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
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.