Aha! Launches as a Mini-Allegiant in Pretty Much Every Way But One

ExpressJet

ExpressJet is back, or at least it will be before the end of this month from its new Reno hub. But the ExpressJet of old that flew as a regional carrier primarily for United is not the new ExpressJet. In fact, this new commercial venture is not even called ExpressJet at all. Instead, it will be called aha!, which not only aggravates me in regards to capitalization and punctuation conventions but also keeps making me think about Coming to America.

This version of ExpressJet appears to be very Allegiant-like in nearly every way but on a small scale. The initial service plan is centered on Reno, the, ahem, biggest little city in the world. If you think of ExpressJet’s Reno as a much smaller version of Allegiant’s Las Vegas, then you’ll be on the right track.

From Reno, ExpressJet will start with flights to 8 cities, 3 times weekly using two patterns:

Monday/Wednesday/Friday

  • Eugene and Redmond/Bend mid-day
  • Bakersfield and Fresno late afternoon

Tuesday/Thursday/Sunday

  • Eureka/Arcata and Medford mid-day
  • Pasco and Ontario late afternoon

Saturday

Nothing. Don’t even think about it.

The aha! model is most certainly not one that’s utilization-focused. The first flights don’t even leave Reno until between 9:30am and 10:30am, returning to Reno between 1pm and 2pm. Then the afternoon flights leave between 1:30pm and 3pm with a return getting back to Reno between 5pm and 6:30pm.

This schedule could be run with 2 airplanes, but aha! will have more than that available to begin with. The airline tells me if currently has 4 Embraer 145ERs on the property, and I was surprised to learn these are all leased. If more airplanes are needed, it won’t be hard to find — and will be cheap to acquire — an unused and unloved Embraer 145 sitting around.

The E145 is another piece of the puzzle here. Allegiant flies big A319s and A320s packed with seats. ExpressJet will just have 50 seats per departure, so it can fly to smaller markets with less demand. And oooh boy, do these markets have less demand. Most of them have fewer than 10 people per day with the exception of Ontario. This is entirely a stimulation play.

Despite the similarities in destinations for both Avelo and aha!, the airlines have opposing strategies. Avelo has focused on the Burbank traveler, but it’s pretty clear that aha! is not doing anything targeting the Reno-based traveler. This is all about bringing people from these smaller cities to Reno for a vacation.

The airline’s goofy name is also an acronym. It stands for “air, hotel, adventure.” That’s pretty silly, but you get the point. As of now, it should just be called a! because it has yet to get the packaging bits together. But the aha! website specifically notes that the company “will provide curated discounted 2-3-5 day vacation packages within the next few weeks.” At least aha! understands that it is entirely impossible for a human visiting Reno to spend more than 5 days there.

It seems very clear that the goal is to partner with all the local casinos to feed aha! money in exchange for filling the casinos with gamblers. Ok, so maybe “filling” isn’t the right word when you only have 50 seat airplanes, but anything is useful for the casinos. Again, it’s an Allegiant thing on a smaller level.

The way I read this is… make it cheap, tack on fees, and just get people to the casinos. The fees aren’t anything crazy, but they are widespread. Seat assignments are a flat $10 per person per direction with priority boarding at the same price. Carry-ons are free, but that’s only because you can only bring on a personal item with those tiny overhead bins. An actual carry-on will have to be gate checked, and that will cost $30. The first checked bag is the same $30, and the second is $50.

Now, the real question is whether or not aha! can somehow convince 150 people each week in each market to go to Reno for a short vacation. That may be the tallest task here when Las Vegas is a better option. Every single one of these destinations has service from Las Vegas today with the exception of Bakersfield. Avelo serves Eureka, or will shortly. Allegiant is in Bend, Eugene, Fresno, Medford, and Pasco while Southwest is in Eugene, Fresno, and Ontario, which Frontier does as well.

With flights to Las Vegas plentiful, aha! needs to find travelers who inexplicably prefer Reno or more likely, travelers who just don’t want to spend Vegas money to travel. Reno is most certainly a lot cheaper once you get there, and though I’m not much of a gambler, I imagine the table limits are a lot lower.

