A year after one of the largest regional airlines in the US ceased operations, it’s back with a new budget carrier called Aha! – see the company’s full history

Aha! livery
Aha! livery ExpressJet Airlines
  • American regional carrier ExpressJet Airlines ceased operations on September 30, 2020, after decades of flying.
  • The carrier was reborn as budget carrier Aha! on October 24, flying from Reno, Nevada to Pasco-Tri-Cities, Washington.
  • Aha! will start with eight destinations from its Reno base, but plans to expand to 20+ in the coming months.

Major US regional carrier ExpressJet Airlines ceased operations on September 30, 2022, but after a year of sitting stagnant, the airline has been reborn as a new low-cost carrier called Aha!, which stands for “air-hotel-adventure.”

ExpressJet was once one of the country’s largest and most prestigious regional airlines that performed flights for American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airline, however, the carrier only flew for United in its final years. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, many carriers had to cut costs and routes to make up for losses due to low demand, and ExpressJet was an early casualty having lost its contract with United to regional competitor CommutAir.

ExpressJet may have temporarily closed its doors, but its defunct operation was not permanent. In September 2021, the regional carrier announced an all-new business venture in the form of Aha!, a low-cost airline based out of Reno, Nevada.

Take a look at ExpressJet’s fall from grace and rebirth as an indepedent leisure carrier.

