Bus and Spoke
American Airlines made an interesting announcement earlier this week: for certain routes, it will be putting passengers on a bus rather than a plane.
“American Airlines is the latest carrier to contract Landline for connecting ‘flights’ operated with buses…Landline will connect American’s Philadelphia hub to Lehigh Valley airport near Allentown, PA., and the airport in Atlantic City, NJ., beginning June 3. The destinations are 70 miles and 56 miles, respectively, distant from the Philadelphia airport...”
This is driven by shortages in aircrew, fuel surges, and the general disruption that airlines have suffered over the last two years, which initially forced them to cancel some routes, only to realize that they don’t have the capacity to operate them again, given the circumstances.
American Airlines is, of course, not the only airline to team up with buses. United recently made a similar announcement:
“We’re making it easier for you to enjoy all the hiking, rafting and skiing that Colorado has to offer. Now, you can book your Colorado adventure, fly into Denver and connect to Breckenridge or Fort Collins with luxury ground transportation provided by The Landline Company — all booked seamlessly through united.com or the United app.”
These examples raise several interesting issues which I think are worth discussing under the broader context of long-haul transportation.
So let me first admit that I'm a huge fan of multimodal transportation: I think flights are not always the best option for every leg of a trip. In my opinion, they can’t be.
I know some may find this odd, but the best travel experiences I’ve had are those that involved different modalities.
I will describe one such experience just to make my point:
Most of my readers know that I occasionally teach at Wharton’s campus in San Francisco. Over the last year, since American Airlines reduced the number of routes departing from Philly, I realized that it's easier to fly back to Newark instead. There are just more options, given that both San Francisco (SFO) and Newark (EWR) are hubs operated by United.
Another reason is that United treats transcontinental flights as if they were transatlantic, which means their business class has flatbeds (Wharton is kind enough to cover business class travel when it involves teaching). This feature is particularly handy because I like the efficiency of red-eye flights, and the flatbeds make them even more attractive.
Here comes the exciting part:
If I am returning from SF mid-week (which means I am heading back to Penn), I avoid booking any other form of transportation until I land in Newark.
Once in Newark, I check when and where the nearest train is due. If it’s at the Newark Airport Rail Station, I immediately book it on the Amtrak app, and head there on the AirTrain (a short 5-minute ride). If it’s at the Newark Penn Station (where there is higher frequency), I call an Uber, and once I know my ETA, I book that once again through Amtrak. The station is only 6 -10 minutes away from the airport and also serves the regional and odd trains (the Vermonter, for example).
I just want to note here that trains have several advantages compared to buses: they are more predictable (since they don’t deal with road congestion), and they don’t take sharp turns, making it easier to work on—not to mention that they usually have a cafe car so you can also have coffee on your way to work. Efficiency at its best.
Once I reach the train station in Philadelphia (30th Street), if it’s a nice day, I walk to Penn (a pleasant 20-minute walk), if not, I call an Uber (a quick 5-minute drive).
What makes this such a great experience for me: It includes an Uber (Hotel to SFO), a plane (SFO to EWR), the AirTrain (EWR to Newark station), and a train (Newark to Philly), all with minimum transit time (usually not exceeding 5 minutes). As some of you may know, I find it extremely satisfying when things can get done at maximum output but with minimum input.
And while reading about my trip might be a bit of a tedious task, I think it showcases how there is perhaps an optimal mode for every distance and for every time of the day, and that trying to fly to the nearest city may not be the best option every time.
However, to do this, I had to use three different apps (Uber, Amtrak, and United), make all the arrangements myself, constantly make changes, and be the one to monitor and compare all the different options. This part is clearly not very efficient. And this is where I want to focus most.
Also, I always travel light, which makes moving from one mode to the other much easier, but the point is that in order for this “traveling model” to be more sustainable for more people, we need to focus on bridging the processes better.
Newark as the Hidden City
And there are other examples that illustrate the capacity to mix modalities in a more organized way.
A few years ago, I had to fly from Philly to Israel.