If this was being tried with 150 seat airplanes, then that seems like guaranteed failure. But with only 50 seat airplanes, it seems like a possibility… if they can get a high enough fare. As of now, the airline has three fares. Budget is the basic economy fare and ranges between $49 and $65 at first glance. Standard is the regular economy fare which is $66 to $99. Then there’s Flex which is refundable. That’s between $121 and $206.

There are a lot of costs to cover here. After all, you only spread those crew costs over 50 seats, and that’s where this differs from Allegiant. Allegiant is wildly profitable. ExpressJet will not be, but if it can eke out any kind of profit that would be a victory.

We all know ExpressJet tried to go it alone before, but that was a very different model. That was trying to be Southwest will smaller planes on smaller routes. Now, it’s about trying to be Allegiant with smaller planes on smaller routes, and I’m not writing it off just yet. I’m far from convinced the airline can fill these airplanes profitably, but if it has the airplanes and the certificate, why not take a shot?

Service starts to Pasco on October 24 with all routes launched by November 10. If this works, get ready for a whole lot more. An ExpressJet spokesperson tells me they see opportunity to Reno in 20 to 25 markets. Let the games begin.

54 comments on “Aha! Launches as a Mini-Allegiant in Pretty Much Every Way But One

  1. I’m not much of a gambler either, but I prefer Reno to Vegas because it’s quieter, smaller and yes…cheaper. You are spot-on however, 2-3 days of Reno is enough. Hopefully there are enough people like me who feel the same in their chosen markets. And yes, aha! is pretty lame name.

  2. This sounds like they combined the worst parts of Independence Air, The “old” ExpressJet, and Casino Express.

    At least they’re not going to Elko, I guess?

    Seriously, what’s the upside here?

    1. Kevin – The upside is entirely dependent upon what the casinos will pay.
      When they get packages up and running, there could be enough to eke out a profit. Or if the casinos are truly desperate it could be a windfall. We just don’t know what those terms are.

  3. Is the airline receiving subsidies from the airport, the city of Reno, and/or the casinos?

    1. Saw – Reno does have an air service incentive program, so I’m sure aha! is getting some of that money to start new flights to new cities. I don’t know for sure, but I can’t imagine otherwise. And the casinos have to either be subsidizing or giving sweetheart deals for the packages.

      1. I think the real mystery is how the hell Reno Air was ever a thing in the first place

        1. Or why AA thought it was enough of a thing to purchase in 1999.

          Initially I thought it would be for the Reno Air SJC hublet (despite the fact that was shut down within 5 years) until reading that Reno Air leased those SJC gates from, you guessed it, AA.

          So now it’s even more baffling. I guess it was only $124 million but AA could have given that to employees, issued dividends or even just set it on fire, all of which would have been better options than purchasing Reno Air .

          1. I think it was a combination of wanting the SJC operation and the LAX focus city (such as it was), as well as just trying to get bigger on the West Coast, having gotten the runt of the litter (AirCal) in the late-80s mergers, while DL got Western and US got PSA (and ruined it, but that’s another story.)

            1. Maybe they really wanted to oddball operation QQ ran out of Gulfport for a little bit.

    1. Angry Bob – Others will remember better (I only flew them once and that was from the San Jose hub they developed later), but it was more of a traditional connecting hub type of strategy, if I remember right. But that was eons ago. Totally different world.

  4. And if someone wants to just gamble, there are also the tribal casinos in California. Chukchansi and Table Mountain are both a short drive from Fresno and are pretty nice. I don’t know about the other CA destinations but I’d bet if there’s much of a gambling market in those cities there’s a First Nations casino nearby.

    Reno has gradually been moving away from gambling toward manufacturing (Tesla, in particular), data centres, and distribution. They’ve realized they can’t compete with Las Vegas for spectacle, but have a decent market for resort/golf trips and as the gateway to Lake Tahoe.

    Can’t blame them for trying, but this is a long shot.

    Oh, and “curated”? Seriously?

    1. “Curated” = “We offer any packages that make us money, but go above and beyond to promote/sell the packages that make us the most money”.

      /At least that’s how I read it, but I’m not in marketing. ;-)

      1. I think they think that when people hear “curated” they think “carefully chosen items and experiences” when in reality it’s “whatever we need to move…”

        If you don’t actually work in a museum or a library, use of the word “curated” should get you at least an hour in the agony booth. Or forced to connect between airlines at LAX.