ExpressJet, like most airlines, started 2020 strong. A steady stream of pilots and flight attendants were eager to join its ranks and United Airlines had entrusted the carrier with flying a new, larger aircraft type, the Embraer E175, less than a year earlier.
United Airlines Embraer E175
A United Express Embraer E175 regional jet. Austin Deppe / Shutterstock.com
Its flagship aircraft was the Embraer ERJ145, a 50-seat regional aircraft that’s a favorite among US airlines.
United Express ERJ145 ExpressJet
A United Express Embraer ERJ145 operated by ExpressJet Airlines. Austin Deppe/Shutterstock.com
One of the US’ largest carriers by fleet size already, ExpressJet announced on February 24, 2020 that it would take on 36 additional ERJ145s, a plan that would make the airline the largest operator of the Brazilian plane.
United Express Embraer ERJ145 ExpressJet
A United Express Embraer ERJ145 operated by ExpressJet Airlines. AP Photo/David J. Phillip
The next month, the coronavirus pandemic decimated air travel, and the airline industry heavily contracted.
Flight attendant coronavirus empty flight plane
A flight attendant awaiting passengers on an empty regional jet during the coronavirus pandemic. Carlos Barria/Reuters
After evaluating its regional network, United selected rival regional carrier CommutAir to exclusively fly the ERJ145, crippling ExpressJet. The July 30 announcement gave employees two months’ notice that the airline would be ceasing operations.
United Express Embraer ERJ145 ExpressJet
A United Express Embraer ERJ145 operated by ExpressJet Airlines. Marc Seguin/Shutterstock.com
With air travel still at reduced levels, it was clear that ExpressJet wouldn’t find a home elsewhere and the airline agreed to close its doors on September 30, 2020, ending a 41-year history for the airline that can trace its earliest routes to Atlantic Southeast Airlines in 1979.
United Express Embraer ERJ145 ExpressJet
A United Express Embraer ERJ145 operated by ExpressJet Airlines. Tim Boyle/Newsmakers
Around 1,400 pilots and countless more flight attendants, mechanics, and other employees lost their jobs overnight. But it largely went unnoticed as the average flyer doesn’t know ExpressJet as they do the airlines it flew for as regional airlines often don’t have their own brand.
United Express Embraer ERJ145 ExpressJet
A United Express Embraer ERJ145 operated by ExpressJet Airlines. Robert Alexander/Getty
Regional aircraft play a vital role in the hub-and-spoke route system that most airlines employ.
Delta Air Lines Bombardier CRJ 200 regional jet
A Delta Air Lines Bombardier CRJ 200 operated by ExpressJet Airlines. Austin Deppe/Shutterstock.com
Regional airlines typically serve smaller cities or routes with less demand that would otherwise go unserved by the major airlines
Delta Air Lines Bombardier CRJ 700 regional jet
A Delta Air Lines Bombardier CRJ 700 operated by ExpressJet Airlines. Fabrizio Gandolfo/SOPA Images/LightRocket:Getty
Major airlines brought regional carriers into the fold beginning in the 1980s with American Airlines starting the American Eagle regional brand, industry analyst Henry Harteveldt told Business Insider.
American Eagle ATR 72
An American Eagle Airlines ATR 72 aircraft. Ivan Cholakov/Shutterstock.com
Before then, regional airlines were independent operations that sold their own tickets and marketed their own flights. Flyers could get from Los Angeles to New York on American, for example, but would then have to buy another ticket on another airline to get to Binghamton or Albany.
Bombardier Dash 8 Q400
A Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 aircraft. Keith Tarrier/Shutterstock.com
Bringing regional operations under one umbrella, Harteveldt explained, allowed for travelers to go from point A to point B on one airline, one itinerary, and one ticket.
Airlines tails of the 2000s
Tails of three major airlines in the early 2000s. Tim Boyle/Getty
Regional carriers eventually became reliant on the major airlines for flying contracts and stopped selling their own tickets.
United Express ERJ145 ExpressJet
A United Express Embraer ERJ145 operated by ExpressJet Airlines. Robert Alexander/Getty Images
They even adopted the branding of the airlines for whom they’d fly – including the paint jobs of their aircraft and the uniforms of their crew – so passengers would have no idea they were actually flying on a different airline.
Image
A Delta Air Lines regional jet aircraft. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart/File Photo
ExpressJet did try to launch a brand of its own – selling tickets and marketing flights independent of any airline and using planes painted in its own livery – but it was unsuccessful.
ExpressJet Airlines
An Embraer ERJ145 operated by ExpressJet Airlines. Jesse Grant/WireImage/AP
The short-lived endeavor saw ExpressJet operate point-to-point routes that saw no competition from the airlines.
ExpressJet Airlines
An Embraer ERJ145 operated by ExpressJet Airlines. Jesse Grant/WireImage/AP
Source: ABC News
Rising fuel costs were largely to blame with the airline closing up its independent operation on September 2, 2008.
ExpressJet Airlines
An Embraer ERJ145 operated by ExpressJet Airlines. John M. Heller/Getty
And while airlines like ExpressJet would once fly for multiple carriers at once, the past decade has seen more regional carriers limit their flying to only one.
United Express E175
A United Express Embraer E175 aircraft. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
ExpressJet eventually stopped flying for Delta and American and was only flying for United in its last years.
United Airlines Embraer E175
A United Express Embraer E175 regional jet. Markus Mainka / Shutterstock.com
At the time, United was a strong partner but limiting its operations to one airline put all of its eggs in one basket.
FILE PHOTO: United Airlines passenger jets taxi with New York City as a backdrop, at Newark Liberty International Airport, New Jersey, U.S. December 6, 2019. REUTERS/Chris Helgren
