Airline fares soar, gas prices pumped up, so Americans hop on the bus

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Intercity bus lines are steering for a ridership bonanza. Rising gasoline prices are forcing more and more people out of their cars and onto buses. Higher airfares and airline deregulation are doing the same.

The American Bus Association says about 20 million new passengers will take to the nation's highways on buses this year. Last year there were 22 million new passengers after nearly a decade of decline.

Daniel Prins, president of the nation's fifth-largest carrier, Jeffersonian Lines, says from his Minneapolis headquarters, "We took on a new image when gas prices rose near $1 last year. Many people had to look for alternatives and many found that buses are not so bad after all."

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Intercity bus companies this year added 1,500 additional buses to their fleets, according to the association. Last year 20,500 intercity buses are operating; this year 22,000 are on the road. Greyhound alone has added 400 new buses.

Niel Boggs of the association says, "Bus companies had a low profile for a long time. They didn't go out and sell to people. Now they're marketing aggressively. They're approaching their business like the airlines."

Many bus lines are offering airline-type services, such as reclining seats, individual reading lights, air conditioning, stereo music, "nonstop" service, special promotional fares, free newspapers, stewardesses, kitchens, and restrooms, Mr. Boggs says. Some former airline marketing executives, such as Mr. Prins of Jeffersonian, have been recruited to get bus lines back in high gear again after several years of declining ridership.

"The energy problems have presented us with a tremendous opportunity," Prins says. "We've bought new buses, painted old ones, improved seating, created better schedules, and put together TV commercials. Rather than sit back and wait for passengers to come to us, we decided to go out into the market- place to get people on our buses."

While ridership is up an average of 5 percent for the industry, Prins notes ridership is up 12 percent on Jeffersonian Lines, which advertises as "the energy saver."

"We're up because we're offering better equipment and better schedules to an audience that is looking for a new way of transportation. We've always gone through all the little towns along the way, buy this year we introduced express service between major cities."

Prins says more and more salesmen and young adults with children are riding the bus because they don't want to drive their cars long distances or pay expensive airfares. "From Minneapolis to Kansas City, the airfare is about $120 ," he says. "The bus fare is only $50.

"In addition, people in many small cities are looking to the bus again because deregulation allowed the airlines to abandon them." (Airlines are no longer required to maintain often-unprofitable runs to smaller cities.)

Most of the major bus lines are running promotions to get new riders. Greyhound's "I Love New York" pass is good for 15 consecutive days of travel anywhere within New York State and to Montreal. Anyone can buy the pass up through Dec. 15 for $89.

Trailways, the No. 2 bus carrier, is offering a cross-country ticket for full price and the return trip for only a dollar.

Many of the 1,500 intercity bus companies are pushing charter and tour service, which accounts for 53 percent of the all passengers industrywide, to increase ridership.

Bruce Michaud, vice-president of marketing for Michaud Trailways, a Trailways affiliate located in Salem, Mass., says, "Five years ago we ran 75 tours a year. Today we're running just under 1,000.

Michaud says more and more American families are taking advantage of its family discount packages. "Cars are getting smaller and a family of five is finding out it can't squeeze into a Toyota along with luggage and take off for a trip."

Last year intercity buses, which are seven times as fuel efficient as airliners and three times as efficient as trains, carried 360 million passengers -- more than the number of passengers carried by Amtrak and the domestics airlines combined.

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