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As a transportation and operations nerd, I love to find the best — and fastest — route when I travel.
And as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, I occasionally teach at the school’s satellite campus in San Francisco. Over the past year, American Airlines has reduced the number of routes to the city from my home in Philadelphia, so I now fly with United Airlines through Newark, New Jersey — as United operates hubs out of both Newark Liberty International Airport and San Francisco International Airport. When I return from San Francisco, I avoid booking any other form of transportation until I land in Newark.
Once in Newark, I check when and where the nearest train is due. If it’s at the Newark airport rail station, I immediately book it on the Amtrak app and head there on the AirTrain (a short five-minute ride). If it’s at Newark Penn Station, I get an Uber, and once I know my ETA, I book my ticket on the Amtrak app. Once I arrive at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, I either walk to Penn if it’s a nice day, or I get an Uber.
But to make the journey, I have to use three different apps — Uber, Amtrak, and United Airlines — make all the arrangements myself, constantly make changes based on arrival times, and continually monitor all the options.
This isn’t efficient, and it would be even harder if I were traveling with my family or a group. It’s also only possible for me because I live in the Acela corridor, where the trains are fast, efficient, and frequent. In most of the country, this kind of multistage travel doesn’t work, which means travelers have fewer options when flight routes are cut or cancellations leave them stranded.
And with labor shortages and extreme weather causing more delays and cancellations, coordinating several layers of travel gets complicated. If we want air travel to be more sustainable, then airlines must make your entire trip — not just the flight — easier, better, and more efficient.
In some cases, airlines are embracing these multi-option travel methods, so your next flight could include an hourlong bus trip to your destination.
Flight disruptions are going to get worse
In early April, thousands of flights were canceled in Florida because of a large storm system. And because of airline staff shortages, technical problems, a rental-car shortage, and an influx of spring-break travelers, some people were stranded for days until they could be rebooked.
Between operational issues, fuel-price surges, worker shortages, weather-related cancellations, and the general disruptions that airlines have suffered over the past two years, airline travel is difficult these days — and it’s likely going to get worse. After a COVID-19 wave hits, those in the hospitality business have noticed big spikes in trips booked — which some have called “revenge travel.” Now that travel and health restrictions are relaxed, trips and vacations are expected to spike, and with them, more flight cancellations and delays, which will no doubt frustrate travelers.
In an effort to mitigate some of these issues, American Airlines is planning to put some passengers on buses. Beginning on June 3, it plans to contract with Landline to connect its Philadelphia hub to Lehigh Valley International Airport near Allentown, Pennsylvania, and the airport in Atlantic City, New Jersey. This is similar to the contract Landline has with Sun Country Airlines in Minneapolis-St. Paul and United Airlines in Denver. The buses, which replace routes previously done by planes, are branded with the airline’s logo, tickets are sold by the airline as “flights,” and bags are transferred between buses and planes as they are with any connecting flight.
The idea of using multiple types of transportation to complete one “airline” trip is picking up speed globally. Starting in April, France banned short-haul domestic flights that could be done by bus or train, as part of the government’s plan to reduce carbon emissions. Austria put a similar measure in place as part of Austrian Airlines’ bailout scheme.
The Guardian reported that the move could eliminate 12% of French domestic flights. Over the past few years, because of intense competition with low-cost airlines, such as EasyJet and Ryanair, the cost of a short-haul flight in Europe was significantly lower than a similar route via train. Although travelers may now spend more time traveling by train than they would have by plane, Greenpeace suggested that the ban on short-haul flights where there is a train alternative of under six hours would eliminate 3.5 million tons of carbon emissions per year.
While this kind of move would be more challenging in the US, where train travel is limited, the ongoing issues with cancellations and delays mean more airlines should be thinking about how to incorporate other modes of transportation to make their passengers’ journeys as smooth as possible.
A smoother system
If partnerships with buses and trains is the route (pun intended) airlines are taking to address travel and flight disruptions for air travelers, they must adjust their scheduling systems so passengers don’t have to jump on and off their websites or apps to complete their trips.
As someone who enjoys taking several kinds of transportation, it’s still a clunky way to travel because airline systems don’t “talk” to the systems of other transportation modes, such as Amtrak or Uber.
Recently, Uber has started asking me whether I want to book a ride at my destination before I even depart. But what if I could do that directly through the airline? What if the airline offered me the option to book an Uber upon my arrival and informed Uber — probably in exchange for a fee — when I arrived (and maybe even used my GPS to update the system and inform me about where I’d find my ride)?
Imagine departing your home in suburban Dallas, getting on a bus to the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, hopping on a plane, and landing to find the Uber you booked already waiting for you. The car takes you to your destination, where your luggage is already waiting — all without needing to coordinate anything beyond letting the airline know where you are and where you’re heading.
The German airline Lufthansa already operates like this with the train system in Germany. A few years ago I traveled from Paris to Cologne, Germany. I checked my luggage at the Paris airport and boarded my flight to Frankfurt, Germany. In Frankfurt, I boarded the next express train to Cologne, and I picked up my luggage only once I’d arrived. The entire experience was smooth and felt as though it was one integrated experience, designed around the customer.
As air travel continues to suffer from high levels of disruption, airlines in the US need to tackle how to make flying less of a headache. And with business travel — which is a key part of airline profitability — still slow to return, airlines need to figure out a way to mitigate travel disruptions, or they may end up with only price-conscious, less-predictable leisure travelers. And if that’s the case, airlines are in trouble.
In the same way companies are rethinking how to manage their inventory and supply chains because of the disruptions and issues felt by consumers over the past two years, airlines need to rethink how they operate to make transportation more efficient and traveler-friendly. The technology is there, the transportation industry just needs to work together to use it.
Gad Allon is the faculty director of the Jerome Fisher Program in Management & Technology at the University of Pennsylvania.