Startup ExpressJet Will Try to Fill Midsize Niche at RDU

The newest carrier at Raleigh-Durham International Airport is built on routes abandoned by its competitors and doesn't have a rewards program accepted by other airlines or low introductory fares.

And although ExpressJet announced its RDU service about three months ago, most people are unfamiliar with the Houston-based startup.

Not lacking, though, are high hopes and expectations.

"I just don't think there are many carriers out there that can do as good a job taking care of the customer," said chief executive and president Jim Ream, who is visiting the Triangle this week to promote the RDU flights.

Nonstop ExpressJet flights will begin May 7 between RDU and Kansas City, Mo., Louisville, Ky., and Jacksonville, Fla. Service to San Antonio, Texas, follows May 12, and to New Orleans and Birmingham, Ala., on May 14.

Ream is betting there are enough passengers to fill ExpressJet's fleet of 50-seat regional jets by offering nonstop flights to small and mid-size destinations -- cities not big enough to attract comparable service from bigger airlines but large enough to fill smaller planes flying a few times a day. The flights should appeal to business travelers now forced to connect through other carriers' hubs, he said.

"We're a niche operator," Ream said. "We thought there was a real opportunity to connect people better than they are today."

ExpressJet is offering free meals and satellite radio in each seat, but the fares are decidedly not low fare: $150 to $300 one way.

ExpressJet was spun off from Continental Airlines in 2002 but still provides commuter feeder service for the larger carrier. When Continental rebid its feeder contracts this year, ExpressJet was left with a fleet of unused planes.

ExpressJet began rolling out service to 24 city-pairs April 2. But at RDU, competition will be airborne before ExpressJet's flights take off.

American Eagle plans to start service to Jacksonville, Louisville and Kansas on May 1. And some of the new flights aren't attracting droves of passengers.

Only four flew on an inaugural flight from Oklahoma City to Albuquerque, N.M., on Monday and only two traveled to Ontario, Calif., according to a report in the Oklahoma City Oklahoman.

Tony Maupin, owner of Raleigh-based Maupin Travel, has booked a group of 40 passengers to Jacksonville but said he otherwise is getting few calls for ExpressJet.

"Most people don't know anything about ExpressJet," Maupin said. "I wish them well, but what ExpressJet needs to compete ... is a strong marketing plan and strong frequent flier program."

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