Photo credit: Air France is expanding its "Train + Air" partnership with SNCF to seven new routes. Flickr / ERIC SALARD
There is growing momentum to replace short flights with train trips in Europe amid a renewed interest in reducing aviation emissions. France is using climate legislation to codify a ban on certain domestic flights, and politicians are debating similar plans in Germany and Spain.
And while it is easy enough to cut flights that rely on local traffic — for example between Paris Orly and Bordeaux — it is another story altogether to replace connecting flights, where travelers arrive at an airport on a plane and must make their way to a train to continue on to their final destination. This adds multiple layers of complexity to a trip that can be detrimental to the success of these carbon-saving tie ups.
Air France wants to remove some of that complexity from its partnership with France’s national rail operator SNCF. The airline is testing a “new, fully digitalized service” that would allow travelers to check in on the Air France website or app for their entire trip. This would eliminate the need for them to stop at a train station for their rail tickets. If the trial is successful, the carrier hopes to roll out the digital offering to all 18 of its “Train + Air” destinations in France.
Improving the air-rail connection experience and expanding it to more markets — Air France is adding seven new routes to its offerings from Paris Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports — is part of airline’s broader climate goals. In a statement, the airline’s Vice President of Sustainability and New Mobilities Vincent Etchebehere said “enhancing” these connections is a “key element” to meeting its goal of cutting domestic carbon emissions in half by 2024.
More than 160,000 Air France travelers use its Train + Air service annually, according to the carrier. However, that represents significantly less than 1 percent of the 52.2 million passengers that flew the airline globally in 2019.
Streamlining the air-rail travel experience is one of the bigger challenges to expanding the offering to more markets. Earlier in June, KLM CEO Pieter Elbers told Airline Weekly that issues ranging from luggage transfer to reservations systems and irregular operations make the tie ups more difficult than it appears.
“It sounds very simple but there’s a lot of backoffice work that is needed — luggage, rebooking, operational disturbances,” he said. “This is all different than the classical airline connectivity, and we need to find the right way in dealing with that.”
Prior to the pandemic, KLM had shifted one of its daily Amsterdam-Brussels flights to a train operated by Thalys. Elbers was not very optimistic about further expansion of the program citing the high cost of rail infrastructure needed to make more train routes competitive with flying.
But where there’s a will, there’s a way. In the U.S., where most intercity rail infrastructure is poor outside of the Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. corridor, Sun Country Airlines and United Airlines have teamed up with ground transportation operator Landline to provide connecting “flights” on buses. Landline addresses some of the complexity cited by Elbers by transferring checked bags between buses and plans for customers and, with United, departing the Denver Airport from a gate inside the airport’s secure area rather than on the curb outside the of the terminal.
“We can put an airport anywhere an airline wants it to be,” said David Sunde, co-founder and CEO of Landline, said at a conference earlier in June.
And in Florida, passenger rail operator Brightline is building a new line from Miami to the Orlando airport that is due to open by the end of 2022. The company wants to partner with airlines to provide direct air-rail connections in Orlando, where its station is part of the new under construction South Terminal complex.
All of this is not new. Air France, Lufthansa and others have partnered with their respective national rail operators to provide flyers with connections between flights and trains since the 1980s and 1990s. Travelers’ increased concern with global warming and the industry’s renewed focus on cutting emissions is driving many of these latest initiatives.
The renewed interest comes with good reason. A new study out in Nature Communications finds that “improvements to engines and airframes and operations” alone will not be enough for the airline industry to meet its net zero emissions targets by 2050. Skipping flights altogether and using Zoom or taking a train is the most effective way to cut emissions.