Bumpy Ride for Bus Operators Seeking Airport Access

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By Stephanie Beasley

Aug. 23 — After years of dropping off bus passengers at Detroit Metropolitan Airport and developing what it considered an amicable relationship with airport officials, Indian Trails Inc. made a decision that seems to have caused an irreversible rift. It decided to set up stops in Ann Arbor.

Michigan Flyer, a subsidiary of Indian Trails, has been operating motor coach service between the Detroit airport and surrounding areas since 1996. When the city of Ann Arbor contacted the company 10 years ago about establishing additional stops there, the bus operator thought it was a great opportunity, said Indian Trails Vice President Chad Cushman.

Ann Arbor has a small airport that serves corporate and private aircraft, but there are no scheduled passenger flights. Air travelers from the community typically drive or take taxis to Detroit, which is about 50 miles away.

An attorney for Indian Trails said just a week after the company decided to start the service, its officials were summoned to a meeting with Detroit airport officials and their lawyers. The reason given, according to Cushman, was that the airport worried that a bus connection from Ann Arbor would threaten its concession agreement with a sedan/taxi cab company that serves Ann Arbor. But the more likely reason for the concern was that increased public transit to the Detroit airport would threaten parking revenue, he said.

Cushman said the company was told that if it served Ann Arbor, it would not be allowed at the airport.

At that point the American Bus Association, of which Indian Trails is a member, stepped in and said that as a federally funded airport, Detroit Metro was legally required to allow what would be considered “reasonable access” for any intercity buses.

Peter Pantuso, president and CEO of the American Bus Association, said this kind of friction between charter bus services and hub airports is not unusual. Association members have reported similar access issues at other airports, including Dulles International Airport, which serves the nation's capital, and nearby Baltimore-Washington International Airport, he said.

And the discord could come to a head now that dozens of small airports are at imminent risk of losing federally subsidized air service and communities may look to motor coach service as a cost-effective alternative.

In Detroit, airport officials reacted to the introduction of bus service from Ann Arbor by moving the Michigan Flyer bus stop from the McNamara Terminal—where Delta Air Lines, the airport's biggest tenant, is located—to a ground transportation center across the street. The airport reversed the decision in 2009, but a few years later shifted public transit back out to the ground transportation center, citing safety concerns with the bus dropping passengers off on the road several lanes away from the terminal.

“They realized they couldn't kick us out,” Cushman told Bloomberg BNA. “But what they started to do from that point on was treat us horribly.”

Eliminating Flight Subsidies

As Bloomberg BNA reported last month, the Department of Transportation notified 30 airports that it had tentatively decided to terminate their federal subsidies to provide passenger flights through the Essential Air Service (EAS) program (See previous story, 08/03/16). EAS was established in the late 1970s after the federal government deregulated airline scheduling and fares. At the time, lawmakers worried that airlines would stop servicing smaller, less-profitable airports without incentives.

Yet, in recent years the program—which was originally envisioned as temporary—has been called a boondoggle by groups and lawmakers critical of wasteful government spending. In fact, some of the critics say the DOT action doesn't go far enough.

“EAS is a relic of deregulation,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “We have been in favor of eliminating it. We do think there is more fat to be cut.”

In 2011, Taxpayers for Common Sense joined the American Bus Association, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Reason Foundation in commissioning a study that compared the cost of coach bus service to the subsidized passenger flights. The study found that bus service was a less expensive option for communities within 200 miles of the nearest hub.

Coach bus service seems a likely alternative transportation option for communities where EAS subsidies are being terminated. And Pantuso said American Bus Association members hope that when it's time for Congress to reauthorize spending on Federal Aviation Administration programs at the end of fiscal year 2017, lawmakers will adopt a provision giving communities the option of applying EAS subsidies to chartered bus services.

Getting to BWI, Dulles

Congress has prohibited per-passenger EAS subsidies exceeding $200 for airports located beyond 210 miles of the nearest hub. Many of the 30 airports that DOT is eyeing for possible termination from the program are located less than 150 miles from a major hub airport. For example, taxpayers spent $612 per passenger in 2015 to subsidize flights from Hagerstown, Md., which is just 78 miles from Baltimore-Washington International.

