ASA takes flight with new partner

Starting Feb. 11, Atlanta-based ASA will also fly as a United Express carrier on flights out of Chicago-based United Airlines' hubs at Washington Dulles and Chicago O'Hare airports.

It's the first time regional carrier ASA has flown for any partner other than Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines. ASA president Brad Holt sees it as a way for ASA to branch out in the unpredictable airline industry, beyond its roots as a Delta partner and one-time subsidiary.

"This is a new experience for ASA," Holt said. "This was a good opportunity to diversify a bit."

To start, ASA will fly eight 50-seat CRJ-200 regional jets for United Express and will eventually add six more to the operation. ASA has a total fleet of about 160 aircraft.

Delta sold ASA to another regional carrier, Utah-based SkyWest, in 2005. SkyWest already flies for United Express. The five-year deal for ASA flying was part of an agreement for SkyWest to loan $80 million to United.

Delta is "fine with the whole thing," Holt said. "We've not kept any secrets from them." Delta declined to comment.

ASA will also open a new crew base in Washington for roughly 120 crew members, along with maintenance staff for the United Express operation.

Holt hopes the geographic diversification will also lessen the blow of Atlanta storms on ASA's on-time performance.

Because of ASA's concentration of flights in Atlanta at Delta's hub, "When the weather is bad, it impacts ASA more than anyone else," Holt said. Especially during thunderstorm season, ASA has had some of the lowest on-time performance ratings among airlines.

The 14 CRJ-200s ASA will fly for United are among 20 ASA jets Delta is pulling from its service this year as it moves to larger regional jets operated by ASA.

When Delta makes a decision to reduce flying, "it really hits company-wide," Holt said.

It's unclear what ASA will do with the remaining 6 aircraft being pulled out of service later this year.

"We have several irons in the fire," Holt said. "Our intention is to continue to grow this airline and also to invest in other companies that have growth opportunities."

Holt said he has had talks with numerous other airlines, including talks with a Vietnamese startup, Mekong Air, about supplying technical expertise.

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