The coronavirus pandemic has upended the airline business, forcing carriers to simultaneously scale back operations and look for new opportunities. Many have tested new, out-of-the-box routes, some have elbowed into major airports while others have even tried selling inflight meals on the ground.
United Airlines is the latest to unveil a new scheme, and it is an old one: Provide flyers with a ground connection to destinations in one of the U.S.’s sprawling metropolitan areas. The Chicago-based carrier has partnered with Landline, a bus operator that views itself as essentially a flight on the ground, to connect Breckenridge and Fort Collins — airport codes QKB and FNL, respectively — to Denver International Airport.
“This gives us access to places where you wouldn’t really want to fly a regional aircraft,” United Vice President for Domestic Network Planning Ankit Gupta told Airline Weekly. He added that the new service is less a move to expand the carrier’s route map and more about providing customers with more options to get to their destinations.
Buses will run daily to Breckenridge from March 11, and four-times daily to Fort Collins from April 1. Coaches depart the Denver airport from an airside gate on Concourse A. They arrive at the airport landside, which requires connecting passengers to clear security before proceeding to their flights. Checked bags are transferred automatically as they would be between flights.
The 102-mile trip between Denver and Breckenridge is scheduled at 2 hours and 30 minutes to 3 hours, and the nearly 57-miles between Denver and Fort Collins at 1 hour and 15 minutes. Buses arrive and depart from the Fort Collins airport — which last boasted flights to Denver, on United no less, in 1997 — and mere yards from Breckenridge’s main gondola (the town lacks an airport), prompting Landline co-founder and CEO David Sunde to nickname it “the world’s first ski in, ski out ‘airport.’”
The idea of a bus-as-flight connection is not new. United has offered a bus connection to Allentown, Pa., from its Newark hub for years. And Landline launched a similar partnership with Sun Country Airlines in 2019, connecting the carrier’s Minneapolis/St. Paul base with the Minnesota cities of Duluth and Mankato.
The ground connection concept is not even new for the Denver area. Hometown carrier Frontier Airlines offered a similar bus service between the Denver airport and suburbs of Boulder, Fort Collins and Greeley during the 2000s.
“It did really well,” said Jeff Potter, founder and CEO of luxury travel club Manifest and former CEO of Frontier. He led the airline from 2002 until 2007, during which it offered the ground connections. The impetus for the service was to create a competitive edge for the small airline against larger competitors, including Southwest Airlines and United, he said.
The bus service ended because of the “complexity” it added to Frontier’s growing operation — and not for lack of popularity — said Potter. The carrier operated the service in-house. Partnering with a third party, like Landline, to operate buses would have been a better approach, he added.
“These intermodal systems are becoming more and more popular because they’re better for everybody,” Sunde said of the firm’s partnership with United. The new “flights” harness the “power of United’s hub” to get cars off of the road, much like the airline hopes to do with its recent deal for electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft — or eVTOLs — with Mesa Airlines and Archer Aviation. Sunde worked with Potter when the latter was CEO of Surf Air.
The United deal is a big get for three-year old Landline. While the Sun Country partnership is not insignificant, it was something of a proof-of-concept for Landline. United represents a step into the big leagues. Landline buses will wear a hybrid United livery advertising both companies, and will operate exclusively for the carrier with services carrying one of the airline’s flight numbers. Sunde described it as a “white label” partnership where buses look and feel like United, but are fully operated and maintained by Landline.
Buses are equipped with free Wi-Fi and streaming entertainment. However, no snacks or drinks will be offered initially owing to Covid-19, though Sunde is confident that United’s popular stroopwafles will soon be available. Capacity is initially capped at 22 passengers to enable social distancing though buses are outfitted with seats for up to 35 riders.
If Frontier’s experience is any example, a market exists in Denver for people who want to catch a “flight” near home and skip the drive to the airport. It may have been more than a decade ago but the region has only grown — and traffic worsened — during the intervening years. And the region’s growing rail system does not extend as far as either Breckenridge or Fort Collins.
United has aggressively courted travelers during the crisis. At a time when its international breadth is not as important as domestic reach, the bus service could give it a competitive edge over Frontier and Southwest in the Denver market. And with MileagePlus credit available for the bus ride — both premier qualifying points and redeemable miles — a lot of frequent flyers will undoubtedly be sold. This is not to mention how a bus alternative to driving fits with the carrier’s ambitious carbon emissions goal of a “100 percent green” by 2050.
The airline sees “many opportunities” to possibly expand the bus service if it succeeds, something that will depend on both customer demand and reception, Gupta said. Future potential destinations include Boulder and Estes Park, all points within about 100 miles of the Denver airport, as well as from other United hubs.
“I’m really surprised that more players in aviation aren’t doing things like this,” Potter said of bus connections citing his own experience at Frontier. He added that today, with the industry in flux during the pandemic, is a “good time to do it.”