Just when the opportunity to slaughter the commercial airline industry and explode into prominence, the same old do-nothings in the motorcoach industry continue to do what they do: Nothing. The term ‘impotence’ would be understated and misleading, since that term would suggest, at least, that some sort of challenge failed. Five previous articles about this opportunity in National Bus Trader obviously accomplished nothing – unless they triggered a misguided response by the airline industry, which as least recognizes the opportunity (see discussion below). But the TNCs, already exploding into the schoolbus and transit industries, cannot be far behind – if they’re not already way ahead.
A recent article (July 27, 2022) titled, “The Democratization of Airport Lounges” (see https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/27/travel/airport-lounges.html) provided the inspiration for this installment. Much of what follows is a summary of that article’s contents, and an expansion into the ever-growing opportunities for motorcoach travel that stems from it. Following it are some other responses – again, none with the term “motorcoach” in them.
In a nutshell, commercial airline travel is changing, noticeably: The quality of service has turned into squalor, while the bandits in charge are growing ever richer. But no other mode has begun to intelligibly adjust to these changes, or profit from the opportunities they present. (And if American Airlines can con the Transportation Security Administration into action, as it apparently has, the opportunity for other modes could snap shut like a rat trap.)
Many past installments of this series focused on the multiple layers of corruption, wasted time, inconvenience, unpredictability and other travesties of commercial airline travel. Most important has been this sector’s impunity and complete lack of accountability. (Once again, I exclude Southwest Airlines from as much of this collapse as it can mitigate.) This installment will focus first on a single, minor element of this collapse: The airport terminal experience, and the extents to which one must go (and pay) to tolerate it.
Democracy and Escape of the Elite
A recent article about the airport experience was actually titled “The Democratization of Airport Lounges” (by Gary Leff, of the airline blog View From The Wing.) The lead-in sentence read, “No longer just for the flying elite, these havens from chaos are easier to get into now, with the crowds to prove it.”
The big con, of course, is that one must be an uber-frequent flyer to enter these lounges. Or one can pay a “day fee,” or purchase a hefty annual pass (sometimes called a Priority Pass) or premium credit card. A priority pass was cited as costing $299/year. Other premium credit cards can cost up to $699/year (with a few lesser “credits” for specific hotels and similar travel-related services). Banks and airline companies must be frantically hawking credit cards and similar escape-from-the-masses scams to well-heeled suckers. Capitol One Bank recently opened a lounge in Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport: With its Venture X card and $399/year, one can even ride a stationary bicycle, take a shower and sip a free cocktail. Given the frequencies and magnitude of flight delays, there is no need to gulp.
Of, course, isolating one from the crowd of proletariats does not get one much: Free snacks. And access to a bar (while bars in the concourse are rarely crowded, whereas dining in overpriced restaurants risk one missing his or her flights). Airlines with such lounges also boast of clean bathrooms – although most regular airport restrooms are relatively clean and plentiful. Otherwise, enjoy the snack. These lounges do not even offer overpriced meals.
Of course these lounges fail to address every serious problem and inconvenience of airport travel (see several previous articles about these problems, and the obviously solution to them, in National Bus Trader: Drivers v robots part 2: the nature of modern travel; Expanding the mode split dividing line part 1: exponential airline industry corruption; Survival and prosperity part 1: magic corridors; Survival and prosperity part 2: the magic coach; Survival and prosperity part 3: the gains of winning the cost of failure; Survival and prosperity part 4: service concepts.
• Travel time and cost to and from the airport
• Airline delays and other corruption (including overnight stranding)
• Airport parking fees (and finding one’s vehicle once one returns – much less often landing at a different airport altogether, which airlines often re-route one’s return trip to) •
• “consolidating” one’s trip to a different flight – often an out of-the-way connecting flight with a long layover – and notifying the traveler of the change the morning of the originally-scheduled flight
• Those late morning meetings you’ll now miss on those planned same-day out-and-back flights you booked
• Hours of flight delays in the airport, at the boarding gate and on the tarmac
• Unavailable reservations by phone (for $25 if one is lucky to even reach one), broken websites and often next-day call-backs
• Finding and staying in a hotel on those days you’re stranded, or cannot get onto a stand-by flight – and hoping to not spend the night on the airport floor. (Our clever airport planners did not install handles on every otherwise-bench seat for no reason. So at least you won’t have to sleep head-to-head with some homeless victim, saving lots of money otherwise spent by police officers poking them awake with night sticks.)
