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Inside Look on the Landline Bus Company with CEO David Sunde

The Landline bus (Photo: Landline)

Landline has recently announced that it has gained approval from TSA for its airside-to-airside motor-coach operations from Allentown/Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (ABE), and Atlantic City, New Jersey (ACY) to Philadelphia International Airport (PHL). 

The new approval will mean that passengers will clear TSA security at either Allentown or Atlantic City, board a bus to Philadelphia, and enjoy a seamless connection at Philadelphia airport with the bus arriving into an airside gate.

About Landline

Landline operates a fleet of buses and currently partners with three US-based airlines, namely American, United, and Sun Country, to provide connections from smaller cities to bigger hubs. Its services operated for American to and from Philadelphia are the only ones with TSA approval to operate from airside to airside at the moment. 

AirlineGeeks sat down with the CEO and founder of Landline, David Sunde, to learn more about his business and his vision for the airline networks. 

AG: To start with, what does Landline do? 

Sunde: Landline is the leading provider for multi-modal connectivity to global airlines. We enable airlines to add connections to ground transportation, in the same way they connect airplane to airplane.

AG: Okay. I understand that you came from a network planning background, working for major airlines. So what’s the story behind Landline and how did this idea formulate?

Sunde: Yeah, I mean, I started Landline with a co founder, Ben Munson, and we were both network planners, both had exposure to the regional business, and, you know, kind of understood even pre kind of pilot shortage in the U. S. that just the continuation of sort of sub 50 seat jet flight operations are gonna be really challenging.

I mean, pilots aside, there’s just no new aircraft technology really under 76 seats available. And so if nothing else, airplanes, we’re just gonna time out of service. And I think we both just have a belief that, at the end of the day, airlines are passenger transportation systems. There’s no law of physics that says an airline has to operate an airplane. It just comes down to like seats and how much those seats cost to produce holding a certain level of customer satisfaction constant. 

So we just believe that if you could make the experience similar for the customer, at the end of the day, an airline is just trying to put seats in the network and move people as efficiently as possible from point A to point B. And if you kind of make a list of the things you have to do to make a bus an equivalent customer experience, I think you’d find that that’s exactly what Landline does.

It’s maybe a slightly different way of thinking, but my view of the world is very much that as we move into the future, the idea that airlines are airplane operators is something that’s going to be in decline. And the idea that airlines are door to door transportation companies is going to be on the increase.

You can see the change happening in their loyalty programs, you know, working with people like Landline, you know, the interest in kind of the, EV tolls, all these things indicate to me that the future is a lot more about being a travel company than it is an aircraft operator. And so that’s really the change that we want to be part of facilitating.

I see. I totally agree with your point of view. I think they’re working with a lot of other modes of transport trains included and buses to kind of facilitate that and also just so that they are able to reach a larger network. And that’s what airlines are all about.

On the TSA-Approved Airside-to-Airside Services

AG: The recent airside-to-airside TSA approved transportation is still a fairly new concept to many people. Could you briefly describe how it works?  

Sunde: There are two parts to it. There’s how you book it, which is exactly how you book a connecting flight itinerary. Let’s say that you lived in Atlantic city, and you wanted to fly to Los Angeles. You would go on Google flights, Expedia or AA.com, or anywhere you would conventionally buy airline tickets. You would type in Atlantic City as your origin, LAX as your destination.

Then you’d see a connecting flight itinerary populated in the search results provided by American Airlines. There’s 2 flights, a flight from Atlantic City to Philly, and then Philly to Los Angeles. On the day of travel, you’d show up at the Atlantic City airport. You have a boarding pass for your Atlantic City to Philly flight. You clear security, check your baggage. But when you get to gate 7 at the Atlantic City airport, instead of a plane waiting to take you to Philadelphia, it’s a luxury motor coach. 

And the concept, is that it is in every way a connecting flight. We actually just think of ourselves as a different aircraft type if you’ll allow me to say that on airlinegeeks.com. 

It’s meant to emulate in every way connected between two airplanes. So when you arrive at the Philadelphia airport on the motor coach, you clear through the perimeter fence and you’re taken to a gate in the F concourse, where you can make a 40 minutes connection to your flight. 

