The Escherichia coli aer regulatory region contains a single promoter that is recognized by RNA polymerase containing the flagellar sigma factor, sigma(28). Expression from this promoter is dependent on direct activation by the cyclic AMP receptor protein, which binds to a target centred 49.5 base pairs upstream from the transcript start. Activator-dependent transcription from the aer promoter was reconstituted in vitro, and a tethered inorganic nuclease was used to find the position of the C-terminal domains of the RNA polymerase alpha subunits in transcriptionally competent open complexes. We report that the ternary activator--RNA polymerase--aer promoter open complex is organized differently from complexes at previously characterized promoters. Among other E. coli promoters recognized by RNA polymerase containing sigma(28), only the trg promoter is activated directly by the cyclic AMP receptor protein. The organization of the different promoter elements and the activator binding site at the trg promoter is the same as at the aer promoter, suggesting a common activation mechanism.