ExpressJet Picks Spokane?

Jan. 27 -- A Houston aviation company will debut a new passenger airline service this spring, adding brand new flights to 24 cities, including seven daily flights from Spokane to California.

Starting in April, ExpressJet Airlines will introduce seven daily nonstop flights between Spokane and three California cities, said an aviation analyst covering the publicly traded company.

The new routes will be formally announced by ExpressJet officials in early February. Officials from the publicly traded company will visit Spokane's airport Feb.5 to describe the new service.

The new flights will be the first nonstops between Spokane and two popular Southern California destinations -- Los Angeles Ontario International Airport and San Diego.

The third California destination has not been identified, but, based on job postings on ExpressJet's Web site, could be Sacramento. In total, Spokane will likely see seven flights to California daily and seven arrivals, said Spokane International Airport Spokesman Todd Woodard.

Spokane fliers today can reach Los Angeles's LAX airport with one daily nonstop from Alaska Airlines. Other passengers flying to that city switch flights first in Seattle or Portland.

No airline currently offers nonstops to San Diego or Sacramento from Spokane. Los Angeles is the seventh most-frequent destination from Spokane; San Diego is the 11th, while Sacramento is eighth.

An ExpressJet spokeswoman declined to elaborate on the company's plans for Spokane.

Airline analyst Helane Becker, managing partner with The Benchmark Company of New York, said it's obvious when visiting ExpressJet's Web site that Spokane, Fresno, Boise and other Western and Southwestern cities are new destinations for the airline.

Becker, however, is skeptical that ExpressJet's plan will succeed. She and other analysts quizzed ExpressJet officials during an earnings conference call over details of the new plan.

ExpressJet CEO Jim Ream told them the airline will use 44 of its 50-seat jets to launch the service and expects the plan to be successful over time.

"This is the right aircraft, these are the right markets and we think we are the right company to prove these aircraft can operate out of a network," Ream said, in response to pointed questions from the analysts, including Becker.

Until now, ExpressJet has used about 279 of its aircraft as contracted planes for Continental Airlines, flying as Continental Express in midsized markets.

Continental has told ExpressJet it won't need about 70 of those aircraft as it reduces costs. That frees up aircraft for the new routes.

Analyst Becker said it's not an easy time for a contract company to start a new airline from scratch.

Another airline, Independence Air, tried to do the same thing in 2003, relying on similar 50-seat jets to build a following. But Independence Air failed and was liquidated in 2005, she said.

"I don't know if demand (for those routes) is high enough, especially in cities like Spokane where you have carriers like Southwest and Alaska already in the market, offering hub service in some cases and with good frequent flier programs."

Added Becker: "Others have tried and failed. But maybe ExpressJet has a better mousetrap."

Spokane economist Randy Barcus, who works for Avista Corp., said the additional flights "are fabulous for the air-traveling public in this area."

Spokane flights to California have been popular in the past and the added option of nonstop service will appeal to travelers, he said.

Barcus has planned a February family trip to Los Angeles and said he's flying to Seattle, sitting for an hour then flying to LA/Ontario. If ExpressJet had been available, he would have bought a ticket and saved two hours in travel time. "People would be willing to pay a little extra to save those two hours, not to mention not having to worry about missing a connecting flight to where they're headed," Barcus said.

ExpressJet officials have not disclosed ticket prices yet. But Ream, in the conference call, said the airline will not start by offering discount fares.

An added benefit will be having more aviation jobs in Spokane, Barcus said. Even if the new service takes away passengers from other airlines, the result will be lower prices overall, he said.

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