By Jennifer 8. Lee
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal
It's 7:48 a.m., and ValuJet Airlines Flight 2003 to Atlanta from
Chattanooga, Tenn., is ready for departure.
Passengers are already leafing through ValuJet's in-flight magazine, Good
Times. Excited children decorated with ValuJet wing pins have to be told to
sit down. A welcoming voice comes over the speaker system: "Thank you for
traveling with ValuJet."
With that, Flight 2003 pulls out of the Greyhound bus terminal and onto the
The distinction between the plane and the bus has been blurring for years,
as airlines shoehorned more people into cramped cabins and phased out meals
in favor of peanuts. Now, it's official: Four airlines in five major
airports -- Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Newark, N.J., and San Francisco --
have connecting "flights" that are, in fact, buses or vans.
Chalk it up to changing airline-industry economics. After deregulation in
the mid-1980s, airlines expanded into new markets with short commuter
flights. Today, the resulting congestion at major airports has convinced
some carriers that buses and vans can serve those short hops just as well.
Within a two-hour driving radius of a big airport, small planes don't offer
much of a time advantage over buses. And buses have a clear edge when it
comes to costs.
UAL Corp.'s United Airlines found it was paying out a small fortune in cab
fares to passengers who missed its connecting flights between San Jose,
Calif., and San Francisco because of airport congestion. The result: In
February 1996, United canceled its flights between those cities in favor of
Airlines are working hard to convince passengers that the two modes of
transport are interchangeable.
Travelers who take off aboard a bus can now get frequent-flier miles,
computer reservations through travel agents and ticket-and-luggage
check-through to their destinations -- though not all services are offered
by every airline. The buses and vans themselves are usually owned and
operated by traditional ground carriers like Greyhound Lines Inc., but
often sport the airline's name and logo.
Passengers "prefer traveling by jet," says DeeDee La Chance, a travel agent
in San Jose, Calif. "If it involves a bus, they hesitate, they give me a
funny look. But if it's the right price, they don't care."
Bus-plane combo tickets do offer passengers a big price break. Some testy
travelers, however, point out that the reason they fly in the first place
is so they won't have to drive. "It's utterly ridiculous," grouses Alesia
Ajlouny of San Jose. "It isn't practical at all to take a bus from San Jose
to San Francisco in order to take another plane." Ms. Ajlouny finds bus
travel with her two small children trying, and says she's willing to pay
more to fly out of San Jose. Both Southwest Airlines Co. and Reno Air Inc.
still operate air service
from there to San Francisco.
Budget travelers, however, applaud buses. John Waters, a recent seminary
graduate, says the lowest fare he could find for the 50-minute flight to
Louisville, Ky., from Chattanooga was $245. But it costs only $42 to take
ValuJet's bus to Atlanta, and then hop aboard its flight to Louisville.
Total traveling time: three hours. The price, an introductory fare, rises
to $62 on Aug. 21.
Not all trips are seamless. Standing on the curb in Chattanooga, passengers
waiting to board a ValuJet bus to the Atlanta airport are given a security
check: They must show photo identification and answer the usual airport
questions about luggage-tampering and strangers bearing packages.
"We have to ask the same questions," explains the bus driver. "This is like
a flying plane."
Once they reach the airport, however, Federal Aviation Administration
regulations require the passengers to identify their luggage again before
it's loaded aboard the plane. And they have to pass through airport
The buses feeding ValuJet's Atlanta hub are helping the low-fare carrier
extend its reach following a three-month shutdown last year by federal
officials for safety reasons. (Last week parent ValuJet Inc. agreed to
merge with AirWays Corp. and adopt the name AirTran Airlines, as part of an
effort to shake off the stigma of its 1996 crash in Florida's Everglades.)
Three years ago, only United in Chicago regularly moved passengers by road.
Now AMR Corp.'s American Airlines has introduced bus service between
Rockford, Ill., and Chicago's O'Hare airport to replace a commuter flight
that was dropped last summer. (The American bus line is expected to carry
35,000 people this year.) Similarly, Continental Express, Continental
Airlines' commuter carrier, has replaced air service with vans between
Newark, N.J., and Allentown, Pa., to help alleviate chronic missed
The merging of bus and air routes, according to transportation-industry
executives, signals a new attitude. There's a growing conviction that in
some markets, cooperation rather than competition among transit systems can
benefit carriers and passengers alike.
"When you get right down to it, there are only a hundred points in the
country that justify point-to-point [airline] service," says Darryl
Jenkins, an airline economist at George Washington University. "You have to
find some way to grow into the other areas." Both bus companies and
airlines pick up extra passengers by joining forces to serve more remote
The growth of plane-bus links in the U.S. is beginning to mirror Europe,
where the car-and-highway culture is less important and where linked,
"intermodal" public transportation has long been the norm. Airports in
Paris and Frankfurt, for example, are each connected to as many as six
different urban, inter-city, and long-distance bus and rail lines.
Closer to home, Greyhound Canada Transportation Corp., a Calgary-based
carrier unrelated to Dallas-based Greyhound Lines, recently joined with
Kelowna Flightcraft Air Charter to launch Canada's first budget airline:
Greyhound Air. The system links bus routes with a network of inexpensive
Railroads, too, are joining the networks. Amtrak now has 50 bus routes
served by Greyhound and other independent bus operators. Some bus routes
replace rail lines that were shut down; others serve as local bridges
between hubs or as extensions into rural areas.
Selling passengers remains the biggest challenge for bus boosters.
Continental Express has tried to make riding vans more palatable by
offering integrated baggage checks and ticketing; along with United and
American, it also offers frequent-flier miles. On Continental Express's
Allentown-Newark line, passengers go through airport security checks before
boarding their vans, and because they are dropped right at the airport
gate, they bypass airport security. Says Continental Express spokeswoman
Michele King: "It's just like if you were getting on one of our aircraft,
except for that leg it's a van."
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