From May 10th's NY Times Business Section http://www.nytimes.com
"Shuttle Services Facing Hard Times
By EDWARD WONG
Airlines operating East Coast shuttles have traditionally courted travelers with all the zeal of a lovesick bachelor. They hand out free magazines, provide express check-in and sometimes shower frequent fliers with triple miles.
What is occasionally missing these days, though, are the planes.
Falling demand has prompted Delta Air Lines and US Airways to scale back their hourly weekday schedules for the first time in the decade that they have offered shuttle flights between Boston, New York and Washington. The first time, that is, other than immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Now, travelers sometimes must wait up to two hours for a flight. And though the airlines say that they still keep planes standing by to handle overflow crowds, Delta recently watered down its shuttle guarantee: passengers denied a seat because of overbooking are promised another flight within a half-hour, rather than 15 minutes.
On US Airways, meanwhile, economy-class passengers on some shuttle flights will lose three inches of legroom next month, as the airline begins using planes with first-class cabins that squeeze space in coach.
All this may signal the end of the golden age of the East Coast shuttles, a travel mainstay since Eastern Airlines, now defunct, first began running such flights in 1961. The airlines offering shuttle service, the passengers flying them and the amenities on board have changed over the years. But the shuttles' schedules and reliability generally stayed consistent. And during boom years, they have been among their operators' most profitable flights.
These days, though, shuttles with pared-down service have to compete for businesspeople who are migrating to tele- and video-conferencing and to Amtrak trains. For some loyal fliers, the attraction of the shuttles could be wearing thin.
"They should keep this concept of it being like a train," said John Shirey, a product manager for a credit card processing company who was waiting at La Guardia Airport on Wednesday evening for a US Airways shuttle to Boston. "If there's a seat when you show up, you get on. Taking out some flights during the day bothers me."
Kevin Joyce, an investment banker who was catching a shuttle to Washington that day at Logan Airport in Boston, agreed. "It's not as good as it used to be," he said. "Before, you could finish up your meeting and show up at the airport and never be more than 20 or 30 minutes from the next flight."
Delta and US Airways say they intend to return to hourly schedules next month. But they could drop those plans if travelers stay grounded. US Airways had said it would restore flights on May 3, but decided to extend its cutbacks.
The number of shuttle passengers has plummeted since 2000. About 380,000 people flew on Delta and US Airways shuttles in the first two months of this year, down 29 percent from the period three years ago, according to the government's Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
In April, Delta and US Airways cut weekday shuttle schedules as much as 25 percent. US Airways trimmed to 12, from 15, the number of daily flights on its New York-Boston and New York-Washington routes, eliminating departures at 9 a.m., 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. The airline cut its Washington-Boston weekday schedule to 12 daily flights by taking out two morning departures each way.
Delta began running shuttle flights every two hours rather than every hour from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays and Sundays to and from New York. (Delta's Washington-Boston service is not a shuttle operation.)
The oversupply of shuttle seats worsened in October when American Airlines, a unit of AMR, started its own shuttle flights serving the same three cities, though it uses smaller regional jets and offers fewer flights than the other airlines. American flew 34,300 passengers on its New York-Washington and New York-Boston shuttles in the first two months of the year.
"I think the shuttle market is ripe for a rethink, but the airlines are not good at rethinking," said Joe Brancatelli, an advocate for business travelers who writes an Internet column. "So they just cut back on service, and this makes people angry."
Services Facing Hard Times
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Stacy Ehrlich, a lawyer from Washington, said she and a colleague showed up at La Guardia Airport on Tuesday afternoon to catch the 3:30 Delta shuttle from New York to Boston, only to find it had been cut from the schedule. They decided to take the 2:30 flight, even though her colleague needed to participate in a conference call at 2 p.m. He used his cellphone for the call as he boarded the plane, she said. "We kept asking, `What happened to the 3:30?' " Ms. Ehrlich said. "We just assumed the flights ran every hour.
Even before April, the airlines had been canceling an increasing number of shuttle flights, though they did not make wholesale changes to their weekday schedules. In the first two months of this year, Delta had 1,498 departures and US Airways 1,490 departures on the New York-Washington route, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. For Delta, that was a 19 percent drop from 2001 levels; for US Airways, it represented a 16 percent drop.
Amy Kudwa, a spokeswoman for US Airways, attributed the decline at her airline to the elimination of 6 a.m. departures from the weekend schedule and to bad weather one weekend in February. Catherine Stengel, a Delta spokeswoman, said that after Sept. 11, Delta began canceling more weekend flights because traffic was less "robust."
Mike Bell, Delta's vice president for schedule planning, said that Delta was trying to manage overcapacity by switching all its shuttle flights from Boeing 737-800 aircraft, which mostly have 155 seats, to 737-300's, which have 120 seats.
"There's always concern any time you roll back service," he said. "You're concerned about failing to capture your customers."
US Airways is also switching some of its shuttle operation to 737-300's, but in a manner that will leave many passengers with less legroom. Starting in June, it will use the two-cabin aircraft on its Washington-Boston route, Ms. Kudwa said, instead of single-cabin Airbus A-319's. The 737's will have a dozen first-class seats with three more inches of legroom than in coach class in the Airbus jets; the 114 economy-class seats will have three inches less.
"It's unfortunate they're going to get more crowded," said Eric Anderson, a six-foot computer networking consultant from Maine who was catching a shuttle from New York to Boston on Wednesday.
Both Delta and US Airways have policies aimed at ensuring that any traveler who arrives at a shuttle gate shortly before departure will get on a flight promptly.
Since September, US Airways has promised that shuttle passengers who arrive at the gate within 10 minutes of a scheduled departure and cannot get on the flight will be put on a plane within a half-hour or receive a $200 travel voucher.
Until recently, Delta had a more generous policy. If a passenger arrived within five minutes of departure and was denied a seat, Delta would put the passenger on a backup plane within 15 minutes or provide a free one-way shuttle ticket. In March, Delta stretched the wait to 30 minutes and said the guarantee applied only on nonholiday weekdays.
Problems from overbooking are now made worse by the cutbacks in departure schedules. If no backup planes are available, lines for later flights can stretch to hundreds of people when there is a gap of two hours between departures. At some points in the last month, shuttle terminals at La Guardia and Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington have resembled refugee camps for the laptop-and-cellphone set.
Even outside of those chaotic times, shuttle loyalists have bristled at the increasingly cramped flights during rush hours.
The schedule cutbacks "make it more crowded in the late afternoon, early evening hours, like now," said Michael Hennelly, a publicist at an association of copper manufacturing companies, as he stepped off a Delta shuttle at La Guardia on Wednesday evening. "It'll be easier when they add more flights back."
Outside the terminal, Mr. Hennelly joined a long line of men and women in dark suits waiting for cabs. The sun slipped low, and some of the last shuttle jets of the day lifted off over Flushing Bay. There were fewer and fewer of them traversing the skies."
"Airlines are cutting back shuttle service out of La Guardia, leading to potential disruptions for passengers like Matthew Kelly."