Official admits to treating company involved in fatal Oct. 6 crash with "kid gloves."
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The number and variety of buses in the chauffeured transportation industry have surged since 2009, when a long recession bottomed out and the industry saw the launch of Transportation Network Companies.
Motorcoaches now carry renewed clout, with newer models that offer many of the luxury features in chauffeured vehicles and business class airline cabins. The role of Limousine, Charter & Tour Magazine along with its partner, the American Bus Association, have never been more central to limousine companies, as more and more operators add motorcoaches and mid-coaches to their fleets, and some charter and tour operators meet higher group demand by adding luxury cutaway mini-buses and limo buses.
LCT recently spoke at length with ABA President & CEO Peter Pantuso to discuss the latest industry developments and issues.
LCT: What patterns have you observed among limousine operations and motorcoach service?
Pantuso: We really saw a lot of movement to motorcoaches in 2008-09 when the limousine industry got soft, and we’ve been following operators adding motorcoaches to their fleets. What excites me about the trend is limousine operators are very customer focused and have the highest regard for service, and they carry that forward to the charter business.
LCT: How is the motorcoach industry responding to pressure to reduce vehicle emissions and provide better fuel economy?
Pantuso: By every metric, a motorcoach is one of the most efficient and cleanest forms of transportation. Many studies have confirmed that measuring on a per-passenger and per-mile basis. A number of years ago, the Union of Concerned Scientists studied all travel modes, and motorcoaches came up as the cleanest form of transportation on a per-person and per-mile basis. Today, there are new ultra-low sulfur diesel engines and some that run on five to seven percent ethanol blends that have cleaner air going out than going in, so the technology is “green.” If you look at bus emissions divided by 50 people, there is no comparison to any other vehicles regarding a carbon footprint.
LCT: What about compressed natural gas?
Pantuso: We don’t typically see CNG in our industry because tanks eat up luggage space. Maybe for commuter operations, but it’s just starting.
LCT: Vehicle safety is always a concern in our industry. What should operators know about today’s motorcoaches?
Pantuso: Safety is very much at the top of our list. In fact, the mandatory lap/shoulder seatbelt law goes into effect in November 2016 for new motorcoaches. For years, many manufacturers have already equipped their coaches with seatbelts. There also are a number of other mandates in the MAP-21 act (Move Ahead For Progress in the 21st Century Act, signed by President Obama in 2012) about redesigning windows and roof structures to make them safer in case of a rollover, and potentially requiring better stability control and fire suppression systems which already are being added into new coaches. All this technology is making an already safe bus even safer.
LCT: What other improvements are you seeing in the industry?
Pantuso: We’re seeing more focus on higher-end motorcoach service being offered, which ties in somewhat to the limousine industry. For example, the standard two-and-two row seat configuration is changing to two-and-one seat rows to allow for larger seats, and different classes of service include attendants onboard providing beverage and snack service. It’s a new stratification of service where the cost goes up from say a basic service up to top-end seating and a galley with food and beverage — all designed to attract a new customer base that otherwise would not use a motorcoach for transportation.
LCT: With our national infrastructure in serious need of repair, what is the ABA doing on behalf of the industry to secure funding to repair roads, bridges and highways?
Pantuso: It’s a top priority. The transportation bill expires in May and I believe Congress has kicked the can down the road too often. Nobody wants to be the first one to put their hand up and say we need higher taxes or fees. At the same time, we can’t let the infrastructure crumble. There are groups in Congress that would like to eliminate the federal highway program and kick it back to the states. But having 50 different state programs would be like having 50 different militias to defend the country. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Congress needs to figure out how it can come up with a program that funds the transportation needs for the next decade and beyond.
LCT: Anything else you see on the horizon?
Pantuso: We hear the Department of Transportation may be looking to change insurance requirements for motorcoaches. Currently, it is $5 million in liability, and because that hasn’t changed in 30 years, some think with inflation in medical costs that it should go up to the $20 million to $30 million range. I think they lost track of the fact that insurance is something owners buy to protect themselves. And while there needs to be a sufficient rate, going beyond that should be up to each individual to make that determination — not the federal government. It makes sense to look at it, but they should also be looking at issues such as tort reform and a whole lot of other issues that affect insurance rates.
Trends:Targeting Business Travelers
Emerging motorcoach companies are targeting business travelers by offering city-to-city service, and upscale comfort amenities that are an alternative to flying. A new company, Vonlane, launched a first-class bus operation from Austin to Dallas that has only 16 seats, including Wi-Fi, outlets, and an onboard attendant serving snacks and drinks, according to a 2015 study by DePaul University titled “Adding on Amenities, Broadening the Base.” The service aims to attract business travelers who fly that route daily. The custom-built coaches also feature a private six-seat boardroom and operate from downtown curbside locations instead of bus terminals. The company charges $100 per one-way trip. It recently started Dallas to Houston service. Another company, Royal Sprinter, offers luxury business class motorcoaches in the busy Northeast New York to Washington corridor. The custom motorcoaches are equipped with only eight leather reclining seats; small couches, audio/video, TVs with sports and movies; and snacks and beverages.
Datapoints: Motorcoach Industry Growing
According to a study released by the American Bus Association Foundation, the U.S. and Canadian motorcoach industry continues to show steady, solid growth as one of the most flexible, cost-effective and environmentally efficient modes of transportation. Motorcoach passenger trips grew by 1.7% in 2012, continuing a trend of nearly 6% growth in the last three years. Total passenger trips increased to nearly 640 million as compared to 736 million enplanements on domestic air carriers and 31 million passengers for Amtrak.
Official admits to treating company involved in fatal Oct. 6 crash with "kid gloves."
10/23 update: As the public awaits a preliminary report on an accident cause, two recommendations after a 2015 crash would have affected the recent one.
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