Tire shortage forces operators to find creative ways to keep buses rolling

As motorcoach operators gradually pull away from the pandemic-caused economic roadblock, they still face a potential speed bump caused by the prolonged shortage of a crucial component – tires.

The tire shortage has forced operators to find creative ways of making sure they have enough supply to keep their buses rolling as the industry recovers and travel demand rises.  

“The whole industry is experiencing a tire shortage, and it could last at least through the end of the year,” said Bill Kaiser, President of Motorcoach Tire Sales, which sells tires for motorcoaches, school buses and transit buses. “The two to three weeks it used to take to deliver tires has morphed into two to three months.”

The shortage is caused by a variety of factors, including disruptions in the global supply chain aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. A slowdown in overseas shipping and a shortage of truck drivers have resulted in bottlenecks in the delivery of raw materials and the distribution of tires.

“There have been some manufacturing constraints concerning raw materials, but the biggest hiccup we’ve experienced involves distribution – getting tires from manufacturers to customers,” said C.J. Messmer, Director of Sales Operations for Mobility Solutions at Bridgestone Americas. “We’re lucky we are producing tires in the U.S.”

EXPO presentation

Both Kaiser and Messmer talked about tire issues during a Feb. 24 panel discussion during the 2022 UMA Motorcoach EXPO in Long Beach, California.

Another factor contributing to the shortage stems from the tariffs slapped on Chinese goods a few years ago, resulting in a significant decline in imported tires from China, which had accounted for 40% of the commercial tire market. “When importing Chinese tires became a limited opportunity, that forced trucking companies that utilized those tires to find other sources,” Kaiser said.

That put pressure on some tire manufacturers to prioritize making high-volume truck tires, which account for 98% of the commercial tire market, over small-volume motorcoach tires that make up 2% of the market.

Purchasing strategies

Kaiser recommends a variety of strategies that motorcoach operators should follow to assure that they will be able to stock enough tires to keep their buses on the road. They include ordering well in advance because of delivery delays, and seeking alternate tire suppliers and brands.

“Operators that have been comfortable using one supplier or brand are having to pivot to other manufacturers,” he said. 

David Moody, general manager of Holiday Companies in Randleman, North Carolina, said he was forced to try a different brand of tire when delivery of his preferred brand, Pirelli, was delayed. 

“Because Pirellis were not available, we had to switch tire brands to Yokohama tires,” said Moody, UMA’s incoming board chairman. “To date, the Yokohamas have performed pretty well for us, but we plan to switch back to Pirelli when they are available.”

Many operators were forced to place some or all of their buses out of service during the height of the pandemic-caused industry slowdown, and many of them are still sitting idle. Kaiser recommends taking the good tires off the idled buses and using them on coaches still on the road to help alleviate the shortage. He also suggests inspecting spare tires, which often have older Department of Transportation dates, and using them before they reach six years from their manufacturing date, the age when replacement is recommended. The older spares could temporarily replace moderately worn tires with newer DOT dates.

Kaiser also recommends that operators have a “Plan B” or “Plan C” in place to avoid making panic buys. “Stockpiling tires is an option, but it’s probably the last option,” he said.

But that is exactly what some operators have done in anticipation of future shortages, with some success. 

Matt Dance leads a panel discussion about tire maintenance and best safety practices with Bill Kaiser and C.J. Messmer. (Photo by Jill Kelly/Terrapin Blue)

“We decided early to stockpile tires based on news of a future supply chain issue coming across the Pacific, which is how our brand of tires traveled to us,” said Brian Annett, co-owner of Annett Bus Lines in Sebring, Florida. “We bought over 100 tires early in the COVID downturn and have asked to remain on the order list for consecutive shipments. Even with that strategy in place we have had to put more than one brand of tire on the road, something we have not done in the past.”

Annett said that despite having to deal with delayed shipment times on bus parts in general, “Fortunately, for us, tires thus far have not slowed us down.”

Brian Scott, President of Escot Bus Lines in Largo, Florida, said he is glad he decided to order a large supply of tires last fall to get through the end of the year. He said he “recently purchased more tires in bulk as they were available. We are OK on tires for now.”

Leasing options

Motorcoach operators also have the option of leasing tires, which has both advantages and disadvantages. Under lease agreements, operators pay for the tires based on their monthly mileage instead of paying for them up front.

Operators that prefer buying their tires say leasing would require them to commit to one supplier for the lease term, and that having to track and report the mileage every month for all their buses adds to their paperwork load.

On the plus side, advocates of leasing say it allows operators to spread their tire payments out over time. And, during the pandemic shutdown, they didn’t have to make any tire payments while their buses were out of service because they didn’t accrue any mileage. 

Messmer of Bridgestone said the vast majority of the manufacturer’s customers are under long-term lease agreements. “We are committed to our long-term customers,” he said, adding that such arrangements make it easier for Bridgestone to accurately forecast customer demand.

“Forecasts call for a significant increase in demand this year into next year,” Messmer said. “We’re working a lot more hands-on with our customers, visiting them regularly and recommending ways they can get more life out of their tires.”

If the motorcoach industry continues recovering this year as travel demand increases, it is unclear whether supplies of tires and other bus parts will be able to keep pace.

Dennis Streif, of Vandalia Bus Lines in Caseyville, Illinois, said he is hoping the supply of the tire brands he uses will be plentiful by spring or summer. “However, I am not real optimistic,” he said. “Right now, I have no contingency plan if there is still difficulty getting them this summer.”


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