Avoiding crowded metropolitan hubs in favor of smaller airports, a new commuter airline hopes to capitalize on LA/Ontario International Airport's 7 million passengers annually with more nonstop destinations than the airport's largest carrier.
ExpressJet, an independent airline that flies 205 jets under contract with Continental Airlines, isn't interested in competing for travelers at metropolitan hubs, company spokeswoman Kristy Nicholas said Tuesday. Instead, the airline plans to fly 44 small Embraer 50-seat planes between 24 mid-size cities, she said.
"Our intention is to connect cities that aren't currently connected today," Nicholas said. "What we're hoping to do is make people have a more convenient trip."
However, airline consultants say the strategy is risky. Despite flying jets under the Continental Express flag, ExpressJet is a largely unrecognizable brand and there aren't enough passengers to sustain the airline, said Mike Boyd, an airline consultant with The Boyd Group.
"How do you go from Ontario to Tucson where at both ends you don't have brand identity," he said. "Try to break into the media market in Ontario with two or three flights a day, that's very expensive media."
Airline consultants say a fracture between ExpressJet and Continental also doesn't bode well for its future business plans.
In December 2005, Continental Airlines told ExpressJet it wouldn't need 69 of its 274 jets used to fly Continental Express routes and would likely seek another airline's services at a cheaper cost, Nicholas said. Instead of giving the planes back to Continental and shrinking the company, which employs 7,000 workers, ExpressJet decided to use 44 for its independent mid-size airport routes and the rest for charter flights and other ventures to keep costs low, she said.
Ontario airport will get 14 new nonstop destinations, but Nicholas refused to say where until the company holds a news conference at the airport on Monday. The airline plans to begin selling tickets on Thursday, according to its most recent U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing.
By comparison Southwest Airlines, currently the largest airline at the Ontario Airport with 56 daily flights, serves six cities nonstop. And of the 24 cities ExpressJet is focused on, only four aren't served by Southwest: Bakersfield, Fresno, Monterey and Colorado Springs, Colo. Southwest now flies nonstop between Ontario and Las Vegas, Oakland, Phoenix, Sacramento, San Jose and Nashville, Tenn. Southwest also flies to 48 other cities using connecting flights.
Southwest officials haven't met to discuss ExpressJet's presence in Ontario, and had barely heard of the airline until Tuesday, said Marilee McInnis, a Southwest spokeswoman.
"Obviously we compete against a lot of airlines at different airports," she said.
"We tend to look at what we're doing at Southwest as opposed to other airlines."
LA/Ontario International Airport spokeswoman Maria Tesero-Fermin wouldn't comment on ExpressJet's service, citing a nondisclosure agreement with the airline.
BOISE, TUCSON SAID IN MIX
Bob Brown, director of the Ontario Convention Center and visitor's bureau, said ExpressJet is scheduled to fly nonstop between Ontario and Boise, Idaho; Fresno; Monterey; and Tucson, Ariz., but he wasn't aware of where the other 10 flights will land.
Most attendees at state association meetings in Ontario come from the mid-size cities the airline hopes to link with the Ontario airport, Brown said.
"We're extremely excited about ExpressJet because it gives the regional traveler direct access to the convention center and events," he said.
ExpressJet wants customers who won't mind paying a bit of a premium, as long as they get a nonstop flight from one mid-size city to another mid-size city and bypass lengthy layovers in Denver, Phoenix, Houston or Atlanta.