Expanding the Mode Split Dividing Line, Part 1: Exponential Airline Industry Corruption

Modal competition has ebbed and flowed over the past 100 years. Until the recent incursion of transit network companies (TNCs), each mode managed to find its own niche, some overlaps notwithstanding.

At its best, this mix sorted each mode into a role where it had its own defined ridership, and where the hierarchy of modes provided rational choices for many or most non-automobile travelers. Some modes (e.g., motorcoach, taxi and limousine service) required no subsidies, others (e.g., schoolbus service, NEMT service) operated completely with subsidies 1, and still others (e.g. transit and paratransit) operated mostly with subsidies. At the margins, a few modes were forced to compete – most noticeably, motorcoach service versus AMTRAK.

When this structure was most in balance, in was clear which modes made the most sense for each type of trip. Cost and time were the key variables. So these variable effectively defined the “dividing line” between the use of various modes. In many cases, this line was obvious:

  • It made little sense to travel coast to coast on anything but an airline (while those with little money still made such trips by motorcoach).
  • For most commuters not driving, commuter/express bus service (usually provided on a plush motorcoach) or commuter rail (where available) cost a fraction as much as the same trip by taxi or limousine. (And in the case of commuter rail, the trips were usually quicker.)
  • The More Things Change, The More Things Change

    Unique events, often of historic proportions, disrupted these neat patterns. From 1942 to 1945, U.S. automobile manufacturers ceased making cars. So, before urban sprawl, bus ridership exploded. More recently, during the early COVID-19 wave, fewer people traveled at all, and those who did reverted largely to personal cars (supplemented by taxis, limousines and TNCs where they could afford them). This latter event wreaked havoc on the transit, motorcoach and schoolbus sectors, in particular. (In stupid or crooked venues, it also negatively affected the taxi business.)

    What went largely unseen were a few subtle changes in the antics of other modes. One rogue, which for a short time morphed from a high-subsidized mode to a rich super spreader, was AMTRAK (see Covid 19 shenanigans and liability, Part 2: Making money by compromising health , National Bus Trader, 2021). But a change far larger in scope involved domestic airline carriers. Unfortunately, the motorcoach industry cannot realistically make noticeable gains in competition with AMTRAK. If an infrastructure bill ever passes (which will be old news by the time National Bus Trader readers peruse this piece), AMTRAK should be drowning in subsidy funds. As President Biden’s “preferred” choice of travel for decades, this pet mode is certain to receive a disproportionate share of the $60B proposed for passenger rail service.

    This reality is true despite a reckless disregard for safety which a typical citizen would find repulsive – like the railroad’s refusal to pull its trains to a stop before asking passenger riding on upper decks to descend stairwells while the trains are braking to a stop. (Imagine a double-decker motorcoach operator doing this!). This practice continues despite overwhelming evidence that trains can effortlessly make up huge swaths of lost time from one station to the next – even while studies have shown that subsidies per passenger trip in many parts of the AMTRAK service area would be a tiny fraction were those trips provided by motorcoach (see Covid 19 shenanigans and liability, Part 2: Making money by compromising health) A 2013 study examining 20 AMTRAK lines found that savings per trip by motorcoach ranged from $17.03 to $422.39. Regardless, I cite this summary of waste only to illustrate that this swollen monopoly is likely untouchable as a mode-split matter.

    Fortunately, the same is not true for the unsubsidized airline industry. This industry’s corruption (I spare Southwest Airlines from this characterization) has become so astonishing that mid-distance trips by motorcoach that would have seemed unconceivable or, at least, unbearable (other than for paupers) only a few years ago suddenly have enormous merit for even the most wealthy traveler. Such an opportunity comes along once in a generation for the motorcoach industry. Particularly after National Bus Trader readers have absorbed the essence of this opportunity, we should not squander it.

