Among the important lessons of the COVID-19 era in America is our astonishing ability to learn so little from so much. Yet an interesting illustration of the consequences of this failure can be demonstrated by how much one can learn from so little.
If and when one thinks it through, one can do much in limited situations. But they have to be the right situations. And one must make the right choices. And sometimes a bit of luck is needed – like operating in a corridor relatively light in infections, and a blob of subsidy funds. As the saying goes, the stars must align.
Both the right factors and smart choices helped one small New England-based carrier, Concord Coach Lines, illustrate what is sometimes possible in the Worst of Times.
Lessons from New England
The UMA is correct that, overall, motorcoach service is down to roughly 15 percent of its pre-COVID-19 levels. But that is because the majority of motorcoach passengers travel on tour and charter services. In transit industry lingo, these are “choice riders,” not the “transit-dependent.” Unlike intercity/scheduled service and commuter/express services which transport mostly “transit-dependent riders,” tour and charter operators continue to fail because they carry mostly choice riders. And these sectors have failed badly because they have not succeeded in finding other things to do with their vehicles. I, and National Bus Trader, have tried hard to suggest many alternatives (see “Motorcoach Survival in the Age of COVID-19, Parts 1 and 2,” May and June, 2020). I have seen little evidence of either any effort or any success in doing so.
Otherwise, those companies providing intercity/scheduled service can do many basic things to retain at least part of their ridership. Some of the rudiments are obvious: Keeping the vehicles and ticketing areas clean. Concord Coach Lines supplemented this normal mix of rudiments (i.e., masks, disinfectants, defoggers) by installing Plexiglas shields in the ticketing areas – even while they did not install them on the vehicles. These activities were hardly novel, and for months, have been perceived as bare minimum precautions for every mode of public transportation. The important contributions to Concord’s success came in other areas.
Capacity and Consolidation
While not optimally social-distancing passengers (after all, seats lie only 25 or so inches apart, longitudinally), Concord at least reduced the capacity of its 51-passenger coaches to 34 – trying to constrain those seated next to one another to “groups” (one hopes families). Even so, this reduction in service is dramatically different than the decades-long airline industry practice of eliminating flights at the last minute to fill the remaining planes to capacity and place many of those displaced on “stand-by” status – often for days (see “Drivers v. Robots, Part 2: The Nature of Modern Travel” in National Bus Trader, September, 2019).
The motorcoach industry would do well to point out that, unlike Concord Coach Lines, similar practices continue on commercial airline flights well into the COVID-19 era: This past July, I returned to NYC from West Palm Beach on a Jet Blue flight so jammed that some middle seats were occupied, and flight attendants did not even enforce mask-wearing. On my outbound Delta flight the day before, I was lied to about paying a higher fare in exchange for a choice of seats. When I boarded, I found the window and aisle seats were packed in the rear half of the plane (seat assignment by robot, of course) – while the entire front of the plane lay empty. I obtained an isolated seat in the front by threatening a flight attendant that I would ground the plane with a single cell-phone call, and trash its reputation with a few videos I would quickly send out via social media. I got my choice of seats before this flight attendant could even spell out “airport security” in his mind. But I am a seasoned transportation professional who knows which buttons to push. Few public transportation passengers have this same knowledge and moxie. The morale is: If you want to travel safely during the COVID-19 era, stick to ground vehicles. The motorcoach industry continues to squander its superiority in this area by failing to market it.
Instead of cheating and inconveniencing its passengers, Concord dealt with the decrease of 80 percent of its normal demand by reducing service to 25 percent of its normal capacity. Unable, realistically, to raise fares, Concord took a beating. Plus, of course, the company made zero revenue on the 75% of service it was forced to eliminate. But it kept its name on the map, retained its core management staff, and it made its small contribution to keeping this nation moving. Compensating for the revenue lost by all this service, Concord received a $1.5M in subsidy from Congress.
Economics and Elasticity
One smart choice Concord made was to not increase fares. The relationship between fares and ridership has been well known for millennia. Transportation planners refer to it as “demand-elasticity:” While other considerations (vehicle quality, attractiveness of the destination, speed, comfort, etc.) clearly factor into this trade-off, the higher the fares (or ”passage”), the less the demand. Over the decades during normal times, these trade-offs have leveled off at a balance which maximized profits and increased passenger volumes and travel opportunities. But in our new times – the COVID-19 era – we cannot depend on this long-standing balance. We clearly cannot risk upsetting it. Lowering fares is less of a risk than raising them. But it is still a risk: It could lessen profits, and in turn, reduce service. Mistakes in either direction could unleash a problematic spiral.
Beyond the safety that comes from decreased capacity and increased cleanliness, there are other economic benefits. Savvy air travelers (like me) reserve aisle seats near the rear of the plane. The reason is simple: Middle seats in the rear are the least desirable, the least often sold, and thus the least filled (ergo the consolidation strategies of the airlines employed to fill them). Otherwise, this strategy often allows aisle and window passengers to share a “desk” (the otherwise-unused tray for the middle seat). On a motorcoach with one only bucket seat filled, the unfilled seat provides a lot of extra room, in addition to an extra fold-down tray adjacent to it, for holding food and beverages, a notebook or even a mouse pad — while the passenger’s own seat tray can support his or her laptop, tablet, book or magazine.
In past issues of National Bus Trader (particularly in the “Drivers v. Robots” series), I have argued for a range of improvements that would permit motorcoaches to compete favorably with airlines for a much greater range of passengers and much longer trip distances. The features for which I advocated include a second restroom, a small galley (if only with a microwave or two) and even a stall shower. If we are not foolish enough to believe in the magic vaccine just over the horizon, these and other amenities would comprise worthy considerations for motorcoaches. (I am not talking about installing them on expensive “conversions.”) They make sense even during normal times. In the short run, they could greatly expand the use of these vehicles. Were I the CEO of a motorcoach OEM, this is the configuration my company would be pumping out. Frankly, efforts to reinvent charter and tour service during the COVID-19 era would do well to emphasize the restrooms. Otherwise, many of the modifications make sense in the Best of Times.
Small Drops in Big Buckets
Since tour and charter services tend to dominate the motorcoach market, occupy most of its vehicles, and help promote the image of luxury this mode of transportation provides, efforts like those by Concord Coach Lines are only drops in the bucket. But as anyone who has ever been thirsty knows, the first few drops in the bucket matter the most.
This past October 1, 2020, the Webinar I presented about “Getting Students Back to School” (summarizing a lengthy article on this subject published by School Transportation News and reprinted by National Bus Trader and other transportation and non-transportation publications) offers, by far, the greatest opportunity for recovery in the motorcoach industry. As that presentation noted, were we to actually adapt an intelligible plan to get our nation’s children back to physical school – an effort constrained by the combination of (a) the need for social distancing and (b) the finite number of schoolbuses available — we could not find enough motorcoaches. And almost every one of them would be in service 80 to 90 hours a week.
In the meantime, we must do what we can with the small percentage of more conventional business we can recover through more conventional means. Making sensible basic choices at our disposal help keep the industry alive (even if only barely). But the success stories serve as models for fellow-operators with similar opportunities. Articles about these successes – even if only limited successes which merely contribute to marginal survival – are important to share. They can provide inspiration to those of us who badly need it. Occasionally, they will include answers and ideas which can be put to use where, without them, the operations might not succeed at all, or might not even be undertaken.