• Elbow-to-elbow flights on planes on which leg room has decreased markedly over the past three decades – although you need not worry about masking (no air traveler uses one anymore). Social distancing has obviously been defined out of existence.
• Boarding and alighting 200 to 300 people at a single door (whereas any schoolbus driver can evacuate his or her entire full-size vehicle in 90 seconds).
• Video systems where pilots jam the most-wanted stations (try watching an NBA play-off game on a basic channel) so that they can charge you $39.99 for a wifi connection that you hope will allow you to stream the game or show on your phone
• Seat-reservation scams (like paying extra for a choice of seats which you do not get once you’re on board – first class seats excepted).
• Change fees, cancellation fees and baggage fees (again, Southwest Airlines excepted)
The airlines’ motto should be, “Send us your flying elite, yearning to be snookered and have your wallet fattened by still more credit cards.” Adding the need to scrutinize your credit card statements even more carefully, and experience even more pop-ups, would make the slogan too long.
Exploring America’s National Parks
Beyond commercial airlines, U.S. banks cannot resist scamming attendees of major venues like national parks, which draw hundreds of millions of travelers a year. JPMorgan Chase will soon open its Chase Sapphire Lounge by the Club – for those with a Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card costing $550/year, which offers benefits including $300 in credits on travel purchases and Prior Pass membership (which also costs more money). Never mind that the credit cards glop off a sizeable chunk of the gross one spends on anything purchased with his or her card. Of course, a less-frequent flyer need not make such an investment: A PPL Pass Americas (from Plaza Premium Group) costs only $59 – and entitles its user to two free visits to their lounge every year – although at the moment, there are currently only six of them in the continental United States. This is not much help if you fly on airlines like Air France, which (like other far-better airlines from abroad) are not permitted to provide domestic flights within the United States.
One suspects that many of these upper-crusters fly first class. I have been arguing that motorcoaches should offer such seating for at least two decades now (including several pleas for this in National Bus Trader articles). To no avail, of course. The Paris subway has had these since at least the mid-1980s.
Trivial Adjustments and Subterfuge
Ironically acknowledging the shortcoming of the costly and eletist lounge sanctuaries (might they morph to include a First Class section), our domestic airlines have now begun to falsely-address their shortcomings by replacing mid-distance flights with mid-distance motorcoach service. Of course, with imaginations the size of fleas, airline planners have these coaches originate and terminate at airports. Plus, one must even go through security to board them. Needless to say, no modifications have been made to the vehicles. One brilliant American Airline’s spin-off – Landline – took advantage of a recent TSA ruling (see discussion below) to seemingly establish a new mode of transportation, as though buses and motorcoaches do not exist, and never did.
Mirroring (not likely copying) my idea for setting up service in poorly-served airline corridors, the first two Landline lines (launched this past June 3, 2022) run from Philadelphia to either Atlantic City or to Allentown/Bethlehem. So short is this “innovation” and so underserved is this corridor that only Spirit Airlines flies from Philadelphia to Atlantic City – a sixty-two-mile journey that cannot possibly cost much more by taxi (or Uber or Lyft if one doesn’t mind his or her personal information being mined, sold and resold) than by air – much less door-to-door service without any hassles, and often without any fellow passengers. JetBlue, poised to acquire Spirit, cannot seriously be drooling over this particular opportunity. But it is likely drooling over the opportunity this model represents if widely replicated. Insofar as the motorcoach industry, given its clout and imagination, perhaps I was too critical about the brain size of airline decision-makers.
If one can fight through the disjointed dots, perhaps one can discern American Airline’s goal: “Now with this service, American can add more value and try to gain better loyalty in the local community.” I cannot help questioning the loyalty to American Airlines as its Landline customers must absorb much of the “airline experience” to now take a motorcoach, which they could otherwise have ridden from city center to city center instead of from airport terminal to airport terminal. But this is only my pedestrian opinion. In exchange, however, Landline (ahem, Sun Coach) offers the benefit of refunding the fare when your coach arrives late. It is anyone’s guess what “late” will mean once Sun Coach begins “consolidating” coach trips to ensure that every seat is filled. With the delayed departure time of the next full coach count if the travel time is the same? Will traffic jams become the new turbulence? Yet the passenger’s ticket will have a flight number on it. Sun Country considers this a “good step forward.”
