In 2006, Mesa was searching for opportunities to use some of the idled CRJ-200s, and they decided to invest in a partnership in the People’s Republic of China and joined forces with Shenzhen Airlines. The new operation was financed through two different off-shore holding companies in Barbados and Mesa would have a 49% ownership in the new company, which they called Kunpeng Airlines – named after a mythical magical beast with a hybrid fish body and bird-like wings and head. The originally business plan called for up to 100 airplanes flying out of a repurposed military airfield halfway between the Beijing airport and the city center.
Mesa hired at least four of their original captains from the Mesa seniority list, and the rest were hired off of the street. The first officer candidates came directly from Chinese flight schools. When Mesa started Kunpeng, they quickly learned that the military airfield concept had not been approved (and perhaps never really was an option), so the company moved the headquarters to Xi’an. Jonathan Ornstein said later that this should have been a red flag, and he lamented that Mesa didn’t pull out of the deal right then.
The joint venture never was successful as the anticipated passenger loads related to the 2008 summer Olympics never materialized. The way the controlling partner scheduled the flights didn’t take advantage of the hub and spoke concept. On top of that, Shenzhen management would make decisions about the joint venture without consulting their Mesa partner, including a deal to purchase Embraer 190 aircraft to replace the CRJ-200s. After Mesa learned of the Embraer purchase, they decided to abandon the deal and sold their interest in Kunpeng to Shenzhen in June 2009. Shenzhen took over crewing the “new” Kunpeng Airlines Embraers, and quickly changed the name to Henan Airlines, named after the province, where their new headquarters would be located in Zhengzhou City. Shortly after Mesa abandoned the project, Henan Airlines experienced a crash of one of its Embraer E-190s in August 2010 where 43 passengers were killed. This tragedy eventually was the reason the company failed. By the time of the Henan crash, Mesa had already left China and the CRJ-200s had been ferried back to the states.
Mesa was a 49 percent partner in Kunpeng Airlines operating five CRJ-200s out of Xi'an in 2007.
A welcome sign greeted each ferry crew when they arrived in China (Photo courtesy Kevin Wilson)
Arrival of the first CRJ-200 in China as Mike Ferverda talks to the greeters and Captain Zaka Khogyani descends the airstairs. (photo courtesy of Zaka Khogyani)
Shenzhen Airlines added EMB-190 jets to Kunpeng after Mesa left. These airplanes soon sported the Henan Airlines name for the new company.