Could Regional Flights Be Replaced By Buses? “Landline” Wants To Make It Happen

It is hard to imagine passengers opting to take a bus ride rather than a flight, yet new start-up “Landline” wants to make it happen. They plan to combine aircraft and bus service to rural communities.

While working for Alaska Airlines as network planners, a part of Ben Munson and David Sunde’s job was to identify markets that were ripe for air travel. In their search to find communities that could sustain a flight, the two planners were left scratching their heads when they couldn’t find the right kind of plane.

It wasn’t that the right type of plane didn’t exist, just that Alaska Airlines didn’t have them. Interesting, both Ben and David worked for Alaska Airlines at different times with neither of them overlapping, yet they both came up with the same solution.

“Landline” will operate more like a regional jet than a bus service

The idea is that instead of using a plane, this new service would use a bus and run it as though it was a regional jet. The start-up company, which they have named “Landline”, will provide bus services from small regional airports to an airport where passengers can connect to a longer flight.

Partnering up with an airline and including the bus fare in the price, the entrepreneurs plan to target routes of between 50 and 250 miles from a major airport. This concept of taking a bus to the airport is nothing new, with airlines like United and Continental often using airport bus services back in the 90s.

In the end, though, most of the bus routes between the airports were either replaced by small jets or just abandoned altogether. However, one bus service is still in operation, and it’s actually doing rather well. That’s United Airlines’ Express Bus Service between Lehigh Valley International Airport (ABE) in Allentown, Pennsylvania and Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) in New Jersey.

David and Ben see this as a positive for their new company at a time when many regional carriers are struggling. Difficulties in attracting pilots, along with needing to replace aging and inefficient jets, has left many regionals struggling to turn a profit. This has led to a number of small airports that once had flights connecting to larger airports no longer having this service.

Travel website Skift quotes the start-up’s CEO David Sunde as saying,

“The genesis of the idea was, with consolidation and the pilot shortage and the lack of really any aircraft development in the sub-60-seat sector, there is not a proper way to source this mission if you are in an airline.”

When Continental Airlines dropped their bus service in the late 90s, saying they did not want to be in the bus business, Sunde and Munson say that airlines have been looking at it in the wrong way. Instead, they want airlines to see “Landline” as a regional flight that just happens to be on the road, conducted by a bus rather than a plane.

“When you spend time in the regional airline business, you start to learn how challenging it is to make money with small aircraft,” Sunde said. “The cost structure of the bus is really unbeatable. No one had ever approached it like running an airline before.”

Low-cost Sun Country Airlines has signed on to the idea

Minnesota based Sun Country Airlines has been looking for a way to expand their catchment area beyond Minneapolis-Saint Paul.

The airlines CEO Jude Bricker had been looking at ways of getting passengers from towns further away to Minneapolis-Saint Paul, without having to use a large Boeing 737-800.

The Midwest airline’s plan is to use “Landline” luxury buses to ferry passengers between Duluth International Airport (DLH) and Mankato Regional Airport (MKT) to MSP for their Sun Country flight. Incidentally, Duluth has a population and 86,000 and Mankato 39,500.

“You can buy a ticket as if you were flying from Mankato or Duluth to Cancun,” Bricker said. “You can check-in at the airport in Duluth, check your bags, get your boarding pass, board the bus, drive to Minneapolis, go through TSA there, and get on the airplane.”

Sun Country’s CEO sees benefits in operating the bus as though it was a part of the airline. He anticipates one ticket for the entire trip working out cheaper than flying into MSP from regional airports.

Bricker knows that if Sun Country were to start a regional service with small jets, Delta Airlines would aggressively defend their Minnesota market. By using a bus instead of a plane he does not expect Delta to do anything, as they would not consider the bus to be competition.

“We think it’s less threatening to Delta to offer connecting service on the bus than it would be to have airplanes,” Bricker said. “If we flew a plane in, and had it overnight in Duluth, had it carry passengers in the next morning to connect to our bank, southbound, it would be an affront.”

“Landline” cannot rely entirely on Sun Country Airlines as they do not have enough flights which mean “Landline” services will be available for all passengers looking to fly out of MSP.

So far “Landline” has attracted $3.8 million in venture capital from three Los Angeles based companies, according to Tech Crunch who spoke with David Sunde about the airport to airport bus service.

“It’s all meant to be at the level of reliability that you would expect from an air carrier.

“We don’t want people who get on the bus to be surprised or upset — we want it to be a seamless experience … The perception of bus travel in the U.S. is negative. A big part of our mission is to get people comfortable on buses again as a viable alternative to air travel in certain markets.”

Will “Landline” work?

While “Landline” bosses talk about airlines having trouble finding pilots, the truth of the matter is those that pay reasonable wages have no trouble at all. The problem is making a sure the route they have regional planes on can make a profit. If that’s not the case, then there is definitely a place for a bus service like “Landline.”

In Europe, a service like this would work as Europeans are more geared to using public transport.

Simple Flying published an article recently in which Dutch national flag carrier KLM said it had done a deal with the Dutch, French, and Belgian railroads. In the first of what looks like a natural progression, KLM is dropping flights from Brussels to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport and replacing them with fast trains.

Then, of course, there are the climate concerns to consider, with Germany and France urging people to use less polluting modes of transportation.

The way I see it “Landline” has two hurdles to overcome; Firstly they need to partner with an airline that can give them the number of passengers they need to make the company a success. The trick to this is getting the airline CEOs to look at “Landline” as being an airline rather than a bus company.

Now I don’t sit in a big tower in Chicago, Atlanta or Dallas, but I can see how this makes sense just by looking at the Allentown to Newark example. Why would any airline even consider offering a 78-mile flight when a bus can do the route more efficiently?

Once “Landline” has a large partner airline, the second hurdle is to convince the public that taking the bus is not only better for the planet but more luxurious than a regional jet. You could even market it as the ultimate carpool with free WiFi included in the price.

I think “Landline” is ahead of the curve, in a niche American market that has no other real options apart from cars and planes when it comes from getting from one airport to another. I, for one, would certainly use “Landline” and think others would too, once they see how it works.

Courtesy of Mark Finlay at Simple Flying

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