Aha! Targeting Expansion From Reno-Tahoe

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Aha!, the independent brand started by US regional ExpressJet in October 2021, is eyeing 15 more destinations to serve from Reno-Tahoe (RNO) beyond the 10 routes it already serves from the Nevada airport.

The aha! model is based on operating 50-seat Embraer ERJ-145s from RNO 3X-weekly to regional and secondary airports in the western US, attempting to capture leisure passengers. All routes are nonstop from RNO, connecting the Nevada airport with cities 1-2 hours flying time away.

“Reno as a destination has historically been served as a spoke market,” Tim Sieber, head of ExpressJet’s aha! business unit, told Routes in an interview. “There have not been a lot of flows in and out of this market.”

But the area surrounding RNO is “a year-round destination” for vacationers, Sieber explained, citing casinos, Lake Tahoe and eight ski resorts ringing Lake Tahoe. RNO is a “winter and summer market,” he said.

Aha! is operating from RNO to three West Coast states–five routes to California, three to Oregon and two to Washington state. Sieber said the carrier has identified 15 additional potential markets in the western US to which it could operate from RNO.

“There are a lot of folks for whom Reno-Tahoe was a destination, but they had to drive or take connecting flights,” he noted, saying he met an 89-year-old woman on aha!’s inaugural flight to RNO from Bakersfield (BFL), California, who was on her first-ever flight. She explained that she and her daughter had been driving to Reno for an annual vacation for 20 years, but now were flying instead.

“Our single largest competitor is the automobile,” Sieber said.

ExpressJet, which exited contract flying for US majors in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, believes long-term expansion beyond RNO is possible. “For the near term, the next 12-18 months, everything is going to go out of Reno-Tahoe for sure,” Sieber said. “Longer term, this is a model we think could be replicated in other markets … We’ve taken glances at other markets, but we have not done a deep-dive economic analysis.”

Sieber noted that, even though aha! flies 3X-weekly to the 10 markets served from RNO, the carrier only needs to book 150 seats a week on each route to fully sell out, meaning it can be successful even if demand on the routes is relatively modest.

The first three-plus months of operations have been “pretty good for us,” Sieber said. “There was a steep downturn in January [because of the omicron variant of COVID-19] and the first part of February is looking a little slow. But March and April and May look really good.”

In addition to BFL, aha! operates flights from RNO to Fresno (FAT), Palm Springs (PSP), Humboldt County (ACV) and Ontario (ONT) in California; Eugene (EUG), Medford (MFR) and Redmond (RDM) in Oregon; and Pasco (PSC) and Spokane (GEG) Washington state.

Aaron Karp

Aaron Karp is a Contributing Editor to the Aviation Week Network.