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2014: 360,327
2013: 330,818

Train vs Plane, Traveling on the Eastcoast – Guest Blog

This a guest blog from Vinay Bhaskara looking how airline and train transportation has changed over time on the east coast. This is his story:

One of my more “avgeeky” hobbies is looking at the Form 41 data; specifically the T100. The T100D Segment, which I’m going to be looking at today, gives us data about every domestic flight operated by all carriers, both US owned, and international.

Now the T100 database at the DOT goes back to 1990, so I decided to take a look at how a specific route looked like in 1990, and then in 2009 (the second to last full year of data available). After a few moments of debate, I decided on New York La Guardia to Washington Reagan – one component of the venerable Northeast Shuttle.

The La Guardia to Reagan route is still one of the most traversed air routes in North America, comprising 423,483 passengers last year. There are only two airlines on the route; US Airways, and Delta. In 1990, it was the legendary Pan Am who flew the route in lieu of Delta. That being said, here are some of the stats I found most interesting:

* Capacity on the route fell by 49% and passengers dropped 50%. So in 19 years, the airlines have halved their capacity on the route, and half as many passengers are flying the route.

* Despite the precipitous drop in capacity and demand, the average number of daily flights only dropped from 31 to 24.

* This corresponds with the average aircraft size falling from 159 seats in 1990, to 103 seats in 2009. Of course this probably has a lot to do with the fact that Delta is running E175s every hour, but still.

* Delta had a load factor of 40% last year. I hope they have lots of high yielding passengers, because they sure as heck aren’t filling many seats.

The following chart shows how the capacity and passengers carried stacked up for each airline:

The next two charts show the corresponding market shares of the different airlines. Isn’t it surprising that Delta (who replaced Pan Am on the route in 1991) lost so much market share?

Why are the passenger numbers dropping so much? In a word: time. The time it takes to fly between New York and DC has grown so much, that flying has become far less attractive, especially when compared to other options like the Acela Express.

Still skeptical?

Let’s take our average businessman, and say that he lives 20 minutes away from both Penn Station and La Guardia (I’m not sure there is such a point, but work with me here). So we start with that. Then, the Acela Express takes an average of 3 hours to reach its destination, and bam, you’re in downtown DC at Union Station.

The flight on the other hand is much more complex. After arriving at the airport, you usually have to budget time for security. I’d estimate it to be 15 minutes at the Marine Air Terminal (Delta Shuttle) during peak times, and 40 minutes at US Airways’ terminal during the same time period. So let’s assume that it takes around 30 minutes for security. Then, you want to be at the gate around 25 minutes before your flight; which brings you to a total of 75 minutes before you even board the flights. Now, the average ramp to ramp time, which is how long it takes for the plane to go from gate to gate was 73 minutes last year. Once you arrive at the airport, we can figure around 10 minutes for disembarking and going to the taxi stand/limo pickup. From Reagan National, it usually takes around 25 minutes to get to downtown DC by car. So let’s tally up the total travel time for each method.

Acela Express
Drive to Penn Station- 20 minutes
Train Travel Time- 180 minutes
Total Travel Time- 200 minutes

US Airways and Delta Shuttles
Drive to La Guardia- 20 minutes
Security at Airport- 30 minutes
Time at Gate Prior to Departure- 25 minutes
Plane Travel Time- 73 minutes
Time to Get out of Reagan Airport- 10 minutes
Drive to Downtown DC- 25 minutes
Total Travel Time- 183 minutes

Plus, the service on the Acela Express is much better. Acela Express- Spacious seats, in-seat power, WiFi, a newspaper, and gourmet meals. US Airways/Delta Shuttle- Cramped cabin, snack boxes, free drinks, and a newspaper. You decide….. Which one would/do you choose?

Vinay Bhaskara is an aviation analyst and history buff based in the United States (New Jersey). In addition to his analyst’s position at Aspire Aviation, he also writes for the Bangalore Aviation blog, and does a podcast on Asian aviation with Innovation Analysis Group (IAG). He can be reached at @TheABVinay on Twitter, as well as at vinay@bangaloreaviation.com, on Facebook , and via Linkedin.