I was lucky enough to be invited to a small dinner with ExpressJet President and CEO Jim Ream as well as VP of Marketing Trish Winebrenner on Monday night. The small group setting meant that I had plenty of time to poke and prod, and I must admit I like what I heard.
If you don’t remember my previous posts on ExpressJet, let me refresh your memory and give you a little more of the story. The airline was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Continental and flew only as Continental Express for years. They’ve since been spun off and are now branching out. Besides a new contract to fly as Delta Connection, they’ve also started a corporate aviation operation. Most interesting is the standalone operation under the ExpressJet brand that takes flight on April 2. This standalone airline (which is what I’ll be talking about below) will fly point to point services between smaller cities that don’t have service currently. You can catch my previous posts here and here for more details.
According to Jim and Trish every city that will see the new flights under the ExpressJet name has employees assigned to be evangelists for the airline. I guess that since Ontario is going to be their biggest operation, they sent the big guns out here. That’s good news for me, because I really enjoyed the dinner and had the chance to learn a lot. Let’s get down to business.
Flying on the RJ
I was happy to hear that they do understand that people don’t like flying regional jets for long flights. My longest on the plane these guys fly, an ERJ, was 850 butt-numbing miles of pure pain. And that was actually on an ExpressJet flight for Continental Express. Looking at their new routes, I see the longest appears to be Sacramento to San Antonio clocking in at just shy of 1,500 miles. Yikes! That’s about 75% further than my longest flight and the thought scares me.
With that in mind, I asked them what they were going to do to make this a better experience so people didn’t run away screaming. They responded with all kinds of plans, but the most interesting is that they’ve added memory foam padding to all the seats.
If you don’t know what memory foam is, think Tempurpedic. Or you can just look at the picture on the left and you’ll probably know what I’m talking about. I’m guessing it won’t be as cushy as that picture. As someone said at work, “no offense, but I don’t want to sit in your ass-print if I fly right after you.” Fair enough. I’ve been assured that the seats are extremely comfortable, but I will have to report back in May when I take a flight for myself.
Beyond just seat comfort, they’ve decided to make a higher service level part of their brand. XM radio will be added to every seat. I took one flight on AirTran after they installed XM and listening to ESPN radio definitely made the time fly, so I like this idea. They’ll also begin offering meals on longer flights (for purchase, I believe). There aren’t any ovens on these planes so they’ll be cold meals, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Jim proudly announced that he came up with this extremely important service enhancement . . . a buck a beer. That’s right, there will be a whole selection of beers including domestics and imports and they’ll all cost $1. Wine is only $3. That’s definitely not as cheap as Horizon Air’s freebies, but it’s a lot cheaper than you’ll find anywhere else.
None of these things increase the size of the small cabin, but they could help bring the RJ experience closer to a mainline one. I’ll have plenty to report when I fly them in May.
As I mentioned in a previous post, the route map seemed to be full of some good decisions and other questionable ones. Jim was ready to admit that it’s unlikely that every single route will work. While on the whole they think they have a good network, they also reached for some longshots that they hope do pan out. If not, maybe the flights will work once a day instead of twice. If that doesn’t work and they feel they’ve given it their best shot, they’ll move on to something that works better. There are no sacred cows, and that’s a good thing.
This doesn’t, however, mean they plan on giving up easily if things aren’t working out. I also asked why they thought they could make a go out of routes from San Antonio that United has just tried under the Express banner and quickly ended. Jim said that they’re really putting a strong focus on marketing all of these flights in the local markets. While it’s difficult for someone like United (or express partner Trans States) to put a significant marketing effort into that small of a market, ExpressJet has the resources to do so. I don’t know if that will be enough, but I look forward to finding out.
One way they’re hoping to acquire traffic throughout the system is to be travel agent-friendly. You’ll currently find them listed in Orbitz and on the Worldspan global distribution system. They’re working on the other reservation systems as well. I was really surprised that in the little collateral packet they gave out to us, there was a paper sign-up form for the frequent flier program. It had specific instructions for travel agents to help sign clients up. You don’t see that too often anymore.
Ultimately, there are two things that concern me most about ExpressJet’s prospects.
First, I worry about their lack of frequency. It’s true that you can fly ExpressJet twice a day from Ontario to Kansas City nonstop and once with a single stop, but you can also fly with one stop on Southwest 7 times a day. Having that many more options, even when a stop is required, is likely to make it difficult for ExpressJet to get a large share of traffic. Jim countered by saying that it’s all about having flights at the right times. Knowing the market can’t support multiple daily nonstops means you have to pick and choose the times that are going to best serve the market.
With that in mind, I decided to break down Ontario to Kansas City even further to see what I thought about the strategy. Here is a schedule comparison of Southwest and ExpressJet for random Wednesdays in May.
It’s really interesting to note that ExpressJet’s flights stack up well in all but one time slot throughout the day. Southwest may have many more flights, but ExpressJet seems to have done a good job of lining up each of its flights to be viable options against two or more of Southwest’s flights.
My second concern is about the frequent flier program. These guys have a simple program modeled on Southwest’s program, but it won’t be enough to compete against the big guys’ programs. To make the program truly valuable, they’d need to start partnering with other carriers to offer stronger benefits to frequent fliers. Trish tells me that they’re discussing partnerships as we speak, so hopefully this concern will go away with future developments.
In short, I like what these guys are doing. It’s really a different type of model than we’ve seen in recent memory, and it provides a lot of great new air options to people in smaller cities. Since most of their fleet is still in profitable relationships with Continental and Delta, they really will be able to take some time to turn this into a success. If they can keep up the high service standard and run a good on-time operation, this could really pay off.