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Hal N. Carr, a pioneer airline executive who transformed a small regional carrier into a major airline that was eventually acquired by Northwest Airlines, died Feb. 29 of respiratory failure in Texas. He was 86.

Carr became the nation's youngest airline president in 1954 when he was named head of North Central Airlines at age 33, reviving the small, financially struggling carrier.

With a reputation for decisive action and a Texas persona, Carr transformed North Central into the largest regional carrier in the nation.

"One of his sayings was, 'The right decision, made at the wrong time, is the wrong decision,'" said Henry Ross, a longtime friend and retired executive from Virginia.

"He was friendly, and he knew what he wanted to do, and he knew how to get it done," said Walt Hellman, who worked in public relations for the company.

"He realized it wasn't going to be enough to be a regional airline flying out of Minneapolis and Milwaukee and the Midwest," said Ralph Strangis, who was an attorney for North Central. "You had to expand that base."

Carr added routes and in 1979 arranged a merger with Southern Airways to form Republic Airlines. North Central then purchased Hughes Air West from the estate of the late Howard Hughes.

By 1983, Republic had annual revenue of $1.8 billion with 15,000 employees and routes serving 155 cities in 30 states, plus Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.

Carr was the company's CEO when Republic fell on hard economic times. He had a good reputation among employees but relations with labor unions became frayed. He was still on the board, but no longer chairman, in 1986 when Republic was sold to the much larger Northwest Airlines.

He had a no-nonsense style. Hellman recalls Carr was asked at an analysts meeting why he called his newly merged airline "Republic." He replied, "Because all the good names were taken."

He once told analysts that screening out hijackers had become "costly as hell," citing $1.8 million to buy metal detectors and pay personnel to check carry-on luggage.

Although he had a Minneapolis apartment, he lived in Bryan, Texas. He was a 1943 graduate of Texas A&M University and worked for TWA and McKinsey & Co., a management consulting firm, before joining North Central. After Republic was sold, he stayed on several corporate boards.

"He was a wonderful provider for his family," said his son Scott Carr of Bryan, Texas. "We never wanted for anything."

In addition to Scott, Carr is survived by his wife, Mary Elizabeth, and three other sons, Steven, also of Bryan, Hal of Troy, Ind., and James of Conroe, Texas.

Services have been held.

Staff researcher John Wareham contributed to this article. Randy Furst • 612-673-7382