ExpressJet takes on Delta, US Air

If ExpressJet, the newest carrier at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, remains airborne it will be because of travelers such as Grant Beckett.

On Monday, Beckett boarded ExpressJet's inaugural nonstop flight from RDU to Kansas City, Mo. At least for now, subtract one frequent flier from Delta and USAirways' one-stop service.

"I seem to have very hard luck with connecting flights," Beckett said. "I've missed several."

Beckett flies on business to Kansas City every six weeks or so, but said he was frustrated by the hours he spent waiting in airports for connecting flights.

That's why Beckett was eager to test ExpressJet's nonstop flight, which he said cuts travel time in half -- and costs less. Traveling through hubs in Atlanta or Charlotte, flights from RDU wouldn't land in Kansas City until late afternoon. ExpressJet's 10:50 a.m. flight has a 12:30 p.m. arrival. Round-trip tickets that were $450 on Delta or US Airways cost $245 on ExpressJet.

"I'll get there for a lunch meeting. This saves at least half a business day," said Beckett, a medical adviser for Ford Dodge Animal Health, an animal health-care products maker.

Houston-based ExpressJet started service from RDU to Kansas City, Louisville, Ky., and Jacksonville, Fla., on Monday. Flights to New Orleans and Birmingham, Ala., follow May 14, and San Antonio on June 12.

But judging by the paucity of passengers on the first day's flights, the two-month-old airline has some marketing hurdles.

Only 15 passengers were on the morning flight to Kansas City, and four were booked on the afternoon route. Eight passengers were booked on the first flight to Louisville and four were on the first trip to Jacksonville, a gate agent said. ExpressJet's Embraer aircraft can carry 50 passengers.

Michael Cox, senior director of sales, declined to reveal boarding statistics for the airline, but said they are improving. Two flights originating in Jacksonville last weekend were overbooked, he said.

"There's a real need" for the flights ExpressJet is rolling out, Cox said. The carrier plans to serve 24 midsize and smaller cities that don't have nonstop service but are large enough to fill the airline's regional jets, which feature amenities such as free satellite radio and $3-per-glass wine.

ExpressJet is airing radio ads, using billboards and advertising in in national and regional newspapers to draw passengers, Cox said.

The airline's frequent-flier program will reward passengers who fly eight round trips a free ticket. During an introductory promotion, four round trips by Sept. 30 will merit a free pass.

ExpressJet, spun off from Continental Airlines in 2002, still provides commuter service for the airline. RDU director John Brantley said ExpressJet may be hindered by lack of recognition and competition from American Eagle, the commuter partner of American Airlines that began competing flights from RDU to Louisville, Kansas City and Jacksonville last week.

Passengers on Monday's flights said ExpressJet was the cheapest and most convenient option. A check of a sampling of destinations shows ExpressJet was often the lowest-priced carrier from RDU and required less travel time. A round-trip flight from RDU to San Antonio on ExpressJet in June cost $310, and took 3 hours 11 minutes each way. American also charged $310, but the flight took 4 hours and 20 minutes each way with a one-stop connection. Low-fare leader Southwest charged $330.

Angela Johnson, operations manager for a Pine Level medical supply company, said she bought a $141.80 round trip ExpressJet ticket to Jacksonville after checking competitors' prices. "It's cheaper than driving to Jacksonville with gas like it is," she said. "If they keep their prices like this, I will definitely use them again."

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