United Airlines recently began a similar experiment with “flights” on buses to Fort Collins and Breckenridge, CO. Except that the bus trip is merely the two-hour connecting “flight” to or from Denver. Your real aircraft lands in Denver, and passengers then transfer to a different gate to board their airplane-on-wheels. “Seamless,” as the transit industry bureaucrats have referred to fixed route transit, subway and light rail transfers for decades now.
American Airlines (excuse me, Landline, I mean Sun Country) has a better idea: Travelers from Philadelphia to Atlantic City or Allentown will first travel to the airport, check their bags, pass through security and then be taken “airside” (whatever that means) in Philadelphia, where they will get off at a gate and walk to their connecting flight as if they had walked off a regional jet. (A regional jet and an unmodified motorcoach: Some comparison, eh?). We can thank the Transportation Security Administration for this travel streamlining.
In days gone by, such services were referred to as “feeder service,” a mode that still exists throughout the country, albeit without the initial trip to the airport, the ticketing procedures, the concourse (upgraded now with those swell lounges), and the security check-throughs, where lucky passengers can get their genitalia rubbed for free (without even having to take off any of your clothes other than your belt and shoes).
The opportunities are endless, though it requires the TSA’s willingness and funding. According to the TSA, “this first step is the biggest, because it establishes that functional partnership with TSA. It’s hopefully going to open up all kinds of opportunity.” I hope so: I would pay big bucks to squeeze some TSA guard’s genitals, and I would get my money’s worth.
Gnat in the Net
It is not hard to follow how these swell lifestyle improvements came about. As part of ongoing airline consumer protection efforts, USDOT recently announced new rulemaking that would strengthen protections for consumers seeking refunds of Airline Tickets (see https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer). One suspects this pinprick to the airline industry was triggered when, earlier this Summer, ignoring this gnat, some airline left USDOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg off the “Do Not F— With” list, and canceled his flight, delaying his trip by hours. Perhaps refunding the fares of disrupted ticketholders whose trips were ruined and their flights cancelled, by the delay, is the spanking that the airlines need. I doubt that Secretary Buttigieg’s public statement of outrage put the fear of God into this giant, crooked monopoly. “When Americans buy an airline ticket they should get to their destination safely, reliably, and affordably…This new proposed rule would protect the rights of travelers and help ensure they get the timely refunds they deserve from the Airlines.” Ooh! It must be Halloween.
This proposal actually did nothing but outlaw non-refundable flights – flights for which the airline industry formally charged more. (I suspect the airlines found their way around this prohibition in less time than a flight from Brooklyn to Staten Island.) Perhaps the worldwide cancellation of half of all flights in 2021, and Secretary Buttigieg getting caught in the net, triggered this spanking – as if its costs could remotely offset the extraordinary savings that the airline industry obtains from its impunity to re-book any and every traveler to some flight of the airline’s choice. Far more likely, of course, most of these travelers simply accepted the re-scheduled flights, hardships and all. Keep in mind that nearly half of all direct flights are return trips; cancelling them to obtain one’s precious refund hardly seems like a choice.
As it turns out, USDOT actually possessed the statutory authority to prohibit unfair airline practices like these for years. However, the concept of ‘cancellation’ “had not previously been defined” – which resulted in inconsistency among carriers regarding refunds. (Keep in mind throughout this discussion that Southwest Airlines does not engage in corrupt cancelations, has open seating (i.e., no First Class or Business Class seats), boards according to first come/first served, does not charge late fees (if you’re late, they simply put you on the next flight), does not charge change fees (unless the new flight costs more) and does not charge baggage fees.) But even the newly-proposed rulemaking barely make a dent in this tiny footnote of airline corruption. To qualify:
• The domestic flight must be changed or delayed by more than three hours (or six hours for international flights – for those travelers stupid enough to fly internationally on America’s airline carriers).
• The departure or arrival airport would have to change. (Imagine having to travel to a new departure airline worth the refund.)
• The number of connections would have to increase — not much disincentive for airlines with choices: They could avoid the refund burden by switching one’s connecting return flight to a direct flight to the same airport – as noted, so long as the leg with the extra connection does not take off more than three hours late.
