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.
Its flagship aircraft was the Embraer ERJ145, a 50-seat regional aircraft that’s a favorite among US airlines.
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.
The next month, the coronavirus pandemic decimated air travel, and the airline industry heavily contracted.
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.
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.
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.
Regional aircraft play a vital role in the hub-and-spoke route system that most airlines employ.
Regional airlines typically serve smaller cities or routes with less demand that would otherwise go unserved by the major airlines
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.
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.
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.
Regional carriers eventually became reliant on the major airlines for flying contracts and stopped selling their own tickets.
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.
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.
The short-lived endeavor saw ExpressJet operate point-to-point routes that saw no competition from the airlines.
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.
“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’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.
CommutAir just began flying the Embraer ERJ145 for United in 2016 and is now being entrusted with a contract to fly them exclusively.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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! 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.
“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.