        1. I don’t know that I’ve ever connected between airlines at LAX. The way you refer to it, however, I assume it’s flying into JFK on a domestic flight and having to connect to an international flight in another terminal, and with another carrier (read: having to go completely outside of security, get everything from the baggage claim, then go near/close to the curb and get a shuttle or tram to a different terminal, and then go through the whole check in, baggage check, and security process again). Based on that assumption, yes, I agree with you.

          “Curated” just seems like florid marketing speak used when marketers are trying way too hard to make things sound more upscale and sophisticated than they really are.

          Then again, “Casino kickbacks and discounts will enable us to provide a selection of bargain-basement vacation packages that allow working class stiffs like you to consume cheap/free booze as you spend more of your hard-earned money at the gaming tables, and less on the flight and hotel,” may be a bit more honest, but doesn’t have the best ring to it. :-)

          1. Kilroy – The connecting process at LAX has gotten much better.
            Bradley-T4-T5-T6-T7-T8 are all connected behind security, so no leaving necessary, though it’s a good walk all the way to T8 from Bradley. On the other side, it’s a mess right now, but T3 is closed as they rebuild it for Delta. T2 is connected to Bradley by a shuttle, but once it’s done, they will all be connected behind security, same goes for T1-T2. Now it will require leaving security to go from T1 to T7 unless you want to walk all the way around. But at least when the people mover is done, you can just walk across the walkway instead of dodging traffic.

            1. That’s actually a major improvement from when I used to use LAX – we had the Tunnel of Love connecting T5 and T6 (if I remember right), but that was about it. Delta may have had a shuttle, but anytime I wound up using DL I connected over SLC, so I wasn’t very familiar with that side.

      2. I think they think that when people hear “curated” they think “carefully chosen items and experiences” when in reality it’s “whatever we need to move…”

        If you don’t actually work in a museum or a library, use of the word “curated” should get you at least an hour in the agony booth. Or forced to connect between airlines at LAX.

        1. Okay, I have no idea how I managed to post that twice. I’m having a reverse Midas touch week with technology…everything I touch turns to (redacted)

    1. Sing it in your best Johnny Cash voice “ I Started a airline in RENO to watch it Die!”

  5. While this does seem like a gamble, assuming that the ExpressJet leadership group shown on their web page is current, these are real industry people who know what they are doing (I worked for Subodh Karnik and he knows the industry). It will be interesting.

    1. Sorry, I don’t know that reference.

      To me this sounds like it has failure written all over it. All one needs to do is look at what has happened to Atlantic City in the past few years with the expansion of casinos in the nearby states of MD, PA, NY & CT. You use to see dozens upon dozens of fully loaded coach busses from all over headed down the GSP & now you hardly see that many aside the regular Greyhound runs from NYC.

  6. I assume they’re thinking that Tahoe will also be a draw. I don’t understand why Saturdays are excluded. For skiers, a Saturday to Saturday itinerary is common (I assume).

    I hope this doesn’t turn into an A Oh!

    1. Yeah, Tahoe has to be a huge part of the play here. I found Reno creepy and weird but RNO is a half hour to Mt Rose, 45 minutes to Northstar and Incline Village and an hour to Olympic resort Squaw Valley, Twin Peaks, Alpine Meadows, etc.

      Now that I think about it, they should just run Friday night to Sunday night service from SFO, SJC, OAK and STS to RNO so the bay area skiers and snowboarders don’t have to drive through the Donner Pass.

      1. I had the exact same thought. To me, this seems like an even bigger play than the casino traffic. I wonder how many sets of skis you can get in the cargo area of an E145, though.

      2. That market is very seasonal so it would be hard to base your whole business model on it. (And yet it still seems better than what they are currently going for). Maybe they’ll start it up in January if they are still around then.

  7. aha! (stupid name) is an interesting concept indeed. Their route map and schedule seem to target somewhat random markets with flights to RNO (also a somewhat random place) on oddly limited days. That said, what they’re up to seems clearer when you look at the markets they’re proposing to serve. None of them are particularly affluent (aside from maybe Redmond). Nor is Reno. To me, this is a play to stimulate travel to Reno as a cheaper and easier place to do Vegas-ish stuff on a budget. And, you can ski Tahoe too. Not just gambling, but an overall experience on a short vacation. Interesting concept and it seems like it targets a very limited audience, but we’ll see. How you can even fill an E145 on a route like Eureka-Reno is beyond me, but they will probably find themselves tweaking flights and destinations going forward.

