United CEO Backs Denver Bus Pilot Despite Slow Start
It makes a lot of sense for airlines to use a bus to connect smaller communities to major airports. Buses can go places aircraft cannot, and when they do replace planes, they can do so more cost-effectively and with lower carbon emissions. That’s what the partnership between United Airlines and Landline, a luxury bus company that markets itself as a regional aircraft on wheels, launched last year aims to do.
United CEO Scott Kirby described the service as “going well,” and Landline co-founder and CEO David Sunde called its performance as “good” in separate comments in November. And in what Sunde described as a signal of some success, United added a fifth daily bus between the Denver airport and Fort Collins, Colo. — one of Landline’s two routes under the pact — in November. Landline has connected United’s Denver hub to the ski town of Breckenridge, as well as the nearby city of Fort Collins, since March and April, respectively.
But the offering is being marketed as more than just your average airport bus. Landline buses carry United flight numbers and depart the Denver airport from a gate on Concourse A alongside other United Express flights. Bags are transferred automatically — both to and from Breckenridge and Fort Collins — and travelers can check in for their entire trip at both Landline-managed destinations. In addition, travelers can earn frequent flyer miles and status points by riding the bus. The biggest pain point for travelers is buses arrive landside at the Denver airport where they have to proceed through security screening on their own.
Despite the tighter integration between Landline and United, neither Kirby nor Sunde described the partnership as a clear success. Both qualified their comments in ways that suggest the service is still maturing.
“In a world where we’re pilot constrained to fly 50-seaters, [and one] where we’re worried about carbon emissions when there’s a better option: I would love to see Landline successful because it could tick all those boxes,” Kirby said at the Skift Aviation Forum in November. He added that it was “too early to conclude it has worked or hasn’t worked” citing the on-going Covid-19 pandemic.
Both Landline and United declined to provide ridership numbers for the service, and airport passenger data does not include those who arrive and depart by bus — even one that leaves from an airside gate in Denver. However, booking data viewed by Airline Weekly for both Landline routes for the week of January 3 showed most buses booked with fewer than 10 passengers out of the 35 available seats. Several Breckenridge runs were completely empty, while the fullest bus was one to Fort Collins from Denver with 15 seats reserved. Neither company has said what level of bookings represents success, but it is widely agreed that buses need to fill far fewer seats than planes to break even financially.
One reason for the low booking numbers could be marketing. Ben Brooks, a New York-based frequent traveler with family in Fort Collins, said that he would likely use the Landline service but has repeatedly forgotten to book it when coordinating travel. He suggested that United could “nudge” more travelers to use the buses by suggesting it during the flight booking process, or offering it as an upsell afterwards.
Jason Licon, the airport director at Northern Colorado Regional Airport in Fort Collins, thinks local residents are “responding well” to the service. While he did not have numbers to provide, he said the positive response was “obvious from the amount of traffic we’re seeing.” Landline buses arrive and depart from the airport.
Northern Colorado airport is working with Landline and United to allow travelers to clear security in Fort Collins and arrive airside in Denver. Many believe that such a move would make the bus service even more attractive to travelers.
“We see it as a concourse extension for Denver, so to speak,” said Licon.
On a recent visit to Landline’s gate at the Denver airport, there was only a handful of people waiting for the next bus, which was scheduled to depart for Fort Collins in 30 minutes. Though, with other United flights departing from adjacent gates, it was not clear whether those waiting were bound for the northern Colorado city or other destinations.
Sunde, responding to the booking data for the week of January 3, said Landline would not have added a fifth Fort Collins trip if “it wasn’t working.” In addition, it recently retimed the Breckenridge bus to arrive in the evening and return to Denver in the morning. Sunde added that Landline expects a big demand bump once travelers are able to arrive at Gate A78 inside security at the Denver airport.
And an immediate success may not be needed right away for the Landline-United partnership. As Kirby said at the Skift forum, the service checks a lot of boxes that are important for him — expanding United’s map amid a regional pilot shortage that has temporarily grounded 100 aircraft, and helping reduce carbon emissions. And the model has proven successful elsewhere.
Landline and Sun Country Airlines debuted a similar offering at the latter’s Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport hub in November 2019. Sun Country aimed to do the same thing as United: Expand its map to nearby smaller communities cost-effectively with buses. Landline initially connected Minneapolis-St. Paul to two destinations — Duluth and Mankato, Minn. — and service has since expanded to five more cities in Minnesota and Wisconsin. And the kicker? Sun Country complemented the existing Landline service with new jet flights connecting Duluth with the sun spots of Fort Myers and Phoenix this winter.
“I’m patient to see it through to the other side,” said Kirby of Landline. And a CEOs backing may be all it needs to continue, at least for now.