About the only business many motorcoach operators have these days involves moving military personnel to and from bases, airports and ships. And they really appreciate the military transport business, even if it only lasts a day or two and involves as few as one or two buses.
“Before the pandemic, running two buses wouldn’t have excited us like it does now,” said Tom McCaughey, owner of Flagship Trailways in Rhode Island, referring to the company’s occasional trips transporting National Guard personnel.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Defense revamped its Military Bus Program to include a new application process for gaining DOD certification and reopened the program to new applicants. It was renamed the DOD Bus Program. Operators that already were certified under the program had to reapply using the new application process.
‘Our only revenue’
However, when the coronavirus pandemic essentially shut down the motorcoach industry in March, military moves by bus also dried up. Troop movement has begun picking up in recent weeks, giving DOD-certified operators the chance to get a few of their buses back on the road.
“It’s all we’re doing right now, and it’s not a lot,” said John Grzywacz of CIT Signature Transportation in Iowa, who also is a member of the United Motorcoach Association board. “It’s our only revenue.”
Kathy Houghton, account executive and tour director for Delaware Express in Newark, Delaware, said military trips are about the only business the company has. Besides the travel and tourism slowdown, the company is losing business because a university football team it usually transports canceled the fall season and a school district it normally runs 20 buses a day for is still closed.
“We only ran six buses the whole month of July,” Houghton said.
Delaware Express recently won a contract to pick up 128 soldiers at Dover Air Force Base upon their return from Kuwait and drive them to meet their families.
“Military moves are few and far between, but we appreciate it when we can get the work,” Houghton said.
DOD-certified operators point to providing military transportation as one of the essential services the motorcoach industry provides to the country. It also helps justify the industry’s request for federal grants and loans to assist operators struggling to stay in business during the pandemic-caused slowdown in group travel.
Donna Johnson, manager of the DOD Bus Program, said there are more than 340 operators certified under the program, about the same number as before the new application process took effect earlier this year. However, she said because of travel restrictions caused by the pandemic, the volume of military-related travel is down approximately 75% from this time last year.
“Travel is beginning to resume, but nothing close to the pre-pandemic levels,” Johnson said.
‘Above and beyond’
The bus program, operated by the Defense Travel Management Office, ensures that commercial bus, van, and limousine companies offering charter service provide safe vehicles that consistently meet DOD standards of service. Certified carriers offer ground transportation to individual and group DOD passengers, including members of the military, recruits, DOD civilians, and personnel from other agencies that collaborate with DOD.
Those trips have changed since the pandemic began, for safety reasons, with the DOD asking that operators follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on cleaning, sanitizing and mask-wearing. Some military moves involve running buses that are half-full or less, with social distancing determined by the group.
Harold Lewis Jr., general manager of Lewis Coaches Inc. in New Orleans, said that when the company recently transported troops back and forth from their barracks to their ship as they prepared to set sail, it had to social distance the passengers.
“We had 14 or 15 people on 56-seat coaches,” Lewis said.
But operators say the DOD doesn’t offer a list of specific requirements for most trips beyond the CDC guidelines, which they already have been exceeding. They have been installing hand-sanitizing stations on their vehicles, leaving seats open when requested and cleaning buses between trips.
Many operators also have adopted UMA’s AssurClean program. Johnson, who participated in meetings of the UMA subcommittee that developed AssurClean, said she likes the program but that the DOD hasn’t officially endorsed it.
“I think we, as an industry, are going above and beyond CDC guidelines,” said Grzywacz of CIT Signature Transportation.
Johnson said preliminary data indicates that there has been an overall increase in cost per military move because of the need for social distancing.
“Social distancing requirements may mean more buses are required for a move request,” she said, thereby adding to the cost of the move.
That means that operators have to be careful not to underbid for trips requiring multiple buses. Otherwise, even though they might be paid more per trip for troop transportation than they were for similar pre-pandemic moves, some of that could be offset by the cost of running several buses.
“In the end, the cost of operating a coach is the same,” no matter how many passengers are on board, Lewis said.