For millions of travelers who live along the Interstate 95 corridor – Amtrak is the quickest, easiest, least stressful, most productive and often cheapest mode to get from Connecticut to downtown Washington. The same is true in many other communities nationwide.
But is “airline creep” working its way into Amtrak’s policies, pricing, fees and service? It’s a reasonable question, since the former CEO of Northwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines is now the CEO of the nation’s train line. He was appointed by Amtrak’s board in July 2017. Three months later former Continental and Northwest executive Tim Griffin was named Amtrak’s chief marketing officer; then an ex-Northwest and Delta officer was tapped as Amtrak’s chief safety officer. Other former Delta execs now head up the “passenger experience” and “product development & customer experience” departments.
To be sure, many rail riders no doubt are happy with several recent innovations, including new meal options, upgraded Wi-Fi and even Dunkin’ Donuts coffee onboard. But what’s interesting is that Amtrak has been defining itself as NOT being an airline, even while emulating one. In September 2017, shortly after Anderson’s arrival, the rail line launched a new marketing campaign entitled “Break the Travel Quo” that dissed air travel by touting Amtrak’s ample legroom and freedom to use electronic devices with no “airplane mode.” The campaign took aim at airlines by specifically assailing other travel “rules, restrictions, additional fees and shrinking legroom.” And that drumbeat has continued; just last month Amtrak posted an ad on Facebook touting “2 free checked bags” and “0 middle seats.”
Such advantages are what made Amtrak the travel mode of choice for so many. A report from the Congressional Research Service in September 2017 titled “Amtrak: Overview” found the following: “By some measures, Amtrak is performing as well as or better than it ever has in its 47-year history. For example, it is carrying a near-record number of passengers, and its passenger load factor and its operating ratio are at the upper end of their historic ranges. On the other hand, Amtrak’s ridership is barely growing at a time when other transportation modes are seeing ridership increases.”
However, that passenger load factor – the percentage of occupied seats – has been inching up from the 51 percent mark in last year’s report. The latest stats, which reflect the year to date through July, indicate loads are at 58 percent for both the national network and its crown jewel, the Northeast Corridor. Of course, such news is a paradox, since fuller trains are good news for executives, investors and even taxpayers, but bad news for passengers in crowded train cars. That said, the typical domestic airline cabin is both more crowded and more profitable. Average passenger loads for the domestic airline industry haven’t been below 58 percent since 1977; what’s more, there are no middle seats on Amtrak – yet.
“The concerns about changes being made under Richard Anderson’s regime at Amtrak are real,” says Charlie Leocha, president of nonprofit Travelers United. “The railroad experience is moving in the direction of airline service.” He’s echoed by Kevin Mitchell, a frequent Amtrak rider and chairman of the Business Travel Coalition: “I believe that Amtrak and its customers are not faring well under the guidance of former airline executives. After the radical consolidation of the U.S. airline industry, the current crop of executives … were schooled in increasing confusing fees and shrinking seats.”
Here’s a summation of the issues that most concern customers who want Amtrak to be an alternative to airline service, not a duplication of it.
• Pricing/discounts. Amtrak recently revamped its standard pricing reductions. As Leocha notes, “Amtrak no longer offers discounts to veterans, students and AAA members, and the minimum age of eligibility for the senior discount was raised to 65 from 62.” What’s more, that senior discount is now 10 percent rather than 15 percent. Instead, Amtrak has introduced temporary reductions, such as a four-day sale for seniors and a three-day sale for students.
Another frequent rider, Lauren from Boston, notes: “My real issue is that under the new CEO, Amtrak, a government entity that receives taxpayer money, is offering large corporate discounts while at the same time cutting back on discounts previously offered to seniors and students.” John M., a rail customer in California, adds, “I’m a veteran and a taxpayer, and my tax dollars help go to Amtrak. But they cut the (veterans) discount. Just when I need it most.”
The rail line also introduced a more complex pricing option in May, by launching 25 percent off on reservations booked 21 days before travel. The three-week advance fare is one of the most common and complex pricing “buckets” employed by airlines.