• The type of aircraft changes substantially such that it downgrades the “air travel experience.” One suspects this might apply to a plane with a propeller. The fact that travel speeds decrease considerably in “puddle jumpers” seems to be missed by this particular regulation. So too is the downgrading of amenities, since even coast-to-coast flights rarely provide “meals,” and they are even more needed on longer flights created by traveling at much slower speeds, in more-crowded lower flight paths, on smaller planes. But the TSA is certainly right about the fact that air travel in the United States is an “experience.”
Some “minor” provisions “require” airlines and ticket agents to provide passengers with flight credits or vouchers that are valid indefinitely when passengers cannot fly for pandemic-related reasons. Somehow this provision misses the fact that if airlines were required to have “spares,” and if they were penalized for cancellations, there would be plenty of flights available where one could social distance. Otherwise this provision would not seem to apply to a passenger who cancelled if he or she had COVID. Just to an airline, with a quick shrug.
These are not regulations without teeth. They are regulations without gums. The big joke about these regulations must be that not a penny of any oligarch’s money was likely spent lobbying against them. Otherwise, with such faux-thorny constraints, America’s airlines need merely to return to their former practice of transferring their otherwise-delayed or stranded passengers to flights on fellow-airlines. In days of yore, one would have to race down the concourse to catch the newly-assigned flight before the door at its boarding gate closed.
Another quandary is the notion of measuring delay. Does the time a plane is stranded on the tarmac count as part of the delay? It would seem that air traffic control problems could just as easily be blamed for this as would be the bunching up of flights from the cancellation of others. With the right scenario, an airline could annihilate this provision in a lawsuit which 9,999 of every 10,000 travel victims would bow out of (or perhaps settle out for a discounted airport lounge pass).
Finally, on August 1, 2022, USDOT’s Office of Aviation and Consumer Protection submitted to the Office of Management and Budget a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the “Transparency of Airline Ancillary Fees.” Frankly, the existence of ancillary fees is the one thing about domestic airlines that is overtly transparent. With the exception of the one airline noted, every single competitor charges for change fees (occasionally waived) and baggage fees. (I recall once paying more than $1000 to change a direct flight to a connecting flight a day later.) In fairness, on those flights delayed by several hours, flight attendants often distribute terrific free earbuds made in China. Otherwise, if USDOT had any remote interest in the passengers, it would intervene in the efforts of fellow airlines to keep Southwest Airlines out of most East Coast airports. (Two Southwest flights actually leave LaGuardia; otherwise, to fly Southwest from any airport on Long Island – dominated by JFK and LaGuardia – one must travel to the eastern end of the island and fly out of Islip (not terribly far from Block Island, a carless steppingstone from Rhode Island, and a fisherman’s haven).
Otherwise, as if USDOT (or certain journalists) have no memory, one announcement containing this information attributed it to the start of the Pandemic. (I suspect that the bat-seller who created COVID was also on the grassy knoll.) Regardless, the new regulations portend to codify the notions of refunds and cancellations, and will eliminate an “unfair practice.” In truth the unfair practice is prohibiting all those fabulous foreign airline carriers – Air France, Lufthansa, Swiss Air, Philippine Airlines, El Al Airlines (to name a few) – from providing domestic flights. Along with Southwest, these carriers would turn our other domestic carriers into dust.
History and Memories
For those readers still awake, you may recall that this article began with the subject of motorcoaches. Obviously, the events described above skipped right over them by focusing on one of the frontrunners only too stupid, at the present time, to realize the opportunities explored in the last five installments of National Bus Trader. A savvy, experienced public transportation professional should really place his or her bets on TNCs, whose disruption of more and more modes is not only growing, but welcomed. So too were things like Thalidomide and helium dirigibles.
To those in the motorcoach industry, I have to admit that it seems comforting (not from experience) to sit on one’s buttocks. Unfortunately, there is little future in it. If our casinos or bookies would take them, it would be wise to place one’s bets against the U.S. motorcoach industry. Writing about this dying industry is becoming little more than history lessons written in advance. One wonders if U.S. transportation history, in the future, will even bother to include it.
1. For whatever reason, Landline recently changed its name to Sun Country when its partnership with American Airlines began