The bus to the plane: On board Sun Country's first Landline connection
Arriving at the Duluth airport an hour before my Sun Country Airlines “flight” was a mistake.
While booked directly through Sun Country, the flight to Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport (MSP) from Duluth (DLH) was really a bus operated by the new transportation company Landline. I was notified multiple times in the booking process that this was a bus but, old habits die hard, and I arrived an hour early.
Check-in took several minutes and then there was nothing to do but wait — and listen to the speeches — until boarding about 15 minutes before the scheduled 10:50 a.m. departure for the Twin Cities on what was the inaugural run of Sun Country and Landline’s new partnership.
“We want to increase access to our customers,” said Jude Bricker, CEO of Sun Country, at the Duluth airport ahead of that first departure on Monday. “Carrying Minnesotans where they want to go really is our business.”
The partnership, while not the first time an airline has tried land-based connections at a hub, is a fresh take on the dilemma of regional feed. It is one of the few examples where a bus service is sold as a connecting "flight," another example being United Airlines service between Allentown (ABE) in Pennsylvania and Newark (EWR), rather than an add on purchase or a separate booking entirely.
More carriers used to offer bus connections. For example, Continental Airlines treated bus services to Houston Ellington (EFD) and Hobby (HOU) airports from its Houston Intercontinental (IAH) hub as Express flights through the late 1990s. Many of these routes ended from the combination of increased security concerns after 9/11 and the wave of consolidation that reduced network carrier's need to serve every small city, RW Mann & Company analyst and former airline executive Robert Mann told TPG.
Similar factors, including rising fuel costs, crew regulations and staffing shortages, have pushed the U.S. mainline carriers to ever larger regional aircraft. A drive for gauge that has come, by and large, at the expense of America’s smallest communities.
On the bus to MSP, Landline co-founders and former airline network planners David Sunde and Ben Munson talked to TPG about establishing service to Mankato (MKT), the second destination offered in Landline's tie-up with Sun Country. The former commercial airport's terminal had sat largely empty since passenger service ended in the 1990s until Landline arrived. (Former United Airlines partner Great Lakes Airlines served Mankato as recently as 1996)
“It's just been sitting there [but], actually, it's a nice regional airline terminal," said Munson. "It’s like ‘wow, you can just recreate something.'"
The founders’ ambitions go well beyond just bus service between Minneapolis and both Duluth and Mankato. They see as many as 50 potential airports around the U.S. ripe for Landline service with the caveat that they will only open a new base with an airline partner.
First up, though, is proving that Sun Country travelers will book a bus as their connecting "flight."
A flight that’s a bus
Seats on Landline’s buses are sold both directly, there was at least one non-Sun Country passenger on the inaugural run, and via the airline. This dual approach expands the Landline's potential reach and reduces its financial reliance on its partner — even when that partner, Sun Country, is the raison d’être for the service.
Booking a ride via Sun Country is the same as booking a flight. Duluth and Mankato are listed among origins and destinations on its website, and sold as a straight-forward connecting itinerary with a notice that one leg is on a bus.
Bricker, speaking with TPG on the ride from Duluth to Minneapolis, said the technology lift to get Landline services into its reservations system — and treated as a flight — was the most challenging part of implementation. Another challenge was getting U.S. security officials to sign off on the checked-bag process.
That is one of Sun Country and Landline’s selling points: passengers can check bags through to their final destination. I was able to drop my bag — the first one checked in under the partnership, I was told — at the Landline counter in Duluth. I picked it up in Chicago at baggage claim after a connecting flight on Sun Country without a hitch. The airline charges for checked bags, a fee that applied for my entire itinerary.
Landline aims to provide an airline-level of service onboard the bus. In addition to checked bags, the buses are new, have free wi-fi, and complimentary snacks and non-alcoholic beverages are served by the equivalent of a flight attendant.
“I wanted it to be comparable to Delta Connection,” said Bricker of the service quality.
Delta is Sun Country’s largest competitor in Minneapolis. Despite this, Bricker said the Landline partnership is more to cater to existing customers who drive to MSP, as well as cost-conscious travelers who do not need the frequency and network that Delta and other mainline carriers provide.
In the event of a snafu — say traffic on the highway or a maintenance issue with the bus — travelers have the same protections as airline passengers. If they miss their connection in Minneapolis, they will be re-accommodated on the next flight to their destination, said Bricker.
Landline, despite all its claims to be an airline on the ground, operates outside of airport security. That means passengers are not screened by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) until they reach Minneapolis. The transfer process from bus-to-plane is the same as arriving at MSP via any ground transportation provider, except that I already had my boarding pass and my bag was checked through to its final destination.
Operating a service inside security, or "airside," is both a logistical and security challenge. Passengers screened in Duluth or Mankato would have to remain on a sealed bus, which itself would have to meet TSA security guidelines, until disembarking at the Minneapolis airport.
No other airline, at least in the U.S., does this with a bus.
United faces a similar dilemma on its service between Allentown and Newark. Passengers can check bags through to their final destination in Allentown but buses depart and arrive "landside," or outside of security. The exception is at Newark where they leave from gate C130 inside security.
The Star Alliance carrier similarly treats customers booked on the Allentown-Newark segment as airline passengers with the same re-accommodation policies in the event of irregular operations.
“I think short-haul bus service becomes a lot more viable to the extent we can get an airside solution,” said Bricker who added that both the airline and Landline are “working on it" without providing additional details.
What is success?
Landline and Sun Country have different measures of success. For the former, it is both financial — the company needs to carry roughly 15 passengers per departure to break even — as well as the somewhat altruistic aim of buoying access at overlooked and underserved airports.
“We want to see the average fare in the communities we’re serving coming down, and we want to see the airports we’re working with see their leakage decline,” said Sunde. By "leakage," he was referring to the number of travelers who drive to larger airports — like from Duluth to Minneapolis — to catch flights rather than flying out of their home facility.
Duluth residents Jeff Davis and Jeremiah Kanabe were on the inaugural run to the Minneapolis airport to catch a Sun Country flight. While they had won a trip to San Diego through a competition marking the launch of the new partnership, they both agreed that the the bus was easier and cheaper than driving to the Twin Cities, not to mention flying out of Duluth.
For Sun Country, a “financially sustainable" Landline service to Duluth and Mankato would be a success by simply extending the airline's catchment area — or region from which it can draw passengers — said Bricker. However, he hopes that it is more than just sustainable and can be expanded to more markets.
Landline buses “translate real well to drives about two and a half and four and a half hours to the Twin Cities,” he said. Potential destinations include Fargo (FAR) in North Dakota, Hibbing (HIB) in Minnesota, and Sioux Falls (FSD) in South Dakota.
"Sun Country has a need to facilitate and stimulate additional revenue," said Mann. "For Sun Country, it's newfound business."
If the initial services prove viable, Sun Country and Landline believe the bus service could expand to between two and four new routes from Minneapolis. Further down the road, more connecting bases are possible, with Bricker naming Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) as one such possibility.
Sun Country is in growth mode. A day after it launched its Landline partnership, it announced 12 new seasonal routes including the addition of Baltimore/Washington (BWI); Bozeman (BZN), Montana; Cleveland (CLE) and Portland (PWM), Maine, to its burgeoning network. Landline is just one piece of that growth.
The inaugural Landline run under its partnership with Sun Country arrived at the Minneapolis airport on time shortly before 1:50 p.m. Stopping first at Terminal 1, where one passenger who did not book their seat via the partnership got off, before arriving at the carrier's home in Terminal 2.