AG: When the news came out, one of the first things that’s going to come up in people’s mind is the security aspect. So what is being done to ensure that it is secure and the same TSA standard is maintained in the bus environment? 

Sunde: From a security perspective, there’s really two things. One, we have a fairly comprehensive system that we worked on with the TSA for more than a year. To ensure that while the motor-coach has been in transit, none of the doors, windows and emergency exits have been opened while it drives on the highway.

Because you want to prove that you’ve had positive control over the passengers and their bags throughout the duration of the journey. You want to ensure there have been no unexpected stops. There’s, of course, a search that goes on before the vehicle enters the tarmac to make sure that there’s no unwanted physical cargo on the outside of the vehicle.

The second thing I’d say is there’s kind of a big, you know, safety valve or a safety button, if you will, in the sense that if anything doesn’t look right, or if the airport or TSA is uncomfortable with a specific arrival, we can always just take the passengers to the landside of the airport and re-screen their bags in Philadelphia if we wanted to. It’s obviously not our preference, but there’s kind of a built in backup plan here that everyone knows is available if anything seems a miss with an arrival. 

AG: Speaking of connecting time, air travel hasn’t been the most reliable lately. There are a lot of delays and cancellations but using a bus is not going to avoid all of those. There’s still going to be delays. So what is Landline doing to prevent the unpredictable factors and ensure that the services are reliable? 

Sunde: Sure. I would just say, in general, there’s less extreme volatility in ground transportation. Like, I mean, the air transportation business in general is extremely reliable. But I think you’ve seen this summer. When it does kind of go sideways, it can really be an extreme event, especially on the East coast where there’s so many airspace constraints.

So at Landline, we have the same problems. They’re just not quite as extreme. Like we don’t have to deal with air traffic control delays because we are operating on highways. We’re not subject to any third-party kind of metering with the number of arrivals and departures. We do have traffic, but so do taxiways at airports.

And, I’m sure you know that airlines have complicated planning and data analytics procedures that forecast the amount of block time that every flight should have. Depending on the time of the day you leave, the block time is going to be different. It’s no different at landline, the block time on the o6:25 AM departure out of Atlantic city is going to be longer than the 3 PM so we can account for traffic. 

Exactly. So you’re accounting for traffic and everything. It’s kind of like me opening Google maps. There’s traffic, it takes longer.

Yes, there’s pretty few places where that’s not a safe way to go. And remember, if you do get stuck in traffic, you probably, considering most of our customers are previously driving themselves, would have been stuck in that traffic in your car. At least now, you’re in the system so we can communicate with American that you’re going to be late and there’s going to be an accommodation made for you.

On Landline’s Future 

AG: Yeah, it’s a really good point. Um, so as for the service, as of now, it’s only Allentown and L. A. City to Philadelphia. That’s right. Looking to expand that service with American Airlines. And if other, on top of the American Airlines, I’m aware that you’re also partnered with United and with Sun Country. So are you looking to expand the service in any of those 2 ways? 

Sunde: So it’s our partners really are the ones making the capacity planning decisions. We’re really hopeful that we can prove ourselves as a great provider of secure multimodal connectivity over the next few months to TSA. I think that’s our goal, and I think we’re confident that if we do that, there’s a lot of markets in the U.S. where this makes a lot of sense. 

On Landline’s Service and Customer Experience

AG: So, as of now for all of your buses are 35 seaters for the TSA-approved services. Are you looking to change it up and operate buses with smaller or bigger capacity like airlines do for different demand? 

Sunde: Yeah, we operate 35 seats for American. In other parts of our network, we operate vehicles up to 48 seats, with the same vehicle type, just a different LOPA, or configuration. In Minnesota, we still do operate 12-seat passenger vans. So it depends on the market. I guess short answer to your question is yes, we are open to all different types of vehicles. It doesn’t have to be speed buses. 

AG: Okay. And, as we are AirlineGeeks, we have questions about, perhaps if you would, provide different classes on these buses. As I’m aware, right now, you only have one class, basically, people get on the bus, all economy or all business, if it will depends on how you look at it. But American’s network has different classes that’s being offered. There’s business, there’s economy, and business is pretty much on every single one of their planes. And as passengers are going to their network, connecting, would you see yourself maybe adding another class or perhaps have some sort of differentiation between different seats?

