ExpressJet to Fly from Jacksonville to Four cities

Feb. 2--Travelers leaving Jacksonville International Airport will soon have access to new destinations -- on a new airline.

Upstart airline ExpressJet will roll out service between Jacksonville and four cities, including New Orleans, when the company starts operations next week, according to the company's Web site.

Official announcement of frequency of flight, ticket prices and other details is not expected until Monday, said Jacksonville Aviation Authority spokesman Michael Stewart, who welcomed the new destinations. Kansas City, Mo., Raleigh/Durham, N.C., and Austin, Texas, are the other cities that will be served by the new, nonstop flights.

"Anytime you announce new service to markets that are not served, it's a great opportunity for travelers -- both business and leisure travelers -- in the market," Stewart said. "We're very, very excited about the potential this gives us." ExpressJet Holdings Inc. used to be a wholly owned subsidiary of Continental Airlines Inc. After the company was spun off, it still operated regional routes for Continental, but when it lost some contracts with the larger airline, ExpressJet was left with a surplus of airplanes, particularly the Embraer EMB-145XR regional jet, which has a range of 1,600 miles.

To deal with the surplus, it decided to establish a charter airline service and set up direct flights between second-tier cities.

Last week, when ExpressJet filed its annual financial reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company said it planned to use the 44 aircraft to fly between 24 cities in the West, Midwest and Southeast that "typically do not have direct flight options today," although it did not name the cities.

Messages seeking comment left at ExpressJet's Houston headquarters Thursday afternoon were not returned.

Jacksonville has not had a direct flight to New Orleans since Southwest Airlines Co. cancelled its flights between the two cities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. There has never been a flight between the First Coast and the other cities that ExpressJet will now provide access to.

Tickets for the flights will be sold through , the company said last week, with service beginning in April and May. On Thursday, the Web site listed a phone number, (888) 958-9538, to call for bookings.

Setting the airline up to compete with low-cost carriers such as JetBlue Airways, the planes will come equipped with amenities such as free XM Satellite radio, no middle seats and complimentary snacks and meals on longer flights.

The 50-seat jet would travel point-to-point, rather than using a hub- and-spoke system as do larger airlines, such as Continental.

Although demand for travel to New Orleans is down since Katrina, there's still a desire for a nonstop flight there, said Steve Crandall, president of Discount Travel Brokerage Services in Jacksonville.

"The French Quarter is not quite like it used to be," he said. "But there will be some demand."

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