ExpressJet Could Face Rough Takeoff in Fresno

An aviation analyst is skeptical that ExpressJet will be able to survive flying from Fresno and other cities to destinations that other carriers ignore.

"Everyone's rooting for them," aviation analyst Michael Boyd said. "But it's going to be tough."

ExpressJet plans to operate two flights per day between Fresno and Ontario, starting April 30, and twice-daily flights from Fresno to San Diego, starting May 14. Those are cities other carriers don't reach with nonstop service from the central San Joaquin Valley.

Boyd said ExpressJet faces two hurdles as it prepares to take off: It has little name recognition and flies regional jets that are expensive to operate.

He said it is difficult for an airline with two flights per day to be profitable.

"Can an independent entity that no one has heard of make it in the market?" Boyd asked. "The whole idea is that people who don't want to make a connection will fly nonstop, but you need frequency. It's hard to make money with only two flights."

Fresno is one of 24 cities the carrier plans to start serving with 44 50-passenger jets that ExpressJet recently flew on behalf of Continental as Continental Express. When the larger airline decided against using the aircraft, ExpressJet launched its own branded service.

"We've done research for three years to see what the growth is and where people are traveling," said ExpressJet spokeswoman Kristy Nicholas. "Fresno and the two markets we matched you up with have growing populations."

One-way fares will range from $69 to $127 to Ontario and $79 to $129 to San Diego.

Fresno-to-Ontario departures are 6:30 a.m. and 12:20 p.m., and flights to San Diego are to leave at 9:40 a.m. and 2:20 p.m.

"It's their business how they priced their product," said Russ Widmar, Fresno's director of aviation.

"I think their approach is sane. [Fares] are in the middle. It couldn't be a low-fare carrier using those 50-passenger jets."

Under a recently adopted policy, Fresno officials will waive ExpressJet's landing fees and rent for 120 days because it will fly to previously unserved cities.

The company will invest about $400,000 in airport facilities and employ 12 people in Fresno.

Boyd said the new venture is the result of having an excess of aircraft.

"They are doing this because they are stuck with airplanes," he said. "They see 44 airplanes they have to put someplace."

The question, Boyd said, is whether enough people want to fly to those locations on a carrier that is not the same low-fare model as Southwest Airlines.

Similar attempts have failed, including one last year where a carrier attempted to build service from San Antonio to six communities," he said.

"Until the schedule is set and the service starts, it's a jump ball," Boyd said in an analysis on his Web site.

But, he added: "There is nothing to show that the ExpressJet foray into the airline business, trying to capture market share with 50-seat [regional jets] in hub-bypass operations, can't work."

Nicholas said ExpressJet is targeting a niche market. "We're serving markets without nonstop service today and those that don't make sense for a low-cost or mainline carrier that have over 100 seats to serve," she said.

"We've done a lot of research to find the right markets."

Widmar is more than happy to give it a shot; San Diego has been on wish list for a while. "We'll take it," he said. "Everyone who approaches me wants San Diego service. They don't like going through L.A."

Travel agents say Ontario is an alternative to Los Angeles International Airport and would be good for people with business in the Inland Empire of Southern California or who plan to drive on to Palm Springs. Southwest Airlines is one of 13 carriers that fly into Ontario.

ExpressJet comes to Fresno when the airport is booming, with ridership reaching record levels for the fourth consecutive year.

"ExpressJet is a small carrier with an aggressive business plan. I can only wish them the best of luck and hope their service here is terrific," Widmar said.



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