‘Air­line creep’ may be on rise at Am­trak

New CEO bring­ing more fa­mil­iar fees and po­lices

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - TRAVEL - Bill McGee

For years I’ve been trav­el­ing to the na­tion’s cap­i­tal to rep­re­sent air­line pas­sen­gers be­fore Congress, the De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion and the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion. And I of­ten get there by train. That’s not a punch­line or a cheap shot, just a sim­ple recog­ni­tion that for me – and mil­lions of oth­ers who live along the In­ter­state 95 cor­ri­dor – Am­trak is the quick­est, eas­i­est, least stress­ful, most pro­duc­tive and of­ten cheap­est mode to get from Con­necti­cut to down­town Wash­ing­ton. The same is true in many other com­mu­ni­ties na­tion­wide.

But like many other rid­ers and con­sumer ad­vo­cates, I’ve started to note “air­line creep” work­ing its way into Am­trak’s poli­cies, pric­ing, fees and ser­vice. It’s lit­tle won­der, since the for­mer CEO of North­west Air­lines and Delta Air Lines is now the CEO of the na­tion’s train line. So it’s also lit­tle won­der those of us who love rid­ing the rails are now ask­ing: Is Am­trak turn­ing into a low­cost air­line?

Planes to trains

In July 2017, Am­trak’s board ap­pointed Richard An­der­son pres­i­dent and CEO, af­ter he pre­vi­ously served as the CEO of first North­west and then Delta and over­saw the merger of those two car­ri­ers. Three months later for­mer Con­ti­nen­tal and North­west ex­ec­u­tive Tim Grif­fin was named Am­trak’s chief mar­ket­ing of­fi­cer; then an ex-North­west and Delta of­fi­cer was tapped as Am­trak’s chief safety of­fi­cer. Other for­mer Delta ex­ecs now head up the “pas­sen­ger ex­pe­ri­ence” and “prod­uct de­vel­op­ment & cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence” de­part­ments.

What’s in­ter­est­ing is that Am­trak has been defin­ing it­self as NOT be­ing an air­line, even while em­u­lat­ing one. In Septem­ber 2017, shortly af­ter An­der­son’s ar­rival, the rail line launched a new mar­ket­ing cam­paign “Break the Travel Quo” that dissed air travel by tout­ing Am­trak’s am­ple legroom and free­dom to use elec­tronic de­vices with no “air­plane mode.”

Such ad­van­tages are what make Am­trak the travel mode of choice for me and so many oth­ers. A re­port from the Con­gres­sional Re­search Ser­vice in Septem­ber 2017 “Am­trak: Over­view” found “By some mea­sures, Am­trak is per­form­ing as well as or bet­ter than it ever has in its 47-year his­tory. For ex­am­ple, it is car­ry­ing a near-record num­ber of pas­sen­gers, and its pas­sen­ger load fac­tor and its oper­at­ing ra­tio are at the up­per end of their his­toric ranges. On the other hand, Am­trak’s rid­er­ship is barely grow­ing at a time when other trans­porta­tion modes are see­ing rid­er­ship in­creases.”

How­ever, that pas­sen­ger load fac­tor – the per­cent­age of oc­cu­pied seats – has been inch­ing up from the 51 per­cent mark in last year’s re­port. The lat­est stats, which re­flect the year to date through July, in­di­cate loads are at 58 per­cent for both the na­tional net­work and its crown jewel, the North­east Cor­ri­dor. Of course, such news is a para­dox, since fuller trains are good news for ex­ec­u­tives, in­vestors and even tax­pay­ers, but bad news for pas­sen­gers in crowded train cars. Av­er­age pas­sen­ger loads for the do­mes­tic air­line in­dus­try haven’t been below 58 per­cent since 1977.

'Track­ing' changes

I reached out to rid­ers and ad­vo­cates alike and asked if the rhetoric has matched the ex­pe­ri­ence. Time and again, I en­coun­tered Am­trak cus­tomers wor­ried about the com­pany’s new di­rec­tion. Espe­cially since Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has called for “dras­tic cuts” to Am­trak’s bud­get, with elim­i­na­tion of ser­vice to more than 220 cities in 23 states.

“The con­cerns about changes be­ing made un­der Richard An­der­son’s regime at Am­trak are real,” says Char­lie Leocha, pres­i­dent of non­profit Trav­el­ers United. “The rail­road ex­pe­ri­ence is mov­ing in the di­rec­tion of air­line ser­vice.” He’s echoed by Kevin Mitchell, a fre­quent Am­trak rider and chair­man of the Busi­ness Travel Coali­tion: “I be­lieve that Am­trak and its cus­tomers are not far­ing well un­der the guid­ance of for­mer air­line ex­ec­u­tives. ”

Here’s a sum­ma­tion of the is­sues that most concern cus­tomers who want Am­trak to be an al­ter­na­tive to air­line ser­vice, not a du­pli­ca­tion of it.

❚ Pric­ing/dis­counts. Am­trak re­cently re­vamped its stan­dard pric­ing re­duc­tions. As Leocha notes, “Am­trak no longer of­fers dis­counts to vet­er­ans, stu­dents and AAA mem­bers, and the min­i­mum age of el­i­gi­bil­ity for the se­nior dis­count was raised to 65 from 62.” What’s more, that se­nior dis­count is now 10 per­cent rather than 15 per­cent.

An­other fre­quent rider, Lau­ren from Bos­ton, notes: “Un­der the new CEO, Am­trak, a gov­ern­ment en­tity that re­ceives tax­payer money, is of­fer­ing large cor­po­rate dis­counts while at the same time cut­ting back on dis­counts pre­vi­ously of­fered to se­niors and stu­dents.”

The rail line also in­tro­duced 25 per­cent off on reser­va­tions booked 21 days be­fore travel.

❚ Seat com­fort. In July 2017, just as An­der­son was tak­ing over, train junkies felt a shiver when they read here and else­where that the out­go­ing Am­trak CEO stated at the Na­tional Press Club that seats might start get­ting tighter: “We are look­ing at do­ing some cre­ative things. There’ll be some other things that don’t make it quite as com­fort­able.”

❚ Bag­gage. Cur­rently, each pas­sen­ger is al­lowed two per­sonal items at 25 pounds each and two carry-ons at 50 pounds each.

A good barom­e­ter will be if Am­trak be­gins en­forc­ing its bag­gage re­stric­tions. As one anony­mous rider in Chicago says, “It’s mission creep. Like chang­ing the rules on the (Guest Re­wards) pro­gram.”

Bill McGee is an air­craft dis­patcher who worked in air­line op­er­a­tions and man­age­ment.

air­line CEO is now the CEO

of the na­tion’s train line.

GETTY IM­AGES

Pas­sen­gers board an Am­trak train at Penn­syl­va­nia Sta­tion. The next year may de­ter­mine how for­mer air­line ex­ec­u­tives in­tend to re­shape Am­trak.

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