    1. You’d be surprised on a few of these markets…Fresno isn’t a particularly wealthy city, but there’s more money than you’d think and it’s California’s fifth-largest city…but gamblers will either fly to LAS or drive to a First Nations casino, and there are local ski resorts a short drive away and flights to SLC and DEN if you want to step up to a major resort.

      Also a lot of money in Eureka/Arcata from the cannabis industry, although you wouldn’t know it by driving around there.

  8. Who is going to pay $10 for priority boarding to sit for a longer time in those tiny uncomfortable seats and have 49 others hit you in the face with their back back dangling off their shoulder?

    And are there any preferred seats on that tin can that are worth paying the seat selection fee for?

    Does United still own 49.9% of ExpressJet?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ExpressJet

    1. Oliver – Yes, United still owns nearly half. I assume they consider that a sunk cost. No more money is going to be pumped in, but if ExpressJet makes money, United will benefit.

      As for seat selection, definitely not since all seats are the same price EXCEPT if you want to guarantee a single seat vs being on the 2 seat side.

      1. Oh right, having only ever flown the old ERJ once somewhere from Chicago, I forgot that they have single seats on the left (unlike the CRJ we have more here in my west coast area). Good point.

  9. Maybe “aha!” ‘s parent ExpressJet could set up another subsidiary and name it “Go!” These “exclamation point” airlines don’t seem to have a very good track record. Yet Allegiant, with a similar business model, is among the most profitable airlines in the U.S. on a percentage basis. The obvious difference is gauge. I’m guessing that one saving grace could be that the aircraft are paid for (if they are). I’m guessing there will be a lot of used ERJ-145s floating around in the next few years, so there should be no shortage of cheap used parts or airframes.

    1. Nothing like reading the piece. LOL!! I’m guessing the lease payments are pretty low. I’m guessing there’ll probably be a lot of used E-175s floating around soon. It’ll be interesting to see if any of those get snapped up by ExpressJet. And maybe that’s the reason for the leases.

  10. I wonder if aha! will serve (sell) AHA flavored sparkling water in the cabin? If I am in the command at ExpressJet I will reach out to Coca Cola and see if they are willing to pay to paint these E145 like an AHA can. That may be enough money to last the airline into 2022. Or remind them to sue the use of aha! as brand name.

  11. Reno isn’t what it used to be and it’s options only got smaller over the years as a gambling destination.

    But for a quick cheap getaway, it could work. But the flying schedule won’t help much since a lot of people using Reno for a quick getaway, want to do it over the weekend and they will not be able to do that if they work.

    They could hope to get the retired traveler with time on their hands, so the flying schedule wouldn’t be an issue.

    Winter ski trips could help, but no flying on a Saturday doesn’t make sense, they could have targeted a market or two for double flights for day trips or for Saturday and Sunday travel for those quick weekend trips.

    I think they will be making a lot of changes quickly before they even get really started.

    But at least they learned to start small and not do as last time which is why they aren’t using the same name, since people would remember them shutting down before.

  12. Cranky, was looking forward to your take on AHA! RNO is definitely an interesting choice. Granted, I know quite a few people who have decamped from San Francisco to Tahoe during the pandemic – so maybe a slight increase in demand. However, there is a decent amount of service to most major hubs from RNO. Also, the choice of SoCal airports served from RNO is puzzling. Pretty much every major carrier already serves LAX from RNO. Southwest also flies to BUR, which is only 90 mins from BFL. I can’t imagine that there are huge numbers of people who want to fly to BFL and ONT. Looking at fares on Southwest, they are super cheap connecting from ONT to RNO. I imagine if this route was viable, Southwest would be all over it. When considering from Las Vegas, BFL is a ~4hr drive and Allegiant dropped that route years ago. ONT is even closer to LAS and served by WN and F9. I thought maybe they were trying to connect passengers from North to South over RNO (like RenoAir of the past), but their website does not seem to sell connections (and would not have a competitive advantage over network carriers). Perhaps they can make arrangements with Reno area casinos like Allegiant has in places like West Wendover. Good luck, Aha!

    1. If BFL was viable for Southwest at all, they’d most likely open with Las Vegas and Denver, just as they have with Fresno.

