!, Mesa's independent airline launched on June 9 in Hawaii's interisland market. "We post great numbers, but nobody says, 'Mesa did great.' They say, 'I enjoyed that Delta Connection flight.'"
Contracts that dictate labor cost and what types of planes large airlines can fly on what routes make it economically unfeasible for most to operate in small markets. Mesa can fly regional routes for the larger airlines and both make money. Mickey Bowman, Mesa's VP of planning, explains that Mesa is lean and expanding, and it has a significant cost advantage in meeting the needs of large airlines struggling to shrink to fit regional markets. "It's [a] true win/win," he says.
Profitability allows Mesa plenty of breathing room to operate Go!, which represents less than 2% of its operations. It can afford to offer drastically lower fares than its rivals in Hawaii. The competition's stance is defensive, and Go! is exceeding expectations - 60% load factor was expected, but flights ran nearly 85% full in June.
"Most airlines manage revenue in terms of how they're allocating fares," says Mesa CEO Jonathan Ornstein. "With Go!, we'll be managing for reputation, not for revenue. We want the reputation [of] lowest prices. We will not be undersold."
While Mesa also operates independently as Mesa Airlines in New Mexico, that brand doesn't require promotion because it's so well-established in its niche. The company only needed internal communications and IR until Go!, which requires ground-up brand development.
"PR is very important [because] we're new," Ornstein says. "I feel so strongly about [the strategic importance of Go!]. I was just telling my board, I'm literally ready to go to Hawaii full-time to make it work."
Though Go! is a small part of Mesa's operations, it's had a companywide impact. "It's been a huge source of pride for employees," Ornstein says. "Developing our own brand has had a halo effect in terms of morale."
Dialogue is among Mesa's great internal strengths, and it translates to external efforts.
"We have an open-door policy at Mesa, starting with Jonathan," Bock says. "Encouraging communication is how we've grown, and that's important for passengers to know. Feedback will not get lost. It's not PR spin. We haven't had PR spin before. We've had this mentality for over 20 years."
Bock and Ornstein literally go to the airport and talk to passengers and staff about how they can improve. Ornstein also has an 800 number and a public e-mail address. He is extremely open, charismatic, and articulate - all communications assets.
"Connectivity between company and passenger happens so infrequently [at most airlines]," Bock says. "Even a little makes a huge impression."
Bright Light Marketing Group helped launch Go!, and will continue to assist. Ornstein, Bock, and Bowman are developing a plan that includes media relations, Web site development, community partnerships, and advertising. Bock stresses that finding new ways to operate and interact with passengers is a priority.
"Patterns aren't often reconsidered just because of tradition," Bock says.
In-flight experience is one way Go! differentiates itself. For example, a popular local band recorded the boarding and safety announcements. All beverages are $2.50 and flight attendants get a commission. Many people don't want drinks on a flight that's less than 30 minutes, and Bock says charging only those who do contains cost.
"We have to think out of the box and come across the right way," Bowman adds. "We have to show respect and cater to people's needs. We got a lot of exposure because we were the new kids. We must make sure people don't forget us. [External communication] gets more important over time."
At A Glance
Mesa Air Group
Projected revenue for fiscal 2006 is $1.3bn.
MAIR Holdings, Midwest Air Group, SkyWest
Key Trade titles:
Aviation Daily, Air Transport World
VP, planning, Mickey Bowman
VP, gen. counsel and sec., Brian Gillman
EVP and CFO, Peter Murnane
Head, marketing and PR, Go!, Joe Bock
Marketing Service Agencies:
Bright Light Marketing Group (HI), Hendrix Miyasaki Shin Advertising (HI)