ExpressJet’s Pending Return: Looking Backwards and Forwards

ExpressJet

Thank you once again to this week’s sponsor, The Airchive for supporting Cranky!

Instead of just showing an ad for The Airchive today, I was told to dive into the archives and find something that interested me. There’s a ton to explore, but of course, this Ted route map caught my eye. Oh Ted, how I hated you. (I even wrote an obituary back in the day.) There was nothing like an international First or Business Class traveler flying into Washington/Dulles and then being forced to sit in coach on a 4+ hour connection to Vegas. This map looks to be before the ill-fated move into Chicago/Midway for the airline when Ted was, ahem, really going places. Explore more like this at theairchive.net.


Don’t call it a comeback. No, wait, do call it a comeback. As Airways noticed, ExpressJet has quietly posted a message on its website saying that it wants to fly again. This may seem like a bad idea, and it probably is. But it sent me down a rabbit hole looking at past performance as well as potential future options.

ExpressJet, you’ll recall, was last flying Embraer 145s for United Express. In 2019, United put together a 49.9 percent stake in a holding company called ManaAir LLC which then bought ExpressJet from SkyWest. The idea was to have it keep flying Embraer 145s but also Embraer 175s. That didn’t happen. First, the 175 order was diverted elsewhere. Then, when the pandemic unfolded, United decided it wanted only one Embraer 145 operator: ExpressJet or Commutair. ExpressJet with its higher costs was the loser, and it shut down. I think everyone assumed that was the end of it, but this was posted on ExpressJet’s website:

ExpressJet’s plans for 2021 and beyond are to provide high-quality, reliable, efficient point-to-point flying to small and medium sized cities that have lost service in recent years as a result of U.S. airline industry consolidation and COVID-19 driven route reductions.

If you think this sounds a lot like ExpressJet’s 2007 strategy, you wouldn’t be too far off. Back in the early 2000s, Continental spun off ExpressJet and reduced the contracted number of aircraft. ExpressJet opted to keep those airplanes in the fleet and start a branded operation. The idea was to be like Southwest but in markets that couldn’t support a 737. It was point-to-point flying between smaller/mid-size cities, and I liked the idea… even moreso when they rolled out $1 beers.

Of course, things quickly went horribly wrong. The state of the economy combined with the fuel price spike in 2008 put a quick end to this experiment and ExpressJet went back to serving other masters exclusively. With ExpressJet looking to resurrect itself, this seems like a great time to look back at its branded route network to see what has happened in the years since.

During its short life, ExpressJet flew 69 routes. Looking through Cirium schedule data, I went back to see what had happened on those routes since 2008. Here’s what I found, put into a Great Circle Mapper map.

In red, you’ll find the 34 routes (about half) that haven’t had service since ExpressJet left. You’ll notice these are mostly in the West, and there were some pretty crazy markets in here. For example, Fresno – Long Beach? Albuquerque – Oklahoma City? These were clearly scraping the bottom of the barrel. But you do also see a fair number of West Coast – Mid-Continent flights. You wonder if those may have a chance some day, just not on an Embraer 145.

Then in yellow are the 20 routes that have been flown but no longer. You can see a pattern here. Many of these are routes that Frontier tried and then walked away from. Some, especially touching Austin and San Antonio, were part of the Via Air network that never worked. It sounds like these may not be the best opportunities out there, though some could come back.

Lastly, in green, we have the 15 routes that are flying today. These are almost entirely operated by Southwest with a sprinkling of Alaska and the ULCCs. I think the key here is that ExpressJet was trying to emulate Southwest. Once some of those markets evolved and grew, Southwest stepped in to successfully serve them. I should also note that if we ignored the pandemic, 24 routes were flying 2 years ago, so ExpressJet may have hit on a fair number of winners.

What we find, unsurprisingly, is that other airlines skimmed the routes that worked. Thanks to ExpressJet for paving the way. But what does that leave for a new ExpressJet that presumably will still be flying the Embraer 145s it has parked? Well, I played with Cirium a little more. I took all the unserved domestic routes in the US that are under 1,500 miles. Then I eliminated anything that had less than 15 daily passengers each way in 2011 or less than 5 daily passengers in 2019, just to weed out the completely ridiculous. That left me with 285 markets, and admittedly some of them are still quite ridiculous.

