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Airlines are replacing planes with buses on some short routes

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

American Airlines is adding service to connect two relatively small Eastern cities to its hub in Philadelphia. The catch - passengers won't board a plane. NPR's David Schaper explains.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: When taking American Airlines' new service from Atlantic City, N.J., or Allentown, Pa., to any destination connecting through the airline's Philadelphia hub, you'll arrive at the small regional airport like you would for any other flight. You'll check in and check your bags at the kiosk and counter, go through the security checkpoint, and as you board, you'll see the American Airlines logo and color scheme. But what you won't see are wings because this flight is on a bus.

DAVID SUNDE: We think of it as as close to flying as you can get without ever leaving the ground.

SCHAPER: That's David Sunde, CEO of Landline, which contracts with airlines, including American, to provide bus service to hubs from smaller nearby cities.

SUNDE: We're going to be doing that with one of our luxury motor coaches that seats 35 people. It's a really nice product. It has free Wi-Fi, in-seat power.

SCHAPER: As well as big leather seats with lots of leg room, something you can't find on a plane outside of first class. So Sunde says over distances of about 60 and 75 miles, the bus is a better option than flying.

SUNDE: We offer an alternative that's actually sometimes faster. It's more comfortable, for sure. But it's also a lot more economically sustainable, and it's better for the environment.

SCHAPER: Greenhouse gas emissions from a bus are far lower than that of even a small regional jet. And the airline saves money on the cost of jet fuel and staffing the flight with two pilots and one or two flight attendants.

JASON REISINGER: It's really hard to make a regional flight work on a 50-to-75-mile flight.

SCHAPER: Jason Reisinger is American Airlines' managing director for global network planning.

REISINGER: The economics just make it really tough.

SCHAPER: With a shortage of pilots, American and its rivals at Delta and United have suspended regional flights to dozens of smaller cities around the country. And Reisinger says it no longer makes any sense to fly to cities an hour or two drive from a hub.

REISINGER: We really see Landline not as a replacement of flights but more of allowing us to connect places that we just aren't going to fly.

SCHAPER: So why not just drive yourself instead of taking an American Airlines-branded bus?

REISINGER: Smaller airports are much easier to navigate, just the ease of use - the parking, the security lines, the check-in lines. All of that is often just simpler and easier in a smaller airport, like in Allentown versus Philadelphia.

SCHAPER: Landline provides similar bus service for United from Breckenridge and Fort Collins, Colo., to Denver International Airport. And Sun Country Airlines uses Landline to bring passengers to the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Airport from seven cities in Minnesota and western Wisconsin.

JOE SCHWIETERMAN: Yeah, I think we are seeing a trend here.

SCHAPER: Joe Schwieterman is a professor of transportation at DePaul University in Chicago, who studies both the airline and intercity bus industries. He notes that similar airline connections to high-speed trains are common in Europe. And while we don't have a rail network like that here, he says the U.S. highway network makes linking airlines to buses a smart move.

SCHWIETERMAN: It's going to take some time for Americans to warm up to the concept that a bus really can be an excellent substitute for a flight, particularly if the airline's handling - through ticketing, you have baggage services, and it's treated just like a flight.

SCHAPER: And if it catches on, Schwieterman expects more airlines to use buses instead of planes on short routes to hub airports. David Schaper, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PDP'S "BLUE SECTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.