A small but growing group of bus lines catering to airport-weary travelers are testing new concepts throughout U.S. Unlike typical airport shuttles or conventional intercity bus operators, these lines boast amenities specifically aimed at flyers seeking relief from long security lines and jam-packed airplanes and departure gates. All offer guaranteed seats, indoor waiting areas, spacious onboard seating, and departure locations at or near major international airports.
An important distinction between these emerging bus services and more established airport-shuttle operators like Coach USA’s Airport Express, which serves Chicago’s airports, and Concord Coach and Dartmouth Coach, which both serve Boston’s Logan International Airport, is that these new lines focus heavily on routes more than 175 miles, putting them in head-to-head competition with jets flown by major airlines. In sharp contrast to the popular business-class bus services that traverse the Northeast Corridor and focus primarily on downtown-to-downtown service, these carriers aggressively market themselves to those seeking to start or end their trips at or near major airports.
New Services Hit the Road
Among most notable development in recent months is the rapid expansion by Dallas-based Vonlane, which serves the heavily trafficked “Texas Triangle” using 22-seat buses configured with low-density (2 x 1) seating. Some of its coaches have a small conference room for business meetings — something airlines can’t match — while its loyalty program mirrors a frequent flyer plan. Vonlane’s on-board attendants dispense pillows and blankets and serves customers meals and snacks — and cocktails upon request. Vonlane and Limoliner, a Boston–New York line, are rarities for being scheduled intercity operators with liquor licenses. Vonlane’s largest hub, at the Doubletree Love Field, is linked by shuttle to Dallas’ Love Field Airport.
In June, Vonlane’s expansion kicked into high gear with expanded Austin–Houston service that increases its daily frequency on this 165-mile route to up to eight trips in each direction, establishing it as an attractive alternative to Southwest Airlines. A few weeks ago, in the wake of Southwest’s announcement that it is ending its Dallas–Oklahoma City flights, Vonlane entered that 200-mile route with up to four daily trips each way, marking its first expansion outside of Texas. Fares will generally be $99 each way, less than the typical walk-up airline fare.
Florida-based RedCoach, one of the country’s largest premium operators, is similarly wooing jet-setters using a somewhat different business model. Like Vonlane, its buses have leather seats that generously recline to allow for resting or sleeping, but RedCoach is unique for having both business class and first-class buses, with fares scaled accordingly. RedCoach’s intrastate network now stretches from Miami International Airport to Tallahassee, with stops that include Fort Lauderdale’s airport and its flagship terminal on McCoy Road at Orlando, only a five-minute Uber ride to Orlando International Airport. RedCoach touts its close proximity to the airport’s car rental services and hotels to entice those who would otherwise fly. This spring, it began Orlando–Atlanta service, a 450-mile trip, which was followed this autumn by new Jacksonville service.
Perhaps the most ambitious effort to attract airline passengers is Minn.-based Landline’s partnership with Sun Country Airlines, an ultra-discount airline that has a hub at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP). Landline is a "nonstop" coach operator that launched last spring linking the airports in Duluth and Mankato with MSP, and it caters to both the point-to-point travelers and those connecting to other flights. Landline’s new ticketing arrangement with Sun Country, unveiled in October, allows passengers to purchase interline tickets that involve bus-air connections and provides bus-to-plane checked-baggage transfers. Although buses arrive and depart outside of TSA-secured areas, the agreement gives passenger assurances that they will be reticketed if they miss their connections. Furthermore, by providing waiting areas resembling airport gates and offering free coffee, snacks, and guaranteed seating, it has the aura of an airline. Landline has made it known that it hopes to aggressively expand over the next several years.
Landline’s interline agreement is not without precedent. United Airlines’ “United Bus” operates from a gate behind TSA security at Newark Liberty International Airport to Allentown, Pa. The service, which is also sold using interline ticketing, makes catching the bus almost the same as catching a connecting flight. The United Bus, however, has a mere 70-mile route, a distance too short to make flying practical, whereas Landline’s longest route — Minneapolis to Duluth — stretches almost 170 miles.
Finding Answers to Important Questions
A variety of questions about such airport-oriented services have yet to be answered. Will the largest domestic airlines — American, Delta, Southwest, and United — turn to frequent bus service to deal with the increasingly unattractive economics of short-haul flying? Or, will bus and plane services remain mostly on separate trajectories? At this point, there is little evidence major airlines are ready for large-scale collaboration. Apart from Landline’s deal, the United Bus and the longstanding interline arrangement between United and Amtrak (which provides interline ticketing between the Newark airport and Philadelphia), niche operations by Emirates Airlines linking Seattle’s SeaTac airport to Vancouver, B.C., and an Asiana Airlines shuttle service from New York’s JFK International Airport to several regional points, few formal arrangements between airlines and bus/train operators have been tested in recent years. Still, if Landline’s business model works, it could be a game changer.
Another pivotal question that remains unanswered is whether passengers will place enough trust in motorcoach services to book relatively tight connections between their coach’s scheduled arrival time and flight departure. Uncertainty over traffic and the length of security lines certainly won’t help matters. If travelers are wary of making relatively tight connections, airport-oriented coach lines may need to focus mostly on point-to-point trips and connections that involve international flights, for which passenger routinely arrive at airports several hours early, rather than domestic bus-to-plane connections.
Based on the new services being tested in Florida, Minnesota, Texas and other states, there is certainly room for optimism. The answers to these questions should soon become evident.
Joseph P. Schwieterman is director of the Chaddick Institute at DePaul University. Brian Antolin is CEO of CoTo Travel and a research associate at Chaddick. To be receive via email their complimentary Intercity Bus News Updates and annual Intercity Bus Industry Outlook report, email email@example.com.