United Airlines passenger jets tax at Newark Liberty International Airport. Reuters
ExpressJet also wasn’t the only regional airline to go under in 2020 with other carriers included Compass Airlines, flying for Delta and American…
American Eagle Embraer E175
An American Eagle Embraer E175 regional jet. Philip Pilosian / Shutterstock.com
And Trans States Airlines, flying exclusively for United.
Trans States Airlines
A Trans States Airlines Embraer ERJ145 aircraft. Robert Alexander/Getty Images
At its peak, ExpressJet had nearly 250 aircraft in its fleet, making it larger than Spirit Airlines, Frontier Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, and Sun Country Airlines today.
Embraer ERJ145
An Embraer ERJ145 regional aircraft. Aviation-images.com/Universal Images Group/Getty
Colin Crane, a former ExpressJet first officer flying the Embraer E175, described the airline as filled with dedicated professionals that knew its high worth in the industry and had high standards for its pilots. “We were the little airline that could,” Crane told Business Insider.
United Airlines Embraer E175
A United Express Embraer E175 regional jet. Robert Alexander/Getty
“We were known by our mainline partners as an airline that would, come hell or high water, accept the challenges that our mainline partners posed to us and complete them with the same ExpressJet style and standards of service,” Crane said.
United Embraer aircraft Newark.
A United Airlines Embraer E175 regional jet. Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto/Getty
United’s decision came as airlines were desperately trying to cut costs in the immediate aftereffect of the coronavirus pandemic’s peak in the spring. CommutAir was likely cheaper as a smaller airline with less overhead.
FILE - In this March 25, 2020 file photo, United Airlines planes are parked at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. United Airlines will send layoff warnings to 36,000 employees - nearly half its U.S. staff - in the clearest signal yet of how deeply the virus outbreak is hurting the airline industry. United officials said Wednesday, July 8 that they still hope to limit the number of layoffs by offering early retirement, but they have to send notices this month to comply with a law requiring that workers get 60 days' notice ahead of mass job cuts.  (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)
Parked United Airlines aircraft during the coronavirus pandemic. Associated Press
CommutAir just began flying the Embraer ERJ145 for United in 2016 and is now being entrusted with a contract to fly them exclusively.
United Express Embraer ERJ145 ExpressJet
A United Express Embraer ERJ145 operated by ExpressJet Airlines. Robert Alexander/Getty
But, according to Crane, no other carrier came close to ExpressJet’s level of reliability, noting that the airline’s record earned it the nickname “SureJet.”
Embraer ERJ145
An Embraer ERJ145 regional aircraft. aviation images.com/Universal Images Group/Getty
However, ExpressJet’s demise was not permanent. Exactly one year after closing its doors, the carrier relaunched its commercial operation with a charter flight from Tallahassee, Florida to Anderson, South Carolina ferrying a sports team. The flight is just the start of ExpressJet’s continued legacy as a regional carrier.
ExpressJet Airlines first commercial flight since ceasing operations
first commercial flight since ceasing operations ExpressJet Airlines
In addition to charter operations, ExpressJet has taken its high standard of reliability and put it into an all-new business venture known as “air-hotel-adventure,” or simply, Aha!, marking the airline’s second attempt as an independent carrier.
Aha! livery
Aha! livery ExpressJet Airlines
Source: Aha!
Aha! is ExpressJet’s new low-cost leisure brand that will connect smaller markets in a point-to-point network.
Aha! Embraer 145 aircraft concept
Embraer 145 aircraft concept Aha!
Source: Aha!
The relaunch will allow ExpressJet to recall from the 2,700 employees furloughed after it ceased operations in 2020. As part of the reboot, the airline has reached contract agreements with both its flight attendant and dispatch unions and is in the final stages of its contract with its pilot union.
ExpressJet flight attendants
ExpressJet flight attendants ExpressJet Airlines
Aha!’s inaugural flight took to the sky on October 24 from Reno-Tahoe Airport to Tri-Cities Airport in Washington state. The route was the first of eight nonstops that Aha! will operate from Reno across the West Coast.
Aha! inaugural flight from Reno, Nevada to Pasco/Tri-Cities, Washington
Aha! inaugural flight from Reno, Nevada to Pasco/Tri-Cities, Washington RadarBox
Source: RadarBox, Aha!
The other seven destinations on the airline’s route map are Bakersfield, California; Ontario, California; Fresno, California; Eureka, California; Medford, Oregon; Eugeue, Oregon; and Redmond, Oregon. All eight routes will be in service by November 10, though Aha! plans to expand to 20+ cities in the coming months.
Aha! route map
route map Aha!
Aha! will be powered by a fleet of 50-seater Embraer 145 regional jets in a 2×1 configuration, meaning no middle seats. The planes are owned by ExpressJet but have been rebranded with the Aha! logo across the fuselage, though ExpressJet flight crews will still man the aircraft.
Aha! seat map
seat map Aha!
Source: Aha!
Introductory fares run as low as $US49 ($AU65) one-way for flights booked by November 15 for travel through December 23.
Aha! tail logo
Aha! tail logo ExpressJet Airlines
Source: Aha!
“We’re really excited to provide Tri-Cities residents the opportunity to take short trips to Reno and Lake Tahoe without the hassle of a long drive or multiple airport stops and layovers,” ExpressJet CEO Subodh Karnik said in a release.
Aha! CEO Subodh Karnik at inaugural flight
Aha! CEO Subodh Karnik at inaugural flight ExpressJet Airlines