United Signals Renewed Intermodal Interest With Bus Service to Breckenridge and Fort Collins

United

Intermodal transportation involving airplanes is pretty rare in the US, especially compared to the rest of the world. United, thanks to Continental, had been more ahead of the game than others with Amtrak and bus partnerships. It helped that Amtrak could deliver people to the Newark airport people mover, something that is impossible at most other US airports. But the Amtrak deal has been unwound, and bus service has shrunk to only include one city, so it seemed like United was no longer interested… until now.

United has followed in Sun Country’s footsteps — not a phrase I would often expect to use — by partnering with Landline to offer bus connections from a hub. The renewed interest in intermodal is good news, and it helps to have a committed partner on the other side.

Sun Country has done this for awhile with Landline in Minnesota, but United’s plan is to connect two destinations to Denver: Breckenridge and Fort Collins. This really looks like a two-pronged test. Breckenridge is about seeing how well this does in ski markets while Fort Collins is more about offering an easier way for people in town to travel to Denver in order to fly elsewhere.

Breckenridge lies about 100 miles west of Denver Airport, a couple hour drive along I-70. It’s also about 70 miles east of Vail/Eagle Airport, but nobody in their right mind is going to choose that over the drive from Denver. Meanwhile, Fort Collins is only 70 miles north and a little over an hour up I-25 from Denver Airport. Fort Collins has its own airport, but nobody serves it. Allegiant tried and left years ago, saying the lack of a tower was problematic. Elite also had a short-lived service, but that was five years ago. Apparently a remote tower project is underway, but the proximity to Denver just doesn’t help the airport.

Both of these markets are big ground shuttle markets. There are no fewer than seven companies taking people between Denver and Breckenridge, many operating hourly. Meanwhile, Groome operates 16 daily roundtrips between Fort Collins and Denver. This isn’t expensive, and it’s not hard to do, so why would anyone “fly” United? There are reasons.

Behind Security… One Way

On the way to Breckenridge and Fort Collins, all you have to do is take the airport train to Concourse A and the bus leaves from there at a gate, just like an airplane. Bags are automatically transferred from the inbound flight, so even if you have a wait, you can stay behind security, sit in a lounge, and relax. It’s a much better experience.

Single Ticket

If you do this on United, you do it with a single ticket. There isn’t much more annoying than waiting a long time for a ride after you land and lugging all your bags with you. And on the return, that early morning wake up call came be rough since you need to leave huge buffer to account for traffic and check-in issues. With a single ticket, that becomes less of an issue because the airline is responsible for getting you where you’re going. What if there’s a huge back-up on I-70 due to an accident and you miss your flight? It doesn’t matter. You’ll be put on the next one just as if you missed a connection between two flights. That makes a big difference.

It also helps on the Landline side to have actual scheduling/planning pros working on this. Just look at the schedule. From Breckenridge to Denver, the bus gets to the airport at 4:45pm. (They will undoubtedly need more morning times to catch more connecting options in the future.) But it leaves Breckenridge at 2:25pm on Friday, a day nobody is traveling that way, 2:15pm Monday through Thursday and Saturday, and 1:55pm on Sunday, the busiest day of the week by far. You can never account for an accident that shuts the freeway for hours, but you can be largely right based on traffic patterns. That’s a rigor that ground shuttles don’t really care about in the same way.

Consistent, Safe, Clean Service

Taking a shuttle or bus can sometimes come with safety and cleanliness concerns. Sure they’re regulated by the DOT, but I just assume that things are looser with buses than with airlines. Landline thinks of itself as effectively being a regional partner that happens to use buses instead of airplanes. So it should provide a more consistent, good experience.

The buses themselves have United branding on them, so you know that United is going to have some oversight here.

