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In the late 1990s, coachbuilders began making limousine buses almost as fast as stretch limousines. By 2010, all major coachbuilders were producing limo buses. Companies that were already making buses began customizing them more toward the luxury transportation operators who started snatching up buses faster than charter bus companies.
Operators have added shuttles, minibuses and charter tour buses to their fleets. I was no exception. After more than a decade of running limo buses, I decided to take the next step and add a charter bus that I wrote about at the time. Since then, we have added three more, including a massive 80-passenger articulated bus (two bus shells linked via a flexible accordion-style connector) that will go into service on Sept. 7. Buses are big money all the way around. They bring in a lot of money, but cost a lot to buy, maintain and license. And they present special tax issues if you cross state lines.
Entering the Bus Business
My experience running limo buses first prepared me to take on a motorcoach. In 1999, we jumped in head first into the bus market. It wasn’t well thought out and at first caused great financial pain. The bus business can be lucrative on some days and dismal on others. Because a local competitor was in a financial mess over its first limo bus, we were able to purchase it for a steal. Basically, we took over payments and gave them $5,000.
The company we bought the bus from soon was out of business over its unexpected lack of business for the bus and the cost of running one. The first time you get empty on the fuel gauge and have to pump 200 gallons of diesel at $800, reality sets in. When you realize that you averaged a mere 4 mpg on the tanks you just drained, reality becomes even more clear as you swallow hard and wonder what you got yourself into.
Whether you plan to buy a limo bus, shuttle, or motorcoach, I suggest you first farm out work to other companies in your area already operating them to make sure you will get enough business. Once we got to the point where we were farming out five to eight jobs a month during a period of six months, it became apparent we should buy our own bus.
But the operation of any bus varies a lot from that of a limousine or sedan. You must be aware of laws that apply to buses and drivers, or you will pay huge fines. Ignorance is no excuse.
One of the first things you must consider is who will drive your bus. Bus drivers must hold a commercial driver’s license with a passenger and air-brake endorsement (if equipped). In some states, the cost of a commercial driver’s license far exceeds that of a standard driver’s license. In other states, no special license is required to drive a limousine for hire, but the federal Department of Transportation regulates buses in all states. Many states also regulate buses through a state DOT agency with respect to passenger safety.
Don’t think that hiring one driver for your new bus is sufficient. Not even two is enough for a single bus. Due to the new hours of service laws, long trips may require two drivers in a single day. It is sometimes necessary to send a second driver to the bus’s destination. When the bus arrives, you may have to keep the first driver on duty until he reaches the maximum amount of on-duty time allowed by DOT laws and then have your second driver start to get them back home at the end of a long day. With both your drivers exhausted from this trip, you must have a third driver ready if your bus is going out again the following day.
Jennifer Kemper, a driver for my company, Limousine Scene, maintains a logbook for trips that travel beyond a certain radius from the base of operations. One source for finding good bus drivers is to recruit ones from charter bus companies. They can provide knowledge and guidance in training new drivers to operate a bus. There are federal DOT laws pertaining to drug and alcohol testing and how it must be administered.
Having an experienced person can spare you huge fines levied by state and federal authorities for violations. Logbooks are examined by state and federal DOT inspectors. By hiring experienced bus drivers, it is presumed that they know right from wrong and what needs to be done to remain legal. Don’t become a training ground for new bus drivers. Group transportation and the bus market can be lucrative in the long-term, but a bus is an expensive investment that comes at a higher risk than standard chauffeured vehicles.
To make things easier for you, LCT has garnered the following bus shopping tips from an expert panel at the 2012 International LCT Show in Las Vegas. The panel included moderator Gary Bauer of Bauer’s Intelligent Transportation in San Francisco; Brent Bell of Bell Trans in Las Vegas; Chuck Covington of People’s Transit near Detroit; and John Ferrari of AFC Transportation in Houston.