Susquehanna Trailways struggling, waiting to get back to business
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the state of Pennsylvania and most of the nation have had to adapt to ever-changing protocols to mitigate the spread of the deadly virus, forcing many local businesses to close or restrict hours or operations.
Those businesses providing entertainment and transportation have been particularly hit hard.
Susquehanna Trailways, with offices in Avis and Williamsport, provides transportation for school districts and their athletic teams, as well as tours and chartered trips.
The firm has basically seen its business go away.
“When they (the state) shut the schools down, when they shut the colleges down and the cities down … our life stopped,” Amy Brooks, Susquehanna Trailways’ director of sales, said. “The impact is completely negative.”
The virus hit at what normally is the busiest time of year for the transportation company.
March 15 was Susquehanna’s last charter trip and it was to the Philadelphia Flower Show, Brooks said.
End of the year school trips, local sports competition were all then canceled and Susquehanna had to essentially cease operations at that point.
Virtually all of its employees were impacted.
The business, which is widely known for their motor-coach buses, mini-coach buses and school buses employs about 200 people.
That number, she said, is a combination of daily school bus drivers and motorcoach staff.
“Our peak is nine months of year when we’re operating school buses. We have 120 days from about the middle of March to the middle of June when every school is looking to do end-of-year class trips. That’s exactly when this hit us. Kids were coming back to college from spring break. We were ready to begin the trips,” Brooks said.
“We have no income,” she added. “At the busiest time of year, when we never have enough buses or drivers to move everyone, we were shut down completely.”
While Susquehanna has received funds to protect its payroll and basic operations amid the pandemic, most of that money “is long since gone,” Brooks said.
Now, the privately owned company — like other shuttered businesses and those who lost their jobs — is waiting for more federal and state help.
Brooks said the company is hopeful Congress will pass the multi-billion dollar Coronavirus Economic Relief for Transportation Services (CERTS) Act to provide funding to different transportation businesses.
While she is unsure if Susquehanna Trailways will actually receive CERTS funding if it’s passed, she remains hopeful.
“We are trying everything that we can to make sure that our legislators are hearing our voice and making them understand that this is not a short term problem,” she said.
Susquehanna and other transportation companies are enlisting the help of the Pennsylvania Bus Association.
CERTS could offer grants and other forms of financial assistance to motorcoach, tour, charter and related transportation companies.
Patricia Cowley is executive director of the Pennsylvania Bus Association.
In a letter to the editor on Page A4 in today’s Express, Cowley said, “The COVID-19 shutdown in Pennsylvania and around the country has had a devastating impact on travel and transportation operators. The $15 billion motorcoach industry typically provides 600 million passenger trips annually through intercity scheduled service, charters, and tours. Yet, motorcoach, tour and travel industries were not included in the previous assistance packages provided by Congress; even though, we carry almost 20 times as many passengers as Amtrak.
“The motorcoach industry is second to domestic airlines in moving people. The American Bus Association (ABA) said that in 2018, privately-owned motorcoaches transported 600 million people. The airlines flew 779 million, and Amtrak trains took 31.7 million people on its popular Northeast corridor runs and long-distance trains.
She adds, “There are approximately 3,000 bus motorcoach operators in the United States, who normally employ over 100,000 employees, with a fleet of 36,000 vehicles that are largely sitting unused during this trying time. The motorcoach, tour and travel industries are dominated by small businesses, and most often these are family-owned, multigenerational businesses. These small businesses are not capable of withstanding even a modest downturn in domestic travel and tourism, let alone the devastating situation the travel industry is currently experiencing. Small businesses form the backbone of the U.S. tour and travel industry, as well as provide vital links for rural communities, commuting employees, school children, and price-sensitive travelers.”
If the virus can be beat back, that financial aid will mean a renewal of jobs at Susquehanna and at transportation companies across the U.S.
“Our drivers are all at home and we are praying that when the country is ready for motorcoach travel … we are praying that our drivers haven’t found other jobs,” Brooks said. “You don’t realize just how many people it impacts by just not being able to go back to work.”
Brooks reminded that it’s not just transportation that has been hit hard. Area businesses with which the firm partners also are suffering.
One client Susquehanna Trailways works with helps students travel across the country and internationally to visit and tour historical areas.
Those trips were canceled.
“One phone call wiped away $350,000,” Brooks said.
“We have expenses,” she continued. “We have insurances and licenses so that when America is ready to go back to work and play … we are ready to go. Many have made the commitment to not have their events, limiting our ability to make money even further.
The cancellation of fall college sports at Lock Haven University — and possibly others — means drivers and buses will sit idle.
“We are already looking at next September. Athletics teams travel about nine months out of the year. If they don’t go back, our 30 buses will be sitting.”
As for public school, Susquehanna transports students in the Keystone Central School District, along with part of Jersey Shore, South Williamsport and Muncy. Those operations run out of the firm’s Avis office, though buses are kept near the schools. Its downtown Williamsport office conducts sales.
She noted that Fullington Trailways, with offices in Williamsport, no longer provides daily bus trips to Philadelphia, Harrisburg, New York City and Elmira.
“They’re not operating at all. The earliest might be the end of August, but we’ll see,” she said.
Brooks is hopeful and said Susquehanna is prepared to restart.
The firm has made various changes to its buses and protocols to keep people safe.
That starts with drivers and passengers wearing masks.
The firm also has equipped buses with misters that spray disinfectant and hand sanitizer.
Social distancing practices via seating arrangements also will be required.
And, she said, nothing beats the practice of having staff manually wipe down and clean the buses daily.
“We have done all of the things above and beyond the U.S. Center for Disease Control standards to make sure buses are safe,” she said.
“We are here booking future business now and rescheduling groups that have not been able to travel,” Brooks added.
Susquehanna has mini-coaches that can transport, for example, small wedding parties with precautions.
The company also wants riders to be prepared for whatever regulations the location of the trip might have including masking and other distancing measures.
Susquehanna has made various changes to start planning safe but entertaining future trips to client favorites.
They started back up on July 4 with a minicoach, which seats no more than 29 people, for transportation for a wedding party.
Some procedures that Susquehanna Trailways has put in place including universal masking for drivers, masking when boarding, exiting or meandering through the bus for passengers, extra hand sanitizer for use upon entering the bus, social distancing with rows between seated parties and trips to locations that allow for parties to split up and distance throughout.
Brooks also said that the company has spray misters that disinfect the buses on a daily basis alongside staff that will clean and wipe down hard surfaces daily.
“Safety is what this business was built on. We don’t want anyone — passengers and employees — going out and being in any kind of risk.”
That said, Brooks thinks of the senior citizens — “our tour passengers” –that the firm typically transports to attractions and casinos.
“They’re chomping at the bit to get out because they’re so isolated,” she said. “It’s a scary time.”