There is wifi and streaming video on the bus. There’s also the cleanliness factor which United’s partner the Cleveland Clinic involved itself in. Yep, they’re doing electrostatic spraying, handing out sanitizing wipes, and even doing social distancing onboard and using UV disinfection. I assume the social distancing thing is because unlike airplanes, buses don’t have the same air filtration/circulation. But it is pretty funny to see a better onboard product on the bus.

Oh, and did I mention it looks nice too?

If you give me the choice, I’d take this every time… if the price is right. And that is where things get squirrelly.

The Pricing Problem

I took a look at random Tuesdays for a roundtrip from LA to Fort Collins in August. The lowest published fare is $276.79 roundtrip. But if I do those same flights as a simple roundtrip to Denver, then it’s only $156.79. Is it worth it to pay nearly double for this? I doubt it. I think they’re going to have to work on the pricing here.

Think about it this way. The bus is basically $60 per person each way. I can get a Groome bus for $35 into the main station in town with extra passenger in my party only $30… or $10 for those under 13. Even better, for $49 for the first person plus $30/$10 for extras, I can get picked up and dropped off directly at my house.

I would think a lot of people would be willing to give up the one-way security benefit and checked bag proposition to pay less and get a ride direct to/from home. This isn’t as much of an issue in ski markets where everyone is staying at hotels near town, but in a city like Fort Collins, that is very compelling.

In the end, there is a lot of opportunity here in tourist markets and maybe less opportunity in cities unless they can get the price down. If they can get buses to have security screened in Breckenridge and Fort Collins and then have an airside connection in Denver, that would change the game further. But for now, it’s more like a normal bus on the return to the airport from those towns.

Landline is the catalyst here, and I’d like to hope that we’ll see a lot more of this in general. There’s no reason a regional partner can only use airplanes. Multi-modal is always a good idea where it’s possible.

37 comments on “United Signals Renewed Intermodal Interest With Bus Service to Breckenridge and Fort Collins

  1. I really, really like this concept, and hope that it is expanded to more airports & geographies.

    From this story, it sounds like those going from Breckenridge / Fort Collins to Denver still have to pass through the regular airport security experience at Denver, so there isn’t a need to install security at the smaller towns, just arrange for the buses & drivers to be authorized to pick up pax from the Denver ramp after they have dropped the previous crop of pax off at the curb, and even that could potentially be foregone (i.e., curbside pickup & drop off at all sites).

    To me the real benefits to the pax are the convenience of booking everything in one shot, and the security of knowing that if there are traffic backups on the highways enroute and you miss your original flight, the airline is on the hook to get you rebooked. With the space on the bigger buses, if the WiFi is reliable there may also be a benefit for business travelers or for the airlines to sell this into some of their corporate accounts based in the cities served by the shuttles. For me personally (and as someone who does a couple of roundtrips a year on airport shuttles for leisure trips), those benefits would probably be worth an extra $10 or $20 each way, over and above the regular shuttle cost.

    Given that almost every top 10 or top 20 airport in the US is already served by multiple airport shuttle companies (such as Groome) that offer scheduled services with frequencies of hourly or better, there is lots of potential to expand this concept, and establishing intermodal agreements like this would be a good way for airlines and the shuttle services to help set themselves apart.

  2. I still remember when United started bus service between IAH and Beaumont. Seems like that service failed since Beaumont retained service to DFW but breckenridge will never see local air service and Fort Collins seems unlikely to do so. Maybe it’ll work this time!

    Btw. What’s the matter with the drive from ege to Breckenridge? It’s all interstate and beautiful!

    1. Julie, my thoughts exactly on the drive too, the condition of I70 is actually better between EGE and Breckenridge than between DEN and the Eisenhower Tunnel, especially the 2-lane portion through Idaho Springs.

    2. I read that part of the post as Cranky suggesting that few (if any) people are going to go from Breckenridge to Vail/Eagle to fly out from that airport, as compared to flying out of Denver.

