When A Bus Replaces An Airplane
U.S. bus company Landline has won regulator approval to screen passengers off-site and then bus them to Philadelphia International Airport, where they arrive at an airside gate.
As part of my MBA program, I consulted for Landline, a U.S. company that uses coach buses as a low-cost substitute for regional jets on shorter routes. As a result, I have tried not to write about Landline, lest you think I'm offering special favors.
But news is news. And in this microworld of airline commercial developments, this is a fairly big one, so I am writing about it. After several years, and much lobbying of airport and TSA officials, Landline has won the right to drop some passengers airside at Philadelphia International Airport during a trial period that began Tuesday.
As you may know, Landline has positioned itself as a panacea to a big and growing problem: the shortage of regional jets, which is leaving many non-major communities with limited (or no) air service. Landline buses — and in some cases, large vans — essentially act as an airplane, shuttling passengers from smaller airports to major hubs. The idea is that it is easier for passengers to start their trips at these smaller airports, which they already may be familiar with, and where parking is easier and crowds are smaller.
Until this week, however, Landline couldn’t perfectly mimic the airline experience. The buses could collect arriving passengers inside security at some hub airports, including Philadelphia, allowing customers to transfer off the plane to the bus without leaving the secure-side of the terminal. (Passengers don’t even need to go to baggage claim: Landline works with airlines to move bags from the airplane to the bus.) But on the way to the airport, Landline buses dropped all passengers off in the main terminal lobby, where they cleared security like any passenger.
Two American Airlines routes now get the full Landline experience. Passengers who board Landline at airports in Allentown (75 miles from Philadelphia) and Atlantic City (55 miles from Philadelphia) clear security at those terminals, allowing them to arrive in Philadelphia as if they had hopped on an American Eagle flight instead of the bus. The third Landline route to Philadelphia from Lancaster (77 miles from PHL), is not included in this test because it does not have the required TSA infrastructure, Landline executives said.
As a practical matter, this may not matter much. With no more security to clear in Philadelphia, American's minimum connection time at its large hub has dropped by 15 minutes, from 55 minutes to 40. But that may not save time for customers — they'll probably just add that time (or more) to their airport terminal arrival in Allentown or Atlantic City.
Still, to Landline founders Ben Munson and David Sunde, it's a big deal. They worked for roughly five years to convince regulators they can screen customers off-site and keep the bus sterile — that's airport-speak for secure — while it rumbles down the highway. They’ve also tried diligently to persuade investors, airlines and passengers that Landline is a viable solution to the industry’s pilot and regional jet shortage.
Munson and Sunde said they know a bus can never perfectly replace an airplane, but it gets closer when passengers clear security at an outlying airport and arrive at the hub in a way that is familiar to them. Now, they said, it is easier to tell their story.
"Whoever the audience is, what this does is provide a final layer of legitimacy," Sunde, the CEO, told me in an interview. "It takes a long time to define a category, and this just brings our product a lot closer to what people conventionally call air service.”
Landline still has more work ahead with airports and airlines. This is the air business after all, and not everyone wants to focus on solutions that do not involved airplanes.