Hagerstown is one of several places where American Bus Association members would like to establish coach bus service. But they say they have met resistance from BWI, Pantuso said.

A BWI spokesman told Bloomberg BNA that he had no knowledge of any conversations between the bus association and the airport. He said there was an existing BayRunner Shuttle van service that operated daily trips from communities on Maryland's Eastern and Western shores. BayRunner has an agreement with BWI that includes advertising its services in the airport and on its website. The shuttle also partners with Amtrak, which has a station near BWI.

Conversations between bus association members and Dulles airport about establishing service to and from Charlottesville, Va., also have been thorny, Pantuso said. A spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority denied that characterization and said that Dulles was willing to accommodate a multitude of transportation services, including ride-share services.

“We are open to discussing proposals that could benefit passengers with increased access to flights at Dulles International Airport,” he said in a statement to Bloomberg BNA. “The addition of carriers like Uber and Lyft and the project to extend Metrorail's silver line to the airport are prime examples of new ground transportation choices becoming available for Dulles travelers.”

At more than 100 miles from Dulles, Charlottesville is well beyond the service area for Washington's Metrorail. Although the University of Virginia sometimes offers shuttle service to the airport based on students' holiday and break schedules, there is no regularly scheduled motor coach service.

Does Detroit Preview Future Disputes?

If the frayed relationship between Indian Trails and the Detroit airport provides any preview of the future, bus companies shouldn't expect an effortless transition from federally subsidized air service to motor coach service from small communities to hubs.

Pantuso said he believes the biggest source of conflict is that hub airports see more bus service as a threat to their parking revenue and contracts with taxi and shuttle services.

Currently Indian Trails and several disabled plaintiffs have lawsuits against the Detroit airport. They allege that when the airport moved the bus stop outside of the terminal, it made it more difficult for people with disabilities to access the terminal. And the airport's remedy for the situation—setting up a second bus stop for the disabled closer to the terminal—is a form of segregation and therefore illegal under federal laws to protect the disabled, they contend.

Detroit Metro said it was offering travelers with disabilities more options.

“The proposed accommodations would allow travelers with disabilities, who are using any type of commercial ground transportation, to choose to be picked up or dropped off at newly designated locations that are closer to terminal entrances,” Detroit Metro said in a statement.

Stalemate Continues

Earlier this year, a federal court rejected disability advocates' request for a temporary restraining order to prevent the Wayne County Airport Authority from opening the new bus stops for the disabled, although another hearing on the case is scheduled for later this month.

Cushman of Indian Trails said that the FAA and Justice Department have made no attempts to prevent the change. In fact, Cushman said he understands the airport set up the separate bus stop for the disabled as a way of appeasing FAA concerns that the Michigan Flyer stop was inaccessible for those with physical handicaps.

What Cushman sees as a decision to alleviate threats to parking revenue seems to have the support of Delta Air Lines, he said, which uses the facility as its gateway hub for international flights to Asia. Delta has invested a lot of money at Detroit Metro, and the airport needs strong revenues to pay back the airline, he suggested.

“But no one wants to go on the record saying they authorized it,” Cushman said.

A spokeswoman in the FAA's Midwestern press office told Bloomberg BNA that the FAA was still reviewing the Detroit airport case and would not discuss open reviews.

Delta said it was not responsible for bus stop changes at the Detroit airport.

“Decisions on ground transportation at Detroit Wayne County Metropolitan Airport are made by the Wayne County Airport, not Delta,” a spokeswoman told Bloomberg BNA. “We are confident the Authority is focused on ensuring the safety and comfort of DTW passengers who utilize ground transportation.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Beasley in Washington sbeasley@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

For More Information

Details from the 2011 EAS/bus comparison study are online here: http://src.bna.com/hM0

A video news segment about the legal battle at Detroit Metropolitan Airport is available here: http://src.bna.com/hM7

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