At the time, (and still today, as I write this article) there were no direct flights, and most available flights departed from Philadelphia’s international airport (PHL) to another airline hub that offered connecting flights to Israel. British Airways through Heathrow, Lufthansa through Frankfurt; the usual suspects.
But United offered an interesting flight (also indirect) which departed from an airport in Philadelphia that I'd never heard of before: ZFV, located on 30th Street. Now, you can stand around all day on 30th Street, but you will not see a single plane landing, simply because it’s not an airport. It’s the train station. The first leg of this “flight” was an Amtrak train (under a code-share with United) departing from Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station to Newark.
And if you think this is weird, wait until you hear the pricing. The cost of a business-class roundtrip from ZFV to Tel Aviv (TLV), was around $2,000. The same flight from Newark (without booking the train) was around $6,000 (not to mention that I had to find a way to get to Newark).
The rationale? United was essentially “stealing” market share from American Airlines’ loyal (or maybe less so) customers in Philadelphia.
Was it a perfect experience?
Far from it.
First, you can’t check in your luggage at the origin and collect it at the destination. Years ago, when I would still check in my luggage (in 2003, for the record), I took a similar trip with Lufthansa, and was impressed when I collected my luggage in Cologne (after taking the train to my final destination) and not at Frankfurt (where the plane landed). I’m not sure if Amtrak has updated their tracking system in the meantime, but I think it may still have a long way to go before it reaches that level of efficiency.
Second, airlines fear that passengers will find a way to hack the system and book this route without taking the train. Imagine a customer that lives in New York and books this flight. They essentially get a $4,000 discount!
How do you avoid that? You make sure people take the train. The problem is that the systems United and Amtrak use don’t “speak” with each other all that well.
On similar (multi-modal) flights to Barcelona and Milan, I faced the same problem. I couldn’t check-in for my flight back, and every time I called United, the agent would explain that since I didn’t take the train, my ticket was on hold. The issue was usually resolved quickly, but it wasn’t a seamless experience.
In the US, the train system is not very efficient right now, and might never be, given the relatively low population density. So the reason I could do what I described is because of the Acela Corridor, where the trains are efficient, fast, and frequent.
Optimizing the Experience
The idea of using multi-modal transportation is getting a new angle. Starting this month, France is banning short-haul domestic flights that could easily be done via bus or train. This new legislation, voted in April 2021, is part of the government’s plan to reduce carbon emissions. Austria put a similar measure in place as part of Austrian Airlines’ bailout scheme.
I would encourage more airlines to start thinking about how to incorporate multi-modal transportation in a more seamless way.
All these examples raise the question of whether 2022 can be the year where transportation can become more efficient.
In particular, when I leave my hotel in SF, the airline knows that Newark is not my final destination. So why not offer a superior experience by becoming a platform that connects all travel aspects (including food and entertainment), so I actually get to where I want in the most efficient and pleasant way?
When I land at an airport, I need some form of transportation to take me to my final destination. Let’s say I use Uber. Recently, Uber has started asking me whether I want to book a ride at my destination before I even depart. But what if I could do that directly through the airline? What if the airline offered me the option to book an Uber upon my arrival and inform Uber when I am arriving (and maybe even use my GPS to update the system and inform me about where I will find my ride)?
Airlines should be thinking about how things can be made more seamless. How they can change things so passengers don’t have to jump on and off “their platform.” And not by “forcing them” to take the train, but rather by offering the option to take the train.
For example, when I arrived at Philadelphia's Amtrak station from Newark, in the United example, my flight arrived earlier, but I couldn’t take the earlier train, because I wasn’t on the Amtrak system. Not great.
The same way that Uber predicts where I want to go based on my previous trips (and Google allegedly reads my emails and uses my searches to figure out my preferences), I am sure airlines can make the entire traveling experience better.
There is definitely an efficiency-privacy tradeoff here, but one can choose to opt in or out.
And you know what's going to come after that: on the way to the train, the Dunkin Drone will place my coffee in my hands so I don’t have to drink the coffee served by Amtrak.
A man is allowed to dream.
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