Delta Air Lines' decision to add first-class cabins to its shuttle flights between New York, Boston, and Washington sounds like good news. It's not-it's another sign that the East Coast shuttles are a dying breed.
Delta, which says its up-front sections will be ready by the end of November, is matching a move made several years ago by the US Airways Shuttle, the distant progeny of the once-omnipotent Eastern Air Lines Shuttle. Although Delta didn't say so, its rationale is the same too. The shuttles have become less profitable, busy, and important; configuring the aircraft with standard first- and coach-class cabins means that the planes can be moved around the carriers' entire flight systems.
Few air routes have their own dedicated aircraft, of course, so what's the big deal? This move comes on the heels of other ego-bruising shuttle realities. Several years ago, both carriers dumped their service guarantees: Show up on time to fly and you'll get a seat, even if they have to roll out a plane just for you. Discontinuing that relic of the Eastern Shuttle's glory days allowed the carriers to strip several backup aircraft from the shuttle fleet. The carriers have also switched to smaller aircraft that carry fewer passengers per flight and fly less frequently than ever, especially during off hours and weekends.
It's remarkable that we are talking about a declining shuttle market when New York bankers, Washington politicians, and East Coast media elites are busily remaking the underpinning of the nation's economy. Fifteen years ago, aviation journalist Barbara Petersen called the shuttles "the fabric that bound together the Northeast elite, a democratic institution that treated celebrities and working stiffs alike with the same legendary indifference."
But the myth of the shuttle has run smack into numeric realities. In their late-1980s heyday, the two shuttles served a total of about five million flyers a year. As recently as 2000, about 4.7 million passengers piled on board. Yet only 3.2 million customers flew a US Airways or Delta Shuttle flight in the 12 months ended in June.
Where have all the flyers gone? Some have been replaced by technology. Email, PDFs, and video teleconferencing mean fewer couriers and low-level executives are needed to shuttle documents around. The superelite have moved to private jets, making New York to Washington one of the most popular routes for corporate aircraft.
Others have moved to alternate airlines and airports. From the moment that Eastern created the concept of hourly, no-reservations-needed flights in 1961, the Northeast Corridor shuttles have been limited to three airports: New York's LaGuardia, Boston's Logan, and Washington's Reagan National. But Continental Airlines has won over New Jersey business travelers who prefer using Newark Airport. American Airlines and JetBlue Airways fly from John F. Kennedy Airport. And many Washington-area flyers find Dulles International more convenient than Reagan National Airport.
You'll also find a lot of former Shuttle flyers on the Acela, Amtrak's eight-year-old high-speed rail service that connects Boston, New York, and Washington, with intermediate stops in Philadelphia and Baltimore. Acela now carries more than three million passengers a year. Its traffic climbed 7.7 percent during the first 10 months of Amtrak's current fiscal year, and the service accounts for more than 25 percent of the railroad's total nationwide revenue.
I'm not nostalgic about planes or airlines, but I miss the Shuttle's glory days. Like most of its riders, I have used the Shuttle for profit (I was a New York-based writer for the defunct Washington Star) and pleasure (a two-year affair with a woman in Washington). I've flown the shuttles when they were run by Trump (he equipped aircraft with faux-marble lavs and gilt paint) and Pan Am, which moved its flights into La Guardia's Depression-era Marine Air Terminal. I loved New York Air, which ran a predecessor of the Delta Shuttle, and handed us bright-red nosh bags filled with bagels and miniature cheesecakes.
I even miss being rained on in the tumbledown hangar that Eastern used as its passenger "terminal" and weaving my way through the rabbit warren of corridors in the old National Airport. In the halcyon days of 2,000 frequent-flyer miles for each Shuttle flight, I earned enough for many free first-class tickets to Hawaii. And I miss Charlie Rangel. I always seemed to end up sitting next to the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee on flights back to New York. (He had the best scarves and cashmere coats!)
But I also should tell you: I'm writing this on a train hurtling toward Washington. I haven't flown the Shuttle in years.
The Fine Print.
More than a dozen bus lines-some with familiar names like Greyhound and Trailways, others with a 21st-century pedigree like Megabus and Boltbus-now compete with the shuttles too. The most notable is LimoLiner. It runs lavishly appointed motor coaches configured with just 28 reclining leather seats. It has WiFi, worktables, flowers in the lavatory, and an onboard attendant. It travels between the Hilton hotel in New York's Rockefeller Center and the Hilton Back Bay in Boston. The one-way fare is about $90.