      Then again, if United ever offers fares from Vail (even with a stop in Denver) that are cheaper than flying out of Denver directly, perhaps that might be an attractive option. Many years ago when CVG was a Delta hub, driving an hour north and flying out of Dayton (with a connection in CVG) was a popular way for people to save money compared to departing from CVG on a nonstop.

    3. Julie – Nothing wrong with the drive. But if anyone is buying a ticket to Vail only to still have to take a bus, that seems nutty. There are very few cities with nonstop service, so most will require a connection, unlike Denver. But even those cities with nonstops are going to be significantly more money for a maybe slightly better experience.

  3. I was just looking at some of these bus to flight connections and It looks like United is offering 50 minute connection times in Denver, that feels way too short to be dropped-off curbside, clear TSA take the train to Concourse B and pontentially half to walk/use moving walkways up to a quarter mile to get to my gate.

    Here is the example I found for May 1st:
    Lv. FNL – 11:20am on the Bus Ar. DEN – 12:35pm
    Lv. DEN – 1:25pm Ar. ORD – 4:45pm

    I might still book this tight connection for this example since I’d be connecting to a hub-to-hub flight, and know that United would rebook me on the next flight.

    I just looked at the Fort Collins (Northern Colorado Regional Airport website) and their claming that passengers will pass through TSA at FNL:

    “Seamless travel from United Airlines beginning April 1, 2021 with four daily round trip services seven days a week to Denver International Airport.
    Northern Colorado Regional Airport is poised to be the first airport in the country where United Airlines passengers would park, check-in for their flight, drop off checked baggage, and be screened through TSA security at FNL.
    Passengers would then board a bus that would securely transport them to a designated gate at the Denver terminal, just as if they were traveling on an aircraft so no rescreening. Checked baggage would automatically transfer to the passenger’s connecting flight, bypassing another anxiety inducing hurdle when traveling at a large airport.”

    Cranky do you know anything more?

    1. SubwayNut – Sounds like FNL is getting ahead of its skis. United told me that the buses are not operating that way, but I have been told that Landline really wants to make those kinds of things happen. So, maybe that’s coming soon, but it’s not here yet.

      1. Maybe I’m making this up, but did UA/CO used to offer sterilize bus service between ALB & EWR? If so, FNL’s claim of being first ever wouldn’t be totally true.

        1. Jason – I have no idea if they did. There have been plenty of different efforts over the years, but I don’t know of any off hand where the passengers went through security before boarding a bus when connecting to the airplane. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen!

          1. They frequently do sterile bus to plane for charters so it seems like something that could be done. It would significantly increase the convenience (and therefore the price that could be charged) of the service.

            I’m not sure who would handle the check in side if they don’t have a station at that airport. Perhaps that could be contracted out but maybe not because the sterile bus to plane charters I’m familiar with involve a UA employee doing the actual check-in and screening.

            1. Do chartered planes (even chartered planes that are used by commercial airlines, e.g., RJ size and bigger) have to go through airport security, or does it depend on the airports they are flying to/from?

              Put another way, if a 737 or CRJ takes a NCAA basketball team to an airport without commercial airline service, would going through more than a token level of screening be required? Would this change if the plane went to an airport with some commercial service, but used the FBO’s facilities to load/unload, instead of the main pax terminal?

            2. Reply to Kilroy below (it won’t let me reply to the actual post):

              From my understanding of United pro sports charter ops, they have an employee that travels with the team who is certified by the TSA to do security screenings. This is not a pilot or FA but another employee who is in charge of the charter.

              That’s also how they facilitate the sterile bus to plane charters. They screen the players at the actual stadium, seal them into the bus and then the bus goes directly planeside at the airport. Based on that, I’m guessing the facilities at the airport are irrelevant.

              If this is correct, it would require a UA employee or maybe a contractor certified by TSA to conduct the security screenings and seal the bus as sterile.

