ExpressJet Appears Headed for Fresno

Fresno's airport may soon offer new destinations for Valley residents clamoring for expanded air service.

A Houston-based regional airline is expanding its California presence, and Fresno appears to be one of its new stops.

ExpressJet, which serves Bakersfield, Los Angeles and Palm Springs under the Continental Express name, said it will add service to 24 cities in the West, Midwest and Southeast in April and May. Airline officials said they won't announce the destinations or start selling tickets until next month, but the company's Web site has job postings for a general manager and airport sales agent in Fresno.

"Oh, they're coming here," said Ed Beckman, a Fresno businessman who closely follows the aviation industry. "But the question is, where are they going?"

Fresno Yosemite International Airport officials announced Thursday that a new service would be unveiled Feb. 6. Aviation director Russ Widmar declined to comment, citing a confidentiality agreement.

An airline spokeswoman wouldn't comment on specific routes, but the company also is hiring personnel in Ontario, San Diego and Sacramento, prompting speculation that new Fresno flights could serve those three cities.

The Fresno City Council on Tuesday authorized the use of $30,000 to $60,000 worth of incentives for each new direct round-trip flight to a U.S. city currently not available from Fresno. The incentives, which include waivers of fees and rents, would last for 120 days.

San Diego and Chicago top Widmar's list of desirable destinations. The jets used by ExpressJet have a range of 1,500 to 2,000 miles.

Travel agents welcomed the prospect of another carrier, which would expand opportunities for travelers and could lower air fares. "Anytime we can get that competition in there, it is good," said Keith Johnson of Bulldog Travel. He cites San Diego, Orange County and increased service to San Francisco on his wish list.

ExpressJet, which serves 150 destinations, said it plans to use 44 jets, which seat 50 passengers each, in markets "that are sized appropriately for these aircraft and typically do not have direct flight options today."

Fresno fits perfectly within that model, said Tim Sieber, vice president and general manager of Aviation Systems Research in Colorado.

"It is an underserved market for sure," he said. "And it fits their profile."

ExpressJet is a regional partner to Continental Airlines in many cities, including Bakersfield, where it flies on Continental's behalf to Houston. In this case, however, ExpressJet will operate its own brand name.

"They will try to link smaller and medium-sized communities to bigger cities," Beckman said. "The question is ... whether they can somehow break through the clutter. It is so doggone hard to be heard when you're going up against the majors."

More regional carriers could test their independence as relationships between regional carriers and their larger partners become more tentative. Regionals fly passengers from smaller cities to their partner's hubs.

"There is so much friction among regionals and major carriers because regionals are making money and the majors aren't," Beckman said.

ExpressJet and Continental, unable to agree on rates for 2007, are submitting their disagreement to binding arbitration.

The prospect of ExpressJet launching new service, especially if it is low-fare, is intriguing. "If someone does it right," he said, "it could be interesting."

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