All the cool kids are doing it. Whether it’s Landline in the US or Deutsche Bahn joining Star Alliance, airlines are increasingly looking toward intermodal options to help fill their airplanes with connecting traffic. Delta started its so-called Air+Rail plan last year, and now it’s adding a whole bunch of new partners and destinations to the program.
When the Air+Rail program began, it involved just two destinations, connecting travelers in Amsterdam to both Antwerp and Brussels in Belgium. The initial connection was with Thalys, and though the partnership was described as “seamless,” it really is not. This isn’t like what Landline aspires to have where it’s like connecting in the terminal to another flight. This is really just making the booking process seamless while the operation remains pretty much as it is for anyone else buying a separate train and plane ticket.
On the ground, travelers still have to check in separately for flights and trains, and bags need to be claimed upon arrival in the airport for the traveler to transfer over to the train (and vice versa). The real benefit is that Delta can sell a single ticket all the way to the destination. That’s particularly helpful when the flight or train is delayed, because it means the airline will be responsible for providing another way to the destination when connecting between plane and train. It also helps when there’s a big schedule change.
Of course, this is just about as good as you could hope for in a train-plane connection. It’s highly unlikely that anyone is going to build rail to go into the terminal area, especially since it would require having a secure train that wouldn’t be a good option for those not connecting to a plane.
For Delta, the initial partnership made a lot of sense, because Belgium is in a weird spot geographically since the airline’s main partners have hubs not far away. Brussels has no service to Paris on Air France while KLM does have a handful of flights a day from Amsterdam. But having the train opens up far more connecting opportunities through the day. And Antwerp has no commercial service from Delta or its partners.
Now, the mission has expanded. There are five new partners added to the program last week:
- SBB at Zurich and Geneva Airports
- SNCB at Brussels Airport
- SJ at Stockholm Arlanda Airport
- TransPennine Express at Manchester Airport
- Trenitalia at Rome/Fiumicino Airport
These five operators will add 37 new destinations in total. I took a look at the summer route map from both Atlanta and Boston+JFK to Europe and then layered on the connections here.
The destinations are primarily small ones. And when you see so many different destinations, it’s just because trains stop multiple places along the way. For example, that train going north from Arlanda will stop in Uppsala, Gävle, Söderhamn, Hudiksvall, and Sundsvall. That’s 5 destinations — that, I understand, are actual places with people in them — with one train. You’ll also get Norrköping and Linköping, the apparent köping twins, on another line. And you can’t forget Avesta Krylbo, Borlänge, Falun, Hedemora, Leksand, Mora, Östersund, and Sala. I’m pretty sure at least one of those was just a test to see if I’d confirm they all existed.
Of all these, Linköping may be the most interesting, because KLM actually serves that up to twice a day already. The problem is the flights from Amsterdam are in the afternoon/evening, so connectivity from US early morning arrivals isn’t very good. The train can help.
In other cities, the trend is similar, though generally smaller in scale.
- SBB: Geneva – Bern, Lausanne, Sion
- SBB: Zurich – Basel, Bern, Chur, Grenchen, Lausanne, Luzern, St Gallen
- SNCB: Brussels – Breda and Rotterdam (both in the Netherlands)
- TransPennine Express: Manchester – Edinburgh, Glasgow, Lancaster, Preston, Sheffield, York
- Trenitalia: Rome – Bologna, Florence, Naples, Padua
There are really two types of markets here. There are the small ones that have no airplane service, so it’s a new market for Delta. Then there are the places like Edinburgh and Bologna which have service but not nearly enough of it. In the former, it’s the backtracking and infrequent flight options to get to Edinburgh via the Continent. In the latter, there may be ample service, but there are still plenty of people who will just fly into Rome and then take the train on their own. Delta can snag some of that.
The participating airports have a very clear pattern. These are all in cities with an integrated train station at the airport itself. And of course, they are cities where Delta flies… except Manchester which is served by Virgin Atlantic through the joint venture between the two airlines.
For that reason, prospects of this happening in the US are slim to none. Newark is the only hub with a train station connected to the airport, and it didn’t do much for United since it ended the Amtrak partnership. Then there are smaller opportunities at Baltimore, Burbank, and Milwaukee. Maybe the new Brightline service to Orlando will add a little value, but probably not. The US just isn’t build for good air/rail connectivity.
Instead, Delta is more concerned about getting people on the other end. I do think it’s interesting to note that of the places where Delta is adding connectivity, two of the airports are two of Delta’s newest: Geneva and Stockholm. These are probably routes that will be on the weaker side and will benefit from any additional traffic that can be fed by the railroads. That’s especially true since Delta isn’t using 757s but rather the larger 767s in these markets.
In the end, I don’t imagine we’re going to see any huge numbers coming off these trains, but if it’s even a couple of passengers a day that wouldn’t have otherwise flown Delta and partners, then it’s definitely a win. Just filing through fares might help get to that point. More importantly, Delta is making sure to build the infrastructure it needs to be able to expand this program as future intermodal options become available. At least, we can all hope that they become available.