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.
"The fares will be competitive in the markets that we serve," Nicholas said without revealing price ranges.
The airline's minimal to nonexistent brand recognition and the fact it will be sideling up to behemoths such as Southwest aren't going to help, said Robert Mann, an airline consultant based in Port Washington, N.Y.
"I think we're seeing kind of an end-stage strategy for ExpressJet. Not to say that it won't go a lot further than anyone expects; it's just that I think it's got a lot of risks attached," Mann said. "It's a fundamentally different business than when they flew at Continental's beck and call and basically had a cost-plus business running with Continental funding it."
PALM SPRINGS TURNED DOWN
Palm Springs International Airport had been in talks with ExpressJet but wasn't chosen as a destination.
"Ontario is still almost five times as big as we are," said Brian Kidd, deputy director of aviation for Palm Springs International Airport. "I have hopes that if some of these 24 cities don't work out, especially some that are smaller than us like Bakersfield and Fresno, that they'll come back to us.
"They need to have a Plan B if some of these initial options don't pan out," he said.
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ONTARIO AIRPORT 14 - Number of airlines, not including ExpressJet, using LA/Ontario International Airport.
113- Number of nonstop flights offered daily by those airlines
7,049,904 - Number of travelers who used LA/Ontario International Airport in 2006
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AIR TRAFFIC: ExpressJet says it will serve these 24 airports, including LA/Ontario International Airport, with nonstop flights. Flights from Ontario will go to 14 of these cities to be announced. (MAP
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Spun off from Continental Airlines in 2002
Operates as Continental Express, the regional provider from Continental Airlines, with more than 200 jets used primarily to feed passengers from small cities to large hubs
Uses 5-seat Embraer jet aircraft with leather seats and satellite radio
Will launch the new service with 44 excess jets
Carried 18 million travelers in 2006
Airline plans 44 nonstop destinations from Ontario but has not announced it schedule
ExpressJet Airlines employs approximately 6,800 people and is owned by ExpressJet Holdings Inc.
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