Flight leader – Mesa Airlines’ Larry Risley

Flight leader – Mesa Airlines’ Larry Risley – Renegades 1993: Creating the Future

Anna Esaki-Smith

Conventional Wisdom: An airline grows by buying bigger planes and packing more people into them.

You might call Texan Larry Risley a plane-thinking man, an aircraft mechanic by trade, who put together his own airline with common sense instead of common methods. Risley had an advantage: He knew how to manage maintenance costs. Now his no-nonsense Mesa Airlines Inc. has revolutionized the industry.

By the early 1980s Risley had risen from his beginnings as a mechanic to be president of a small, fixed-base operation that also ran a charter service and flight school. In 1982, he and his wife, Janie, mortgaged their home to launch the Mesa Air Shuttle. Their little Piper Chieftain flew a 148-mile route between Albuquerque and Farmington, N.M., five times a day, servicing a previously untapped market.

“I have never worked for an airline outside of the one we created, so I didn’t know the structure that was supposed to be,” Risley says. “If you look at an airline, there are layers of people — executive vice presidents, vice presidents to the vice president, all these maintenance people, affiliated analysts, and researchers. I didn’t know I was supposed to have that. The way I run Mesa, I have better efficiency.”

Risley’s background as a mechanic taught him that one key to airline success is keeping the planes aloft. He made Mesa, based in Farmington, into the only commuter line in the world with its own in-house engine shop approved by Pratt & Whitney engine manufacturers. This saves time and money; Mesa can service its engines, even perform overhauls, without having to send them back to die factory.

The initial investment for the tooling and training in the shop was more than $500,000, but Risley estimates that this start-up cost was recouped in the first year of operation. Less than 0.5 percent of all Mesa flights are canceled because of maintenance, one of the best rates in the industry among regional and jet carriers.

The real secret behind Mesa’s success, though, is that instead of accommodating increased traffic by running bigger airplanes, the airline runs more small craft. More flights mean more convenience for the customer. “There is a tendency among regional airlines to operate with high fares with two to three flights a day. I’ve taken a higher-frequency approach,” Risley says, adding that reduced costs help keep fares low.

In June 1992, Mesa acquired WestAir Holding Inc., California’s largest regional airline. The buy nearly doubled the size of the airline. Once the 10th largest of around 150 regional carriers, Mesa is now top banana, with 130 planes operating from 140 towns and cities in 26 states.

Today, Risley is the talk of the airline industry. He is inundated with calls from airlines across the country, each one eager to tap his knowledge. “I developed a business that happened to be different from the standard,” he says. “I can now say that the way Mesa does business is the direction the airline business will have to head in the future.”

COPYRIGHT 1993 Success Holdings Company, LLC

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