            3. Thanks, Bill; I couldn’t find anything with a quick Google on that.

              The “trained employee” approach makes sense. The cynic in me doubts that that is really more than a nominal “check the box and charge a fee” step, given that the employee probably has a handheld metal detector at most. IMHO that’s plenty of security for a known group that has chartered a flight and is using FBOs on both ends. Unless those pax on the chartered plane are deplaning at a regular airport terminal and walking through the sterile airport concourses around other pax, which I assume is rarely the case, I don’t see much need to do more than a nominal “security theater” exercise.

      2. Thanks Cranky for following up with United. I figured the person in charge of FNLs website is just super excited to have “airline” service to promote again.

  4. Once I’m getting in the car to Northern Colorado Regional Airport, why not just drive to Denver? If this served central Fort Collins and connected into the rapid bus line they might have something but Northern Colorado Regional Airport is in the middle of nowhere.

  5. “United, Not Just an Airline, But America’s People Forwarder!”

    UA is already America’s champion of the domestic Change-of-Gauge flight, all of which it markets as “Direct Flights,” (One flight number throughout, ergo, a direct flight!)

    Philly to Harrisburg, UA3844, 90 miles, change of plane at Washington-Dulles, but with each flight segment numbered the same, so a direct flight.

    OK, if you think this operation will make you competitive with AA on the PHL to MDT route, fine. Does UA have a VP whose job is managing the COGs? Other airlines have quit this marketing folly.

    UA, I’ll bet will soon be using buses, to every less-than-200-mile spoke city. Probably add on my dear Lancaster, using locally-available horses and buggies. “Now, direct service to the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country from all UA cities.” [An en route stopover for a PA Dutch smorgasbord at a local restaurant can be arranged through UA’s horse and buggy service.]”

  6. When I lived in Allentown, I used to take the ABE – EWR bus connection. It was convenient, although I wish we could have gone through security at ABE and arrive behind security at EWR. At least the bags were taken care of. The service was very useful, especially after arriving from an intercontinental flight (just let the bus driver handle the zoo that is I-78 around EWR while I took a nap!). I think they stopped this service for a while last year–not sure if it has been resumed.

    1. Vinay – It’s operating again. At least, United is selling it. I can buy you a one way from ABE to EWR for only a bit over $300 this afternoon if you’d like!

  7. Hmmm, interesting. Even though the United/ Amtrak deal ended, there can be a way to rekindle the program thanks to the redevelopment of Penn Station in NYC. The new train hall that recently opened has enough space that could be set aside for passenger screening. This could be perfect if the Port Authority, Amtrak & NJ Transit were all involved allowing passengers to semelessly travel to the terminals on any train that stops at the EWR airport station. Unfortunately there wouldn’t be a way to have direct gate access as in Denver, but it’s at least something.

  8. Hi Brett – Great article, as a former Denver-ite the I-70 weekend traffic is a monster even in good weather, also running the route (to/from Downtown Denver) is state-funded public transit provider BusTang, which pre-pandemic went west as far as Grand Junction (at reasonable fares) and north-south along I-25. I often used both BusTang and Amtrak to Glenwood Springs.

    Question on LAX – Sunday evening I arrived @7pm on Southwest and as we taxied along the north side back to T1, I noted 5 planes at the new Bradley satellite terminal (200-series gates). Three were AA, one Air China, and one too far south to see at night. I don’t recall hearing that the new terminal had opened, but it looked finished and lit up. Have you heard of this being opened for revenue flights, or perhaps they are just using the new gates as a parking area. Thanks – Walt, Carlsbad, Ca.

    1. Waltstringer – That is not open for flights yet. I’m guessing they’re just parking planes overnight there until they can move them on to the gates for their flights in the morning.

