ExpressJet’s first aha! branded aircraft arrives in Reno, Nev..

It was a tumultuous 20 months for the pilots at ExpressJet Airlines. In July 2020, United Airlines announced it would terminate its relationship with the regional carrier to control costs during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and on Sept. 30, 2020, ExpressJet operated its last flight and all 1,000-plus pilots were furloughed. Then, in October 2021, ExpressJet was relaunched and is now operating flights between Reno-Tahoe International Airport and cities along the U.S. West Coast.

“We’re still the same ExpressJet pilot group, and we’ll still be piloting aircraft for ExpressJet Airlines,” said Capt. Ron Stevens, the former ExpressJet Master Executive Council (MEC) vice chair. Stevens and F/O Joe Mauro, the former MEC chair, function as custodians appointed to oversee the wind-down of the beleaguered carrier and are now charged with overseeing, along with ALPA staff, negotiations for the resurrection of the carrier and the recall of furloughed pilots.

After the shutdown, Mauro and Stevens were busy addressing behind-the-scenes matters on behalf of the pilot group, including attending to payroll and insurance issues, overseeing pending grievances, scheduling job fairs and retirement and insurance webinars, coordinating preferential hiring opportunities at other carriers with ALPA pilots, and monitoring United’s Aviate career-development program, which offers aspiring and established pilots the most direct path to a United flight deck.

“We kept busy fielding question after question through the first of the year,” said Mauro, “and just when things started to quiet down, there was the rumbling of a rumor in July 2021 that management was working to retool the company to begin flying again.”

This “reboot” planning brought ALPA and company representatives back to the table to begin solving the inevitable challenges of this future endeavor. “When ExpressJet ceased operations in October 2020, it not only lost its only major airline partnership, but it also lost much of the airline’s infrastructure and was forced to halt the IT projects under development,” Mauro explained. “The lack of IT tools and infrastructure created one of the largest challenges for ALPA and the company to overcome.”

In late summer, the airline started recalling pilots and instructors. Training began in earnest in September. After a year of uncertainty, “our management team created a business plan that includes charter operations and aha! branded flying between Reno-Tahoe International Airport and cities along the West Coast of the United States,” said Stevens.

Exactly one year after its last flight as a United Express carrier, ExpressJet Airlines’ charter operations began on Sept. 30, 2021, and aha! operations started on Oct. 24, 2021, with an inaugural flight from Reno, Nev., to Pasco/Tri-Cities, Wash. The airline plans to partner with resorts, casinos, and attractions in Reno and Tahoe, Nev., to bundle value-added vacation packages and intends to fly initially from 10 West Coast cities to Reno.

ExpressJet currently operates three Embraer 145s with a spare on deck. “The company was slated to add one more aircraft before the end of 2021,” said Stevens, “and has plans to expand to more than 20 West Coast cities by the end of 2022. As the company expands its operations, more pilots will be recalled to operate additional aircraft.”

After ExpressJet establishes its Reno operation, the company will evaluate service involving cities that were former airline hubs or focus cities but have seen their capacity shrink amid industry consolidation. Using the same business model, the company will try to attract leisure travelers who are seeking short two- to five-day trips to vacation destinations.

“ALPA continues to work with the company toward a mutually satisfactory agreement that provides the temporary relief the company requires to support this relaunch,” Mauro said. “This relief will have no effect on overall compensation, and while quality of life will initially be different, we’re working to not only maintain, but also improve upon those aspects of our collective bargaining agreement.”