"It's just not a model that works," said Robert Mann, an aviation analyst at R.W. Mann & Co. "These guys don't have a track record operating a full-service airline with all the costs it entails and more risks."
ExpressJet, once wholly owned by Continental Airlines, has about 200 airplanes that feed passengers to its former owner, which spun the company off in 2002. Its new venture will launch with 44 Embraer jets that will serve 24 cities.
Company officials say they will make money by catering to business travelers who want to save time by skipping hubs and flying directly between small- and medium-size towns. Fares will be competitive with low-cost carriers for travelers who book early and run up to $320 one way for a last-minute ticket, said Ream, the airline's chief executive.
The company's jets are more economical to run than bigger aircraft operated by larger carriers, he added, and its strategy of flying "point to point" and skipping hubs will help the firm avoid going head to head with more established airlines.
"I think we can develop these markets, stay out of fare wars, and offer something customers don't have today," Ream said.
ExpressJet's flights will boost the number of daily departures at Ontario by 25% and increase the number of nonstop destinations by 63%. Los Angeles World Airports estimates that up to 750,000 people could use the service in its first year -- a number equivalent to the traffic growth at the airport over the last decade.
The facility lost several flights last year.
Ontario business leaders, who long have courted more service at the airport, expressed enthusiasm about the new flights, even though the carrier's identity has been a tightly kept secret up to now.
"You always have this connection you have to make out of Ontario ... to go through Salt Lake City, Denver or Dallas," said Connie Page, who owns Rancho Cucamonga-based Escape Plaza Travel and does more than half of her business with corporate clients.
"The weather delays last year really contributed to a lot of discontent with businesses," she said. "I can see that being a very big bonus for businessmen, if they can get from A to Z ... they'll be happy."
In Palmdale, officials were cautiously optimistic about new flights at the 35-year-old airport. Repeated attempts by airlines to offer service there over the last few decades never got off the ground. Scenic Airlines, a sightseeing company with flights to Las Vegas, pulled out last February, saying it wasn't making any money.
Although they contend there are enough people who fly in Palmdale and Lancaster to support the new United service, local economists questioned whether the region as a whole is ready to patronize an airport in the Antelope Valley.
"It's all a matter of timing," said Mel Layne, president of the Greater Antelope Valley Economic Alliance. "My fear is that many things are not in place today to make it a success -- such as interconnection with the San Fernando Valley, so they can see the value of coming to Palmdale Airport, rather than going to LAX."
Los Angeles' airports agency says it will aggressively promote the new service to encourage travelers to use the smaller airports. In Palmdale, it plans to hire an agency to place ads for United's service in parking lots of major aerospace firms and at gas pumps.
"This new service by United Airlines represents the last and best opportunity [the agency] has to establish viable nonstop service" at Palmdale, agency officials wrote in a report to airport commissioners.