  9. Intermodal passenger transportation is something we don’t do well in the U.S. But it really does make sense in many cases. One of the biggest issues is the lack of connecting infrastructure among the various modes. That’s exacerbated by a general lack of willingness to invest in transportation infrastructure that doesn’t involve a “freeway” or highway, and a lack of willingness to cooperate among the various mass transportation entities, whether public or private. Make no mistake. The personal automobile will always be the main source of transportation in this country. But until there’s a truly comprehensive transportation policy in the U.S., there will always be excuses to avoid investing in the necessary infrastructure to create connections and foster cooperation or possible mergers among the various mass transportation entities. This doesn’t mean that trains, busses, taxicabs, Uber, Lyft, etc. will need to go everywhere or serve every little hamlet, but there needs to be a way to consistently use the modes that get the job done most efficiently and cost-effectively. And that mode doesn’t always have to involve an airline.

  10. This reminds me of the free bus shuttle service that both Taiwanese airlines have been offering to their passengers. Until I looked it up, I did not realize that Eva Air (or their contractor, rather) was shuttling passengers between Houston and Dallas/Austin. There used to be a LAX-based service as well.

    https://www.china-airlines.com/us/en/fly/at-the-airport/Airport-Shuttle-Bus

    https://www.evaair.com/en-global/plan-and-book/additional-service/shuttle-bus-service/service-to-connect-pa-and-nj/

  11. Very cool service they should expand to all their hubs, but I just don’t see the TSA ever allowing remote security screening. There are just too many ways something might get snuck onto that bus that shouldn’t, like at a gas stop, bathroom stop, or cleaning crew visit. You can be sure a plane is secure between two airports – not so with a bus. Hijackers dream :-(

    1. I’d like to see someone propose remote TSA screening just to see what the potential requirements would be.

      “Tamper evident” security seals are used as a first layer of security for freight. A fistful of “tamper evident” security seals could be applied to the outside of the bus to doors & compartments after the bus was was loaded up. Make the seals on the doors & emergency exits weak enough to be broken from inside the bus with intentional force and people would still be able to escape the bus in the event of a crash. Add in a a minute or two spent inspecting the bus before loading pax and bags into it, and another few minutes at the destination airport inspecting the seals to make sure that they are still intact before unloading the bus, with occasional random checks / screenings at the airport, and as a pax I’d be more than comfortable with the security of the bus, though I agree that it’s doubtful that the TSA would be comfortable with it.

      There have been successful attempts at bypassing “tamper evident” seals without showing evidence of such, but that’s a whole other can of worms that I prefer to avoid thinking about. :-)

      1. Ive been thinking about this too. I think a mixture of tamper evidence seals and using a mixture of GPS based, plus installing a video surveillance that any public bus should have already, so TSA and the airline could track the buses and see if the buses made any stops between airport and airport.

        I think you could easily install an alarm system on the understorage bus bays and doors in addition to the tamper evidence seals for verification that would trigger an alarm at the arrival airport and if anything was open after it left the departure airport the bus wouldn’t be allowed in the secure area at the arrival airport.

        I’m a transit planner and oversee a contractor that runs our public bus system and spend some time each day reviewing the bus tracks to make sure our contractor is actually running the service we pay them to run.

        1. Fair point, GPS + cameras + alarms might be a better solution than seals. Those could probably still be defeated (just as people who really know what they are doing can surreptitiously capture & clone RFID access badges to get into places they shouldn’t), but that’s okay; I like the concept of the “slices of Swiss cheese” model when thinking of layers of security.

          On a related note, how does Homeland Security / CBP / etc monitor flights inbound to the US with pax that have done Preclearance at the origin airport, so as to make sure that those flights don’t make a surreptitious stop etc? Might be some ideas/concepts to copy from that scheme as it relates to secure buses.

          Agreed on the potential for a “quick” security check at the airport if necessary (maybe similar to PreCheck, or used with more in-depth automated background checks of the pax?) to be used alongside monitored/sealed buses. At that point, however, the benefits from “pre-screening” would seem to be pretty minimal, and I’m not sure that it would be worth the cost, vs just dropping pax off at the curb.

