Amtrak And US Airlines – Could Partnerships Be Beneficial?

Partnerships between airlines are common. Nearly every major airline has a partner, whether at home or abroad, that helps them gain access to additional customers and serve more destinations. Outside of the United States, and especially in Europe, airlines have also partnered with train companies. The US has a rail network, with Amtrak being the leader. Could a partnership between airlines and Amtrak work? Here’s a look at the possibilities.

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Airline and rail partnerships have proven beneficial in other countries, and they could be replicated out of major cities like New York, though Amtrak has no airline partnerships presently. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Existing rail partnerships abroad

In Europe, rail partnerships have helped replace airlines on short-haul hops. For example, airlines like KLM and easyJet have partnerships with rail companies such as NS Dutch Railways or Deutsche Bahn, respectively.

Looking at the routes the rail partnerships cover, some general themes are easily discernible. For example, the partnerships cover trains that depart from an airport or nearby station and cover destinations either that are too close to make economical sense to run a flight or to smaller destinations where air service remains limited or nonexistent.

Delta Air Lines recently announced an Air+Rail partnership with Thalys out of Amsterdam. Photo: Delta Air Lines

These are especially common in large airports. This includes Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (AMS) and Frankfurt Airport (FRA). There is also a growing movement in Europe to replace more short-haul and domestic flights with train journeys. This includes Germany and France.

Delta Air Lines has also jumped into the fray. This week, the airline announced a new Air+Rail partnership with Thalys covering high-speed trains from one of its European hubs – Amsterdam – to Brussels and Antwerp in Belgium.

Amtrak’s extensive route network and products

Amtrak has a very extensive route network that touches most of the mainland United States. This includes a presence in major metropolitan areas like New York City, Chicago, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles.

Amtrak route map
Amtrak’s route network is quite expansive. Photo: Amtrak

Amtrak offers a mix of short, higher-frequency business services, such as between Boston and Washington D.C., with stops in several places, including New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. It also offers long-distance trains, for example, from Chicago to Los Angeles.

In addition to its large network, Amtrak offers an array of different options for passengers. On most routes,  passengers will be able to choose from various experiences, including coach, business, and first class, depending on the route. Some routes even include sleeper rooms.

With various fare offerings that align mostly with what US airlines offer and a route network that stretches from major business destinations to smaller cities, it may seem like a no-brainer for Amtrak partnerships with major airlines. Unfortunately, Amtrak has some strikes against it.

Limited stations out of airports

One of the strikes against Amtrak is that it offers very limited services out of airports. Only four airports in the US have Amtrak stations directly at the airport or nearby. These include:

  • Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI)
  • Hollywood Burbank Airport (BUR)
  • Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport (MKE)
  • Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR)

This is an incredibly limited array of routes and covers two points on the East Coast, one in the Midwest and only one on the West Coast. Amtrak has no direct airport coverage in the Mountain West or Southeastern US, for example.

Wheels Up: Avelo Airlines Takes Flight
Avelo Airlines is based out of Burbank, the only airport on the West Coast with an Amtrak station. Photo: Getty Images

Some of these airports may seem like obvious candidates for airline partnerships. For example, United Airlines has a massive hub at Newark. Avelo Airlines has its base at Burbank, and Southwest has a base in Baltimore.

Amtrak has a lot of service from major destinations. The problem is that not all of its train stations are easily accessible from major airports. Take New York’s Moynihan Train Hall at New York Penn Station. By car, this route can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on traffic.  Taking public transport means taking the AirTrain and the subway.

Most other US airports connected with train or subway services are connected with local options. This offers connections within a relatively small area. For example, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) is connected to the local MARTA train system, which only services the metro Atlanta area.

Amtrak And US Airlines – Could Partnerships Be Beneficial?
A train connection from the US’ busiest airport hub, Atlanta, will not take you very far. Photo: Getty Images.

Speed and destinations

Another strike against Amtrak includes the speed of its trains and the destinations it services. While it offers connectivity to smaller destinations in the US, some of the trains running to those destinations can take several hours.

For example, a train between Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Rugby, North Dakota, can take over eight hours to traverse. A drive between Minneapolis and Rugby can take only around seven hours. Or, one can take a flight to a point like Grand Forks, North Dakota, and then drive off to Rugby, which would only be a roughly 2.5-hour drive.

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Many smaller destinations in the US receive air service through agreements major US carriers have with regional airlines. Photo: Getty Images

Regarding smaller destinations, the US actually serves small cities quite well. The Essential Air Service (EAS) program helps guarantee flights between small communities and major US airports. For example, there is an EAS operation between Garden City in Kansas and Dallas/Fort Worth in Texas under American Airlines.

Moreover, major US airlines have partnerships in place with regional carriers. Some include independent regional airlines, like SkyWest, while others include wholly-owned subsidiaries like Envoy Air of American Airlines or Endeavor Air of Delta Air Lines.

United cut its Amtrak partnership

At the start of 2021, United Airlines cut its partnership with Amtrak. The two had a partnership covering connections out of Newark and the ability to earn miles when traveling on Amtrak and receiving reciprocal lounge access for top-tier elites and premium customers.

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United Airlines cut its partnership with Amtrak only about eight months ago. Photo: Getty Images

The biggest benefit of the partnership included having single-itinerary options covering a train and plane journey. For example, someone could catch a