Report: “Comparison of Essential Air Service Program to Alternative Coach Bus Service”

In November, I mused about how intercity bus service would offer a cost-effective, lower emission alternative for subsidized short-hop air travel from small cities to large nearby airports.  This air service is currently subsidized through the Essential Air Service (EAS) program.

I just stumbled upon the report “Comparison of Essential Air Service Program to Alternative Coach Bus Service”, released September 2011, which considers this idea through a cost analysis.  The report is by M.J. Bradley & Associates LLC, and was prepared for the American Bus Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, Reason Foundation, and Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Download and read the report here for more details.  The study selected a subset of EAS markets where the community was within 150 miles of a medium or large air hub.  The current federal subsidy to air service for the study’s selected markets is about $70 million.  The cost of fares to passengers is about $71 million.  Operating cost for (comparable) alternative ground transportation services in these markets is estimated as $34 million.  In short: ground transportation services would offer an alternative which is significantly less expensive for taxpayers and passengers (25% of the cost).  The services would also produce significantly less environmentally-damaging emissions and consume 28% of the fuel which is presently used by aircraft for these services (considered by volume, not energy content, as aircraft fuel is usually more energy-dense than fuel for other vehicles).

In my view, the study is conservative in terms of exploring and describing potential benefits of the ground-based service alternative.  The study assumes that the ground-based service will offer the same number of trips per day as the air service it replaces.  However, because ground-based service is much less expensive to provide, it would be possible to offer additional frequency and capacity at a cost that is still significantly less than for air services.  Frequency could also be improved, while controlling cost, by using smaller, less expensive vehicles (such as the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans, costs for which are described in the study).

Travelers who currently do not use the short-hop air service because of its high cost might find lower cost, higher frequency ground-based services appealing.  More frequent feeder services may reduce connection times at hub airports, and therefore travelers’ overall journey times.

Furthermore, congestion is an issue for many airports.  I know very little about aviation, but I expect that reducing the number of small aircraft landing and taking off would reduce congestion and air travel delays overall.

I hope the discussion continues and develops further.  The realization of a bus service program like this would be a great improvement for the U.S. transportation network.  And as I’ve said before, ground-based alternatives to air travel need to be supported by modern information technology and multi-modal sites for booking travel to be truly convenient.

Aaron is the founding principal of Trillium Solutions, Inc. He brings experience that includes 12 years of web-development with 8 years in public transportation, with knowledge of fixed-route transportation, paratransit, rural transportation, and active transportation modes. Aaron is a recognized expert in developing data standards, web-application design, digital communications, and online marketing strategy. He originally developed Trillium’s GTFS Manager, and has played a key role in the development of the GTFS data specification since 2007.