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 low-cost 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.
To be sure, many rail riders no doubt are happy with several recent innovations, including new meal options, upgraded Wi-Fi and even Dunkin’ Donuts coffee onboard. But 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 entitled “Break the Travel Quo” that dissed air travel by touting Amtrak’s ample legroom and freedom to use electronic devices with no “airplane mode.” The campaign took aim at airlines by specifically assailing other travel “rules, restrictions, additional fees and shrinking legroom.” And that drumbeat has continued; just last month Amtrak posted an ad on Facebook touting “2 free checked bags” and “0 middle seats.”
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 titled “Amtrak: Overview” found the following: “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. That said, the typical domestic airline cabin is both more crowded and more profitable. Average passenger loads for the domestic airline industry haven’t been below 58 percent since 1977; what’s more, there are no middle seats on Amtrak – yet.
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