Airlines and railways worked very closely together in the 1930s to transport passengers and mail. Aircraft technology advancement turned the once complementary partners into competitors from the 1950s onwards. This post discusses the air-rail partnerships over time and how they can maximize through partnerships in the future.
Air Rail Partnership
Growth in key population areas facilitated the partnership between airlines and railways in the 1930s.
In the United States, for example, many airports were located adjacent to railway stations along key corridors to transfer passengers from one mode to another. This is essential for both passenger, mail and cargo service from coast to coast as long range aircraft technology had not been invented at that point in time. The coast to coast trip could take up to 48 hours and included many stops along many states.
Non-stop coast to coast service was introduced by 1950s by American Airlines and Trans World Airlines which started a chain of event for passengers to replace rail service with airlines for longer distance travel. It did not help that the first automated airline reservation systems introduced by American Airlines in the 1940s did not have an interface to issue tickets with other transportation modes. The lack of common interface between different transportation modes continues to exist today for a majority of airlines.
In the 1980s, some airlines started to rethink how it could replace short haul local flights which were costly to operate with something less expensive while keeping existing connection opportunities. In 1981, German airline Lufthansa came up with the idea to replace Düsseldorf Airport (DUS) and Frankfurt am Main (FRA) with rail transport with a partnership with Deutsche Bundesbahn. This train operator retrofitted existing train stocks with seats featured on Lufthansa’s own DC-10 and a grey-yellow livery.
Along with Lufthansa and Deutsche Bahn, here are some other examples of airline and railway partnerships today:
- Austrian > ÖBB
- Air France > SNCF
- SWISS > SBB
- KLM > Thalys
- Singapore > First Great Western
- British Airways > First Great Western
- United Airlines > Amtrak
How to Maximize – Ticketing
One ticket solution plays a large role in achieving success between these partnerships. Many of them stated above allow passengers to issue one ticket featuring both air and rail segments. The rail segments are usually local and short-distance (within 2.5 hours) while the air segments typically include medium to long haul flights (more than 3 hours). Airlines and railways participate in revenue sharing when a ticket is issued with both transport modes.
How to Maximize – Connection
Schedule coordination is vital in maximizing connection opportunities between different city pairs. The options are displayed in real time on reservation screens of airlines and railways. Considerations must be given to allow passengers enough time to connect between different modes. They include:
- Distance and time required to transfer
- Security and immigration requirements on a domestic to international or vice versa itinerary
- Check-in requirements for baggages at airport and train stations
How Air Rail Connection Works Source: Lufthansa
Connection opportunities become more important during controllable or uncontrollable events causing flight cancellation or delays. For example, during significant weather events, United Airlines passengers has the extra flexibility to rebook on Amtrak from Newark to Philadelphia or Washington DC when air travel is disrupted. This can be done seamlessly through various channels (phone, mobile application, online, direct with United Airlines ticketing agent at the airport or selected train station).
How to Maximize – Passenger Experience
A streamline and easy to follow experience drives likability and repeated engagement. Successful air and rail partnerships involve a rethink of the entire passenger experience from booking to on board and arrival. The initial learning curve could drive passengers away from integrating modes of transportation. This can be managed through social media engagement and branding exercises.
Both airports and railways need to highlight key benefits from combining modes of transportation into one itinerary. They may include:
- One stop solution for ticketing and payment – Beyond time and coordinated scheduling, the partnership needs to prove that there are benefits in buying within one ticket (e.g. seamless travel, cost savings, protection from disruptions, etc).
- Consistent signage and wayfinding – Connection must be easily accessible and located. Confusion drives anxiety. This may include clear signage on trains to provide the right information on any airline code shares.
- Frequent user benefits – Depending on the status and class of service, passengers can enjoy additional benefits such as access to premium lounges, use of priority lanes, additional baggage allowance, additional points earning opportunities, etc.
- Direct International – Employees must be trained to engage passengers’ questions on the connections. Anxiety increases if passengers feel that they are being “ping-pong” between different parties.
- Technology – Integration between online and mobile technologies between parties to ensure that key information such as time table, ticket managing and real time tracking are consistent.
The future is bright for more partnerships between airlines and railways. The following is a list of considerations for improved viability for this type of partnership:
- Other modes of transportation – While in its infancy, Lufthansa opened its reservation system to allow passengers to include other modes of transportation (e.g. express bus and helicopter) in their itinerary. This expansion will be adopted by other airlines as a competitive advantage in offering more choices. Common currency allowing passengers to use a single form to pay for services on board many modes of transportation (e.g. using an airline’s miles to pay for services or products on different modes of transportation) would increase engagement.
- There are many untapped marketing opportunities to build brand awareness and drive sales. EVA Air, known for their Hello Kitty themed aircrafts (News) collaborated with the Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) and Sanrio Taiwan to create a similar concept livery used on the high speed train route between Taipei’s Shulin Station and Taitung’s Zhiben Station. It would have been great if EVA Air and TRA extend brand awareness by 1. enable a one ticket solution for the “Hello Kitty” journey and 2. coordinate product offering to streamline costs. Coordination with the airport would also be beneficial.
- Airlines need to explore various technology challenges to integrate with other modes of transportation (e.g. ticket management and passenger experience management) before engaging in partnerships. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) introduced New Distribution Capability (NDC) which will solve many of the problems faced in product distribution which will improve “product differentiation and time-to-market, access to full and rich air content and finally, transparent shopping experience.”
- Anxiety can be reduced with improved content management across various channels (e.g. Lufthansa passengers would feel more at ease if there are videos teaching them how to connect between flight to train at different airports).
- Different levels of government, airlines and railways need to work together to form a cohesive solution to connect population across a city, region and country while maintaining competition, choice and improved passenger experience. This vision will drive future infrastructure spending.