          I know that the US doesn’t do trains well, but I think secure trains from urban cities to airports is another fun concept, and perhaps easier to implement. There is already service on subways & trains from city centers to some airports (SFO and ORD come to mind), and often those trains are the fastest way to get from downtown to the airport (vs getting a ride and fighting traffic).

          One could potentially do TSA-style screening on a separate train platform, then run the trains nonstop from Big City Transit Hub to Big City Airport (with appropriate electronic tracking & monitoring, much of which, e.g., GPS, is already on some subway / light rail trains), and then basically just direct the pax right past security and to the gates. For the business traveler market that kind of convenience might be worth paying a premium for, provided the train frequency was reasonable (20 or 30 minutes, max, during peak times perhaps?) and express trains would help to reduce the traffic delays compared to buses.

          I may well be missing some obvious things here, as I’m only a layman, not in the industry, but these are fun concepts to think about.

      2. Seals being added and broken multiple times every day would certainly uglify that bus pretty quickly! ;-D You’re also talking about a pretty time-intensive, comprehensive inspection of the entire bus before putting the passengers on (did someone hide something in the bathroom? the seat cushions?) A simpler solution that the TSA would be more amenable to would be a special priority security line at the airport. Maybe the same one the elites use? Give the bus passengers a pass to use that line.

  12. Remember when America West had its bus transport to Scottsdale and Mesa? I used to non rev on the Scottsdale bus, pretty convenient, and I couldn’t afford gas back then on an airline salary…

    1. Yo – I sure do! I actually was talking to the Landline guys at one point and mentioned the old Careliner. Apparently they didn’t know about it, but they said that everyone they talk to has some other bussing operation they remember from the past. It’s been tried a whole lot.

  13. IIRC Frontier (1.0) did this to Ft. Collins from Stapleton and West Pac tried it from COS to PUB. Not sure if it was ‘sterile’ or not but security was less of a cluster in the 80s & 90s, respectively.

  14. Brett — have you any interest in recounting the history of the Amtrak codeshare arrangement with Continental and United, and the actual reasons for abandoning it earlier this year? I live in Philly and am strictly a leisure traveler, and from my perspective this arrangement was always very much under the radar. After I discovered the possibility of booking itineraries using ZFV, I always checked it as an option when flying out of Philly; more often than not that alternative was more expensive and/or less convenient timewise, but sometimes the opposite was true. I wound up using the codeshare only twice — once during the Continental era, and once with United. Both times there was considerable friction involved and few customer service agents seemed aware that the program existed, which made for difficulties when things went wrong. Intermodal arrangements with Amtrak at Newark seemed like a great idea to me, but the carriers themselves seemed less than enthusiastic about it. I believe the other cities served by the codeshare were Wilmington, Stamford and New Haven, and it would be interesting to know how it worked for them.

    1. Bill – I really don’t know much about it, I’m afraid. But it sounds like some of the problems you encountered made it difficult. In the end, there probably wasn’t much demand for it anyway, so they just decided to scrap it.

      1. Once I was trying to fly from EWR to IAD. After a long delay, UA said they’d just put any interested passengers on amtrak. The gate agent printed out some sort of ticket, scrawled something on it, and sent us on our way. The airport train station was not staffed at the time, so we had nobody from Amtrak to talk to before getting on board. Well, the Amtrak employees on board seemed flabbergasted by our tickets, but there were so many of us that I guess we had strength in numbers, and they let us be.

        from the article: “bus service has shrunk to only include one city” So, is that ABE?

  15. I’m fascinated by the discontinuation of Disney’s Magical Express bus service on January 1, 2022. It seems like a mistake on Disney’s part, the reason for that service is to dissuade people from renting a car, which tends to keep people on Disney property.

    I wonder if they’re planning on stepping the service up and building a terminal on their property that does the TSA screening and connects behind security at MCO…

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Cranky Flier