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:
- Eugene and Redmond/Bend mid-day
- Bakersfield and Fresno late afternoon
- Eureka/Arcata and Medford mid-day
- Pasco and Ontario late afternoon
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.