Taking a flier

FOR YEARS, any grand vision for Ontario’s humble airport looked increasingly like a pipe dream. Though Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had encouraged passengers and carriers to use the modern Inland Empire facility as a way to relieve the aging and overcrowded L.A. International Airport, his charm didn’t work so well with airlines: In 2006, Ontario lost flights and saw fewer passengers than in 2005.

But last week, Ontario may have gotten the jump-start it needs to eventually transform into the major regional airport that L.A. officials long for. ExpressJet Airlines, a little-known carrier that formerly operated only feeder flights for Continental Airlines, announced a major expansion at Ontario. Starting in April, the carrier will operate 29 daily nonstop flights to 14 cities, boosting Ontario’s daily departures by 25%.

ExpressJet’s expansion is an interesting experiment in the era of hub-and-spoke airline service. The 14 cities include the likes of Tulsa, Okla., and Monterey instead of major airline hubs such as Chicago or Dallas. ExpressJet hopes to use that smallness to its advantage; it won’t have to compete for passengers with such carriers as Southwest Airlines because none of the 14 routes had been flown nonstop by carriers serving Ontario.

The flip side is whether the demand for the untested routes is there at all. The 50-seat regional planes that ExpressJet operates are typically used by major carriers, such as United and American Airlines, to feed passengers from smaller airports to larger hubs and vice versa. Because ExpressJet doesn’t have the luxury of relying on major hub airports to fill its planes, its business model carries substantial risk.

Still, the possibility for growth at Ontario is vast, given the region’s booming population and economy. ExpressJet’s service may not be the kind that lures fliers from LAX in droves, but it could be a boon to Inland Empire passengers and businesses weary of making the westward stop-and-go trek. If ExpressJet’s point-to-point service is successful, other airlines will surely take notice -- and shape Ontario’s long-term role as a Southern California regional airport.