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.
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.