I then took all the cities with at least 10 routes that were on the list. Here they are:

Number of Unserved Destinations By Origin With Demand

Data via Cirium

These really fall into three categories. The first is former airline hubs.

These are all routes that are currently unserved and they used to have service from airlines with hubs that are long gone. You had Midwest in Milwaukee, Delta in Cincinnati, Northwest/Delta in Memphis, United in Cleveland, and US Airways in Pittsburgh. There were people flying these routes before, because airplanes were serving them. There’s also a reason they aren’t serving them anymore.

That hasn’t stopped any number of airlines from trying. Midwest Express is trying to start again in Milwaukee. OneJet tried some of those Pittsburgh and Indianapolis routes. Contour was trying the same before the pandemic hit. So far, it hasn’t worked for anyone, and it’s hard to imagine what ExpressJet could bring to the equation.

Next up, we have the growth markets.

These are the cities that have seen solid population growth. San Antonio and Austin have grown more than 20 percent in the last decade. Colorado Springs is at 15 percent. I threw Tulsa in here as well, because it had over 6 percent growth, but really, I just didn’t have a better place to put that one.

These might be the markets that have the best chance of success, but high growth means that airlines with bigger airplanes will eventually be able to serve these, drowning out ExpressJet. We saw Via try and fail in several of these markets, but then again, Via was a mess. Blame the airline, not the routes? I don’t know.

Lastly, there are the Florida routes.

These can be misleading, especially since while they may not have service from Tampa or Orlando, they very likely have service from St Petersburg or Sanford from Allegiant. These are heavy leisure markets that will probably be tough to make work on a 50-seater, even if there may be some demand. I wouldn’t place my bets here, but then again, every airline likes to bet on Florida as that bottomless pit of demand. They just don’t make those bets with 50 seat jets.

Of course, these are only the markets with 10 or more unserved destinations. There are plenty more out there with fewer, so does that mean ExpressJet has a real chance here? Probably not. After all, many others have tried to go down this path, and nobody has succeeded. I suppose the one thing Expressjet has going for it is that it already has all the airplanes. Some of them are really old, like 20+ years. So ownership costs are probably low. The problem on these airplanes is that maintenance costs are going to be really high.

This just sounds like a bunch of people sitting around with airplanes trying to find something to do with them. Airlines that succeed usually work in the opposition way.

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20 comments on “ExpressJet’s Pending Return: Looking Backwards and Forwards

  1. Wow, I never realized that with Ted you could fly from Reno to LAX, with a routing that included several convenient stops and/or layovers in Denver, Phoenix, San Francisco, and Las Vegas.

    On a more serious note, can anyone point me towards a longer article / analysis with details on many of the former regional/express carriers that tried (and eventually ran out of money) flying as their own branded airlines? I know there are a lot, and Independence Air on the East Coast comes to mind, but I’d love to see some background/details/analysis of those failures.

    1. Mesa had a very short-lived hub at Meacham Field (FTW) in Texas. The experiment lasted less than a year. I’ll see if I can find something on it.

  2. The problem w/ all of these contracted to larger carrier turned independent regional carriers is that virtually any other carrier has lower unit costs and can easily add competitive fares even in markets that are relatively close to each other and would require a connection on another carrier. In order to keep costs down, they will shun the employees that previously worked for the company in favor of less experienced, new to the industry, lower paid employees.
    Further, the distance for which people are willing to drive has gone up during the covid era, just as it did post 9/11 when the security hassle increased.
    And these companies are trying to build a brand when they never had one with the public before because they flew for other carriers.

    There is a history for these types of carriers and it isn’t any more positive for XJET than it was for any of the others.

  3. I remember reading somewhere that ExpressJet also has pilots qualified on the EMB-175 which they had previously operated for United, Not sure what the used 170/175 market is like, but that could be a potential fit for some of these longer routes.

    1. Retraining pilots on a new type (their existing E145s) is going to be faster and cheaper than buying other aircraft just for them. If there were demand for the larger capacity this might make sense, but they probably have an excess of capacity as well as an excess of pilots so downsizing is going to be more sensible and more necessary than new aircraft.