  13. They say that low expectations are usually easily met, but I don’t enough people being excited enough to go to RNO for these guys to make money. They should move their base to CLD, and change the name to California Pacific…..

  14. I remember playing blackjack at a casino on a Friday night for $5/hand. Try to do that on the Vegas strip.

    Reno does have a nice, big, blue lake nearby and a bunch of ski areas. In terms of outdoorsy things to do, Reno is a much better destination than Vegas. Plus, summers aren’t as brutal. But, then again, the destinations that aha! are proposing are pretty nice outdoorsy places. So, that might not be a draw at all.

  15. A RNO hub could work with a north / south flow and connecting banks. Connecting So Cal & LAS with cities like MFR/ BOI/ PSC etc could work with 80-100 seaters. There is no competition on a dozen or more nonstop routes. But as a ULCC, no way.

    As mentioned, the Lake Tahoe region has a big year round draw and some businesses have left CA for Reno’s cheaper costs.

  16. I have friends who moved to Reno seven or so years ago for a job. I don’t think they ever really expected to like it, but they found that they really enjoyed all of the outdoors options there, and were also surprised that the community is a fairly good place to live. Reno is great for skiing, hiking and biking, and it doesn’t take long to get from the airport to Tahoe. I’ve had a great time every time I visited. I really think that Reno is more than just Miniature and Cheaper Vegas. That’s definitely part of the story, but there’s more to it.

    So I dunno, maybe if they can focus on the “Adventure” in their name, they have a chance. Could you spend three good days in Reno, with a couple of ski days, a goof around at the casino day, a show or two, and a couple of decent dinners somewhere? Absolutely. Is this something a lot of people are going to think about? Not necessarily.

    Maybe with the right packages, targeted at the right potential clients, this could have a chance. I have no idea. Some of these airports have catchment areas of hundreds of thousands. It doesn’t take a ton of imagination to think that 100 per week of them might be interested in skiing in Reno.

    Reno also has seen a lot of new traffic from new projects like Tesla. They have had added flights like JetBlue to New York City and Delta to Atlanta over the past few years. I don’t think it’s impossible that they could pick up a few business travelers on a few of these flights. Not a lot, but maybe a few.

    So I agree with most of you that this has a long road ahead, but I could see ways that this could evolve into something that works.

    I’m surprised Boise wasn’t on that initial route map. Just seems like a no-brainer given that Boise doesn’t currently have a direct flight to Reno and would give them something like 750,000 potential customers (in the Boise metro).

  17. After looking over each route that they are starting, the routes do make a lot of sense if you take in consideration 3 factors. 1) All of these aviation markets have been either red hot, or have high population growth, 2) each of these are college markets, and 3) geographic isolation.

    College markets are full of a demographic that wants to go have a fun weekend and cost will be a concern.
    Each of these markets is geographically isolated in the terms of distance to the nearest hub. Eureka would be the extreme example of geographic isolation, but the majority of the markets will need some form of distance traveled in order to access a major Hub airport. Ontario and Bakersfield are the outliers in terms that they are close to major airports but they do require going thru massive amounts of traffic in order to get to said HUB airports.

    I’m in the opinion of if your trying to just get a few days away from work and want a reasonably price vacation, than this maybe the way to go. The fact that they will eventually include a hotel reservation and something fun to do makes it even more enticing. I mean I have taken Allegiant before and to be honest they were attractive because they were a 1 stop shop. I didn’t have to figure other things out like booking activities or hotels, I could just order it thru Allegiant and I was done. I do hope that AHA! can have some success in a “regional airline” sized approach to Allegiant.

  18. As an ACV local I think ACV-RNO will fail but I will use it while it lasts to get to Tahoe much faster than driving. We have three casinos but sometimes people also want a change. However, with the Avelo ACV-LAS flight coming I don’t know why someone picks Reno over Las Vegas. Though I suppose a “more bang for your buck” argument could be made in favor of Reno.

    Yes, we have the cannabis industry, but let’s be honest, those folks are hands down going to Vegas. The Vegas flight will also benefit from casino staff going to Vegas to visit vendors or get training, as well as vendors sending staff to the local casinos. Plus, Vegas has more pull with the tourist and college crowds as well. Even with all that I am not sure Avelo will keep its flights to LAS.

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Cranky Flier