‘Airline creep’ may be on rise at Amtrak
New CEO bringing more familiar fees and polices
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.
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.
Passengers board an Amtrak train at Pennsylvania Station. The next year may determine how former airline executives intend to reshape Amtrak.