Sunde: Yeah, for sure. I mean it would be totally up to our partners, but we’re definitely capable of it. We have mocked up multi-class cabins before, just like an E-Jet or a large RJ with an offset aisle moving from a two-to-one to a two to two. So it’s definitely possible. I think we’re just in the early days of like demonstrating that this is a great concept. So I think people will get more creative with it as we grow and get more experienced.

AG: And could you be offering any onboard services in the future, such as a ‘bus attendant’, if you will, for the passengers? 

Sunde: Yeah, we actually have a little fun history in our first year of operation and we did have bus attendants pre-covid. But we ultimately determined it was it’s a little bit different to walk up and down the aisle on a vehicle than an airplane. So we probably wouldn’t go back to that for just for safety purposes. Our vehicles now have a self-service galley in the back that is available for our partners to stock if they so choose. 

AG: So what I’m getting is that you’re really flexible is what you can do in terms of capacity and services. It’s just up to your partners, the airlines, to decide what they want.

Sunde: That’s right. I think our customers work with us because we’re a team of almost exclusively ex-airline operators, so we have a lot of familiarity and understanding with what airlines are looking for in their partners, and that means we can have this conversation. We can talk about LOPAs and we can talk about kind of capability in a way that a lot of ground transportation providers can’t. 

On Pilot Shortage: 

American announced cuts to its network, including withdrawing services to three cities in 2022 citing pilot shortage. All of the routes cut were operated by Embraer 145, a 50-seater regional jet that Landline hopes to match with its service. 

Other carriers, including Skywest, Delta and United, cut flights as well due to pilot shortage, removing cites from their networks and leaving some cities without air service altogether. 

United’s CEO, whose company also partners with Landline, said that ‘we don’t have enough pilots to fly all the planes and the 50-seaters are at the bottom of that pile, and markets that rely on 50-seaters are the ones that are going to lose service.’ Landline has the potential to play a major role in these markets with its similar capacity and significantly lower cost of service. 

One of CommutAir’s Embraer E145XR aircraft at Washington Dulles Airport. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Craig Fischer)

The declining popularity of smaller regional aircraft is evident. Delta plans to phrase out their 50-seater CRJ200 entirely by the end of the summer of 2023, and nearly half of Embraer E-145s are parked or out of service as of June 2023. 

AirlineGeeks brought up Landline’s potential to relieve stress on airlines caused by pilot shortages, and here is what CEO David Sunde said: 

AG: Another issue that’s being talked about is a pilot shortage across the industry, which impacts the capacity that airlines have and can offer. Do you think Landline is a solution to the issue and what can Landline do differently?

Sunde: Absolutely. I mean, I think it’s more than just like a pilot shortage. I think if you look at it, the entire aviation supply chain is just constrained, right? Airports are constrained. Staffing at airports is constrained. The manufacturers are all having troubles delivering the number of aircraft that airlines have ordered.

So I think the whole supply chain is still emerging from like a post-COVID world, or maybe catching up to the incredible resurgence of demand. So whatever the constraint is, we provide something that kind of exists outside of that supply chain, and we provide seats that could be quickly added or subtracted when needed.

On the Industry

AG: I see. So we mentioned just now about Landline being one of the leading. In fact, as far as we’re concerned, one of the only providers of such connectivity and obviously right now the most outstanding, but do you expect more competition in this business? 

Sunde: You know, it’s always hard to say. To be honest with you, I don’t think about it a lot because, one, like I mentioned earlier, our biggest competitor already exists, which is you driving yourself, and the market size of people who drive themselves to the airport, even in a city, you know, as small as St. Cloud or Rochester, Minnesota or Duluth, is huge. It’s thousands of people per day. So maybe there will be a competitor at some point at the end of the day. It’s a huge market. I think it’s bigger than any airline probably appreciates.

And that’s entirely what we’re focused on is getting people out of their car because we’d much rather stimulate a really large new sector of the business that could support a lot of different operators than to try to take from others. 

Anthony Bang An

Author

  • Anthony Bang An

    Anthony is an airline enthusiast who also loves traveling. He grew up around the world from St. Louis to Singapore and now lives in Amsterdam. He loves long-haul flying and finds peace in the sound of engine cruising. Fresh out of high school, he aspires to be working in the aviation industry and share his passion for the sky. 

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