  4. Nice review. I did have a psychedelic experience at first . . . thinking that this would be some sort of Ted/Express Jet mash up airline that was forming. . . .

    1. Normally to get that kind of a psychedelic experience you have to go through the tunnel with the colorful projections and crazy music at DTW… Or board a Spirit flight. :-)

  5. Express Jet’s Embraer 145s need to be on the lookout; the weather forecast for 2021 shows a strong Breeze with expected A220s on the horizon.

    1. Haha I was thinking the same thing! Any of the routes worth having are probably already being considered by Breeze.

  6. I appreciate the work that goes into these types of articles and I always learn something.

    The impending price climb in the fuel market with the direction of the current administration is probably going to make this a no go ass as much as I’d like to see it.

    I think the truly great unknown is business travel bounce back from pandemic (I don’t trust anyone who thinks they can predict how businesses will truly respond with certainty) and can the exorbitant fares return to the hostage markets (small cities with no low fare pressure).

  7. Fascinating analysis, especially in light of today’s announcement of another US airline (Avelo Airlines) launching. Your comment at the end, “This just sounds like a bunch of people sitting around with airplanes trying to find something to do with them. Airlines that succeed usually work in the opposition way,” resonates as it seems like so many airline concepts are a result of under-utilized aircraft.

    CF – Given the opportunity, what kind route map would you develop for a startup airline? From my perspective (and I’m no expert; just a biz traveller who has watched the industry for 30+ years), it seems like there’s little room for innovation remaining in the US airline market. B6/G4 seem like the last truly innovative concepts the airline industry. I’m curious where the next round of innovation will come from.

    1. Chris – I wouldn’t, because I don’t like lighting my money on fire! I am conservative with these things, and I don’t see a great opportunity right now. I’d love to be convinced otherwise, but I’ve yet to see it. The last truly revolutionary route map change we’ve seen was when Allegiant adopted its current model. I haven’t seen anything even remotely close to how revolutionary that was.

      1. We’re of the same mind then. On a smaller scale, I would say Sun Country teaming up with Amazon was pretty innovative but beyond that, I’m hard pressed to think of anything else super innovative since G4.

  8. Excellent post, as always.

    I wonder, though, where this leaves Breeze. AUS/SAT? I’m sure having Alex W. nearby (well, as “nearby” as Texas would allow) could help that.

  9. Pre Covid XNA was booming. Over 17% growth in 2019 and entering the US Top 100 and bearing down LIT at a three year projectory to overtake it. Booming Economy. Family median income of 61k and perennial sub 3% unemployment with a projected 400k population growth in the next 20 years in NWA.

    Someone like Breeze or Express Jet will strike gold here. There’s still a 10% to 15 % leakage to Tulsa (85% of that for Southwest) MCO is not served direct, only Allegiant to SFB. Allegiant sees fit to fly BNA 4x weekly in the summer, ditto for VPS. A TYS route would likely do very well as well as Austin on a smaller plane.
    .

    1. Is XNA still one of the most expensive airports in the country, in terms of average fare?

      Agree that XNA does/should have a lot of potential for both business and leisure travelers, especially in once travel starts to pick up. It has a large state university, tons of vendors’ sales managers visiting their local sales guys on $$$$$ last-minute flights to help with pitches to Walmart, and a solid chunk of the population makes very decent incomes in an area with a low cost of living, thus lots of disposable income. There also aren’t many other great airports in the area to provide other options; Tulsa and LIT are both a bit of a drive; they won’t get many of the high-$ business traveler, and won’t get the leisure pax unless discounts & non-stop availability vs XNA are significant.

  10. I had to check the calendar. Nope, not April 1 yet…

    Maybe they could call it Independence Air 2.0.

    On another note, looks like LIAT is also not quite dead yet.

  11. IMHO the only (longshot) explanation for spit balling this “plan” is to get Neelemans attention. Crankys weekly briefings prove that market reality changes on a week by week basis. I’m sure Neeleman & Co. conduct the same reevaluations. Maybe they’re trying to convince them to let the Breeze blow towards city pairs that can’t support a 190/220 and XJet has the metal and talent to pull it off.

    I don’t know. it’s slightly conspiratorial but it’s the only way that I could wrap my mind around something like this in times like these.

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