Time to Revisit the ExpressJet Model?

I’ve seen unleaded gas for $1.75 a gallon here in Oklahoma, a barrel of oil is hovering around $60, and jet fuel is just over $2.00 a gallon, nearly 30% less than where it was a month ago. With this plunge in fuel prices, is it time to revisit ExpressJet’s now defunct model of providing point to point service between smaller cities? I hope so.

Jim Ream and the rest of the ExpressJet crew received a lot of flack for going out on their own and starting what I called a “Southwest Express” type of model. Instead of using 137 seat planes to link larger cities as Southwest does, ExpressJet used 50 seat aircraft to link smaller cities like Ontario and Tucson or Sacramento and Colorado Springs where no service currently existed. I loved the idea, but with fuel prices climbing, the ERJ 145 became a very difficult plane to make this work. (That wasn’t their fault – they had to use those planes.)

In August 2007, the airline reported a very low 63.8% load factor during the height of peak season. A year later in August 2008, after pruning the flights that didn’t work, the airline turned in a very healthy 78.4% load factor and showed that there was demand for the service. Unfortunately with the price of oil, there was no way they could make this one work, so they shut it down.

But even with lower prices, the Embraer still isn’t the right plane for this operation. Actually, I think the 70 seat Q400 turboprop might be the perfect aircraft for it. It can handle the relatively short stage lengths with ease, and it sips fuel compared to the 50 seat jets. So who is the right airline to try this?


Horizon is in the middle of retiring its Q200 and CRJ-700 aircraft in favor of an all-Q400 fleet, but that transition takes time. The airline has to remarket its 70 seat jets before it can get rid of them, so it has been trying to work with Bombardier on slowing down the Q400 deliveries to coincide with their ability to ditch the 70 seat jets. So why not start taking those Q400s as planned and open some new routes in old ExpressJet cities? Fares are higher in general right now, so that will only help, though of course the weakening in demand is alarming.

But there would be several advantages for Horizon over ExpressJet here. The flights would be operated by an airline with a connection to several major frequent flier programs, unlike ExpressJet, and they could offer codesharing with major airlines as well.

I always liked the ExpressJet idea, and I’d like to think that this could now work. It’s never a great time to start to try something like this, but this doesn’t have to be a major rollout. They can just start picking and choosing the best ExpressJet routes and grow from there if it works. Come on, Horizon. Give it a shot.

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