• Ticketing. Lisa Beth, who travels frequently from New York City to visit family in Baltimore, has indeed seen changes in the last year, and some are positive changes: “I noticed a few months ago they reupholstered the seats and made them much more comfortable, what you would want on an airplane.” But she worries that stricter policies and fees are creeping in, and says, “I remember in the 1980s and 1990s, if I missed a train I would just take the next one. I had complete flexibility. Now it’s gotten more stringent. I noticed recently that if I canceled I could get an eVoucher, but if I wanted my money back I had to pay a fee. I worry that the rules will become even more restrictive.” Leocha agrees, stating Amtrak’s cancellation policy is now more “airline-like,” with penalties for most reservations canceled 24 hours after booking.
In addition, these penalties hit riders the hardest at peak travel times, just as the airlines do. As Mitchell points out, “A public, taxpayer-funded service should be cost-based and not discriminatory to those who subsidize it. Would the Internal Revenue Service get away with higher fees for citizens paying online at peak call times?”
• Seat comfort. In July 2017, just as Anderson was taking over, train junkies felt a shiver when they read here and elsewhere that the outgoing Amtrak CEO stated at the National Press Club that seats might start getting tighter: “We are looking at doing some creative things. There’ll be some other things that don’t make it quite as comfortable.” Those remarks prompted Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to urge the rail line not to start on the “slippery slope” of “packing people in like sardines.”
Amtrak’s coach seats currently offer width of 23 inches and legroom “pitch” of 39 inches between seats, and much more in premium classes. Consider that the economy/coach sections of the Big Three Airlines – American, Delta and United – on workhorse Boeing 737s in domestic service offer pitch of 30 to 31 inches and width of 16.6 to 17.8 inches. Amtrak continues to offer much roomier seats, but the stats aren’t on Amtrak.com anymore, and don’t bother asking Julie, “Your Virtual Assistant,” because she’s not saying.
• Seating policies. Several riders have noted Amtrak offers another big advantage over the airlines: more liberal seating rules. As one mother of two young children notes, “I wouldn’t want assigned seats when I’ve got my kids with me.” In fact, some customers suggest that just as Amtrak has Quiet Cars popular with business travelers, there should be dedicated zones at no cost for travelers with special needs, seniors and families with young kids. There’s no question this would be a huge improvement over airline travel, since the DOT has failed to implement a 2016 congressional mandate for domestic air carriers to allow families with children under 12 to sit together at no additional cost.
Beth also loves the ability to get up and move around on a train – even the ability to move seats entirely: “Last week there was a woman on Bluetooth conducting a conference call right next to me. So I finally got up and moved. You can’t do that on an airplane.” Obviously switching seats won’t be an option if passengers are given designated seats. For those who question if this scenario is likely, it’s worth noting that in May Amtrak announced an assigned seating option for First passengers on Acela trains.
• Baggage. Currently, the rules for what you can tote onboard Amtrak are much more liberal than any airline’s: Each passenger is allowed two personal items at 25 pounds each and two carry-ons at 50 pounds each, for a total of 150 pounds. Technically, there are restrictions on overweight bags and excess bags, but even the most frequent rail travelers can’t recall much enforcement.
But some frequent riders quoted on social media and rail blogs are worried the train line may tinker with this key advantage it has over airlines. As one notes: “The good thing is, you can fit your bag over your seat on Amtrak the way you can’t in an airplane. It would be really bad to start having fees for bags.”
A good barometer will be if Amtrak begins enforcing its existing baggage restrictions. As one anonymous rider in Chicago says, “It’s mission creep. Like changing the rules on the (Guest Rewards) program.” This customer noted Amtrak recently ended its partnership with Starwood Hotels.
Time will tell …
The next year may well determine how all those former airline executives intend to reshape Amtrak. Leocha believes the elimination of customer service agents at some stations is an ominous sign. “We are seeing the worst of airline customer service issues being introduced to the railroad experience,” he says. “The Amtrak Board of Directors and Congress have the final say on these changes, unlike the airlines where changes are made by executives with the needs of investors put squarely in front of the needs of consumers.”