    Transitioning from Inconvenience to Customer Exploitation

    I authored a lengthy article for National Bus Trader in September, 2019 (see Drivers vs robots Part 2: The nature of modern travel) that compared the effortlessness of coast-to-coast (and, particularly, international travel) 30 years ago to its counterpart today. Since then, the characteristics of airline travel have deteriorated dramatically. While the airline industry stopped “answering the phone” decades ago, at least one could count on often outsmarting its robots to reserve trips online, tedious as that is compared to the simple phone call of yesteryear. And one could usually count on traveling on the flight one reserved a seat for – particularly when the plane was filled to capacity. Such things are no longer true. A handful of my own recent personal experiences (for which I have written documentation) illustrate the shenanigans that now pervade the industry – and the tedium and disruption airline travelers must commonly experience in airline travel.

  • Consolidating flights to ensure full planes almost all the time was an old trick. Whether or not airlines have “spares” – I am unaware of any regulations which require them, or any enforcement of such requirements if they even exist – they increasingly overbook (if not double-book or triple-book) flights, and pawn off all or most of the originally-booked passengers onto otherwise lesser-filled connecting flights, almost always excessively less convenient. Passengers are often stranded in the cities in which they booked their flights (this happened to me last Summer in Cincinnati), and forced to find other flights by the same airlines on which to wend their way to or from their destinations. Because hotels also do not get the phone, and as they are instantly overbooked whenever airlines initiate these shenanigans, these cancellations often mean sleeping on the airport terminal floors. (Iron arms between seats prevent one from lying down – ostensible to “keep out the homeless” – a stunt even subways do not employ.) Those days when airlines paid for these hotel layovers, including shuttle fees, are long gone. Gone too are the days when stranded passengers were reassigned to flights on fellow-airlines (at the original airline’s expense). Nowadays, these victims are on their own. The trip in which I experienced the incident noted last Summer cost me a full day, hours of which were spent being bumped from stand-by flight to stand-by flight during my extended tour of the airline’s concourse.
  • Broken links in airline websites are becoming more and more common. Last month, in planning a trip from JFK to San Francisco (and its return from Burbank), the Delta website broke down at the seat selection level, while the JetBlue return flight’s website broke down at the “check-out” level (“next”). At least Southwest Airline’s site worked, allowing me to book an interim flight from Oakland to Burbank online. Otherwise, I spent something like 370 minutes on hold with Delta (since I was not available for this company to call me back), while JetBlue returned my call more than a day later.
  • Double- or triple-booking premium flights has become a staple of domestic airline flights. Several days after I rebooked a return flight from Denver to JFK on JetBlue Airlines (flight #1498) – the event dictating the need for my originally-scheduled flight had been cancelled – I received a notice that my flight had been changed to a “red-eye” connecting flight with several hours additional layover time – without me even being asked. Because the flight originally booked was so inexpensive, I suspect that the airline changed the flight number, rebooked it at a higher rate, and simply “cancelled” the flight for the lower-paying first wave of passengers and bumped them onto other partially-empty flights whose connections eventually landed them at their destinations. In response, I had to laboriously cancel that flight (which I was afraid to do online), which took me several more hours, and to my delight, was able to book a replacement flight, on a different airline (this time, American Airlines), at a much-lower fare, with a single one-hour layover at an airport not terribly out-of-the-way. And to my amazement, doing this by telephone only took a few minutes, I did not have to engage in a battle-of-the-wits with layers of robots with choices of no relevance. And I reached a savvy, helpful reservation clerk to book the flight in a matter of minutes. I mention this last episode only to be fair: Air travelers can get lucky.
  • As I suspect few airline travelers have noticed, the number of non-stop flights between even major destinations (e.g., JFK to Denver) has dwindled to a handful. After booking the JetBlue flight noted (Flight #458, originally scheduled for my return from Denver on August 26, 2021) was a connecting flight. Only one non-stop flight between these two major airports was available — at an inconvenient time for anyone unable to arise the same time as a rooster. But, as noted, I was bumped from even the connecting flight I has chosen several days later, without anyone ever contacting me, to the red-eye flight noted.
  • Even seating has become a scam. Last summer, on an elbow-to-elbow flight to West Palm Beach in the heart of the COVID outbreak, I paid extra for my choice of a seat on an outbound Delta flight. Yet I was emailed a ticket and seat number in advance. Once on board, I noted that the rear half of the plane (where I would have normally chosen to sit) was packed while the front half was completely empty – a dangerous distribution of weight even for an aircraft of this size. I gave a flight attendant a choice, and 10 seconds to make it: I sit where I please or I make a phone call to airport security and ground this plane – if not every Delta flight that afternoon leaving LaGuardia, if not those departing from airports across the country. I was given the seat of my choice instantly – and had the entire front half of the plane to myself.
  • On my return flight on JetBlue, the plane was packed elbow-to-elbow (during a time when it was a regulatory violation to sell middle seats. Flight attendants did not enforce mask-wearing by children, by whom I was surrounded by chuckling Z-gens two feet away on all four sides. Social distancing apparently does not apply to oligopolies.
  • It may be that some of these shenanigans are not experienced by First Class passengers, whose fares can be exponentially higher than those riding in “coach.” But the point is – this year’s understatement — that airline travel is not what it used to be. Not at the reservation level. Not at the safety level (both in terms of disease control of flight control). Not at the convenience level. And not in any remote way at the integrity level – although, in fairness, as noted, I did not experience any of these problems on a few airlines noted.

    Truth, Opportunity and Marketing
    There is no conceivable way that the travesties noted were aberrations. They have become the nature of modern airline travel, even while some airlines are clearly worse than others. But accountability is non-existent.

    Far more important for National Bus Trader readers, and other parties interested in the survival of the motorcoach industry now entering the second wave of COVID, there has been no better time I can ever remember for taking medium-distance trips by motorcoach. Minimal reservation times, short or non-existent phone reservation menus, service that exists after one reserves it, no stranding, no unpaid intermediate hotels (when one can find one with a vacancy), no getting “bumped” onto longer indirect routes, spare vehicles (including trips occasionally “covered” by fellow-carriers), city center-to-city center origins and destinations, wide cushy seats comparable to first class airline seats, no turbulence, no constant announcements, the same wifi and other amenities, and at a fraction of the cost. And for those saving the cost of a hotel room by sleeping on board during each end of an overnight trip, a restroom for freshening up near the end of the trip.

    The sensible dividing line between air and motorcoach travel may have been 300 to 400 miles several years ago. But not evening considering costs, this line has at least doubled since – at least in the Land of Reason. If 800 miles seems long, just add in the airline reservation time, the 90-minutes-in-advance arrival time (at each end of the trip), airport security, departure delays, and the significant risks of constant switcheroos to out-of-the-way connecting flights with long layovers, and strandings. And on a bad day, a full day lost completely.

    I always thought motorcoaches had plenty of things to market – even while few appear to have agreed with me. I had always thought that safety sells. But we did a poor job selling this. Or I was simply wrong. But now we have much more to sell: Saving time, money and risk. “Leave the Driving to Us.” Humbug. It may take a while to boil down the comparable benefits to a tight, succinct slogan that says it all. A sloppy starting point might be, “Get there faster at half the cost.” Or perhaps, “Tired of airlines exploiting you?” — much closer to the truth. Maybe, “We provide real customer service” — although likely too obscure. I have faith the industry (or perhaps National Bus Trader readers) will figure this out.

    Unfortunately, no slogan can capture all the airline industry cons: Undependability, compromised safety, unpredictability, exploitation, inconvenience, compromised ride comfort, ancillary costs, turbulence, narrow seats, unbearable leg room, baggage fees, carry-on fees, treks to the baggage claim area, flight change fees, cancellation fees, absurdly-redundant security measures with pat-downs and feel-ups, telephone reservation surcharges, unpaid overnight stays in two-star hotels (when lucky), broken website links, hour-long hold times, and, on the ride, constant announcement interruptions. Or the pros: Leave your shooting range headphones behind. And forget about those barf bags.

    Normally, negative marketing is frowned upon. But we know it works. Along with other things (including the legitimacy of some of the express or implied criticisms), look how great Uber did with it. But despite the taxi industries shortcomings, its meters, selected trips’ flat fares, and regulatory oversight kept passenger exploitation to a minimum. This is not comparable to commercial airline service.

    There are plenty of lessons here. But the message and the opportunity should be clear. Earth to motorcoach owners: Start your marketing.

    1 A few communities have passed ordinance whereby parents must contribute to the cost of schoolbus service. And NEMT patients whose trips are not covered by MediCare or Medicaid must pay full travel costs privately.

    Publications: National Bus Trader.