From an air service perspective, small cities are screwed. To keep them connected to the rest of the network, we need to do something different. Landline has been working on that premise for a few years now by offering buses to replace airplanes, but it was never going to truly succeed until that bus could operate nearly the same as an airplane. Yesterday, that finally happened on the “flights” that operate for American.
The numbers are staggering. More than 30 small airports in the Continental US have lost service entirely compared to 10 years ago, 20 of those since the pandemic began. But in those 10 years, it’s not all about how many airports have lost service entirely, but how many have lost individual airlines. United abandoned 39, Delta ditched 20, and American pulled out of 14.
The bleeding is real, and it’s thanks to a whole host of issues ranging from long-ago FAA rule changes for 19-seat aircraft that made those airplanes more difficult and expensive to operate, through the requirement for all pilots on those planes to have 1,500 hours of flight time (with few exceptions), and most recently American’s move to spike regional pilot salaries (which others had to follow to varying extents). This has combined to put another nail in the coffin. It’s nearly impossible to fly to small cities with small airplanes profitably.
The basic idea that Landline had was simple and not new. The company would replace small airplanes with buses and slap a flight number on them. But the difference between Landline and others was that it fully believed that a bus had to operate as closely as possible to how an airplane operated for this to work. And it was willing to put in the considerable effort to make that happen.
The first hurdles were cleared awhile back. Landline was able to get its partners at Sun Country, United, and American to put these buses in reservation systems with flight numbers. That means that they could be sold on a single ticket, and if the bus was late, the airline would reaccommodate travelers. Later, the baggage issue was solved as the company figured out how to check bags through to the final destination.
This was a start, but the big issue was security clearance for passengers. Landline could park a bus behind security and take passengers off arriving flights to connect them to other destinations, but it couldn’t do the same in reverse. Travelers had to take the bus from their origin and get dropped off at the curb at the big hub airport, going through security there and adding more uncertainty to the process. As of yesterday, that has changed.
The big development this week is that Landline is now officially cleared to operate behind security on its American operation between Philly and both Atlantic City and Allentown. This is a monumental achievement since it required getting the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to actually allow it.
Now, passengers on those “flights” go through security in Atlantic City and Allentown at their regular airport security checkpoints. They then board the bus and are dropped off at a gate behind security, making it an easy connection just as if a traveler was coming off an airplane.
Though this was always in Landline’s original vision, it has taken years to get here. The hard part for the TSA wasn’t the screening piece. There are already checkpoints at those airports so it doesn’t require extra staffing. The issue is in getting TSA comfortable that Landline could ensure that the bus remains secure throughout its journey.
Unlike an airplane, a bus can stop anywhere. If the door opens anywhere along the way, security can’t be guaranteed. Heck, it’s a bus. Even opening the windows could be problematic. Thanks to the checked bag program Landline had already been using seals to prove that doors did not open during a journey. Building on that further, there is now active tracking for both the TSA and Landline to be able to see where the buses are at any given point. Combine this with a detailed training program for the driver to ensure security isn’t breached, and TSA was finally ready to give it a go for passengers.
This TSA process is for American to use with Landline service. If other airlines want to participate, they will have to go through the same process with TSA to get approved. I have to imagine that the work for a future airline will be far less than it was for American as the pioneer, so kudos to American for pushing on this.
In the long run, this development should open more opportunities to help replace small city air service but still keep them connected in the network. When I spoke with United’s head of network planning Patrick Quayle, he told me that it has to be pretty close to the hub for it to work. So, here is a look at some cities that are within 2 hours of various hubs, just to give you an idea.
This is really just the beginning. The easy part is going into a place where there is already a security checkpoint. But what about all those places that aren’t airports? The next step could be convention centers, sports stadiums, malls… you name it. It won’t be easy getting TSA to set up shop in these types of places — they have budgetary and staffing issues just to start — but it would make it even easier for travelers to opt into these types of services if they were in places where people want to be instead of at the airport. And it would help relieve congestion at a hub airport landside as an added bonus.
We’ll see where the future takes us on this, but getting TSA to play nicely is a really important milestone.