A Pinnacle Airlines CRJ200. Photo courtesy of Caribb, via Flickr.
Regular readers know that I covered the regional airline industry worldwide from 1993 to 2001. During that time, I had a front-row seat to regionals that grew from small airlines to behemoths that were publicly traded. So I felt a little sad when I read in Aviation International News that Memphis-based Pinnacle Airlines had emerged from bankruptcy and is now owned by Delta Air Lines. And as part of the deal, the carrier is moving to the old Northwest Minneapolis hub.
When I started writing about Pinnacle, it was known as Express Airlines I, with hubs in Minneapolis and Memphis, based in Atlanta. It was privately held and run by Mike Brady, who was pressured to sell the airline to Northwest in 1997. It was taken over by Phil Trenary, formerly of Lone Star Airlines.
Trenary moved the operation to Memphis and oversaw a complete overhaul of the carrier’s fleet. He also renamed the airline Pinnacle and gave it a totally new brand. I was lucky enough to be there on the day the carrier took its first Bombardier CRJ200 regional jet, dubbed The Spirit of the Memphis Belle. It was a thrill to meet Col. Robert Morgan, captain of the original Boeing B17 Memphis Belle. I also got a VIP tour of Graceland.
In 2000, I named Trenary regional airline executive of the year for 1999 in recognition of his rebuilding of Pinnacle. Fast forward to 2011, when Trenary resigned two years after subsidiary Colgan Air had an aircraft crash outside of Buffalo, N.Y., that killed 49. After that, the airline went into a slide, which led it into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection April 1, 2012.
At its peak, Pinnacle had almost 300 aircraft in its fleet. The new, post-bankruptcy airline will shed all of its 50-seat CRJs and operate 81 CRJ900s with two-class seating. So now, the airline lives to see another day, albeit at a shell of its former self, a pattern that I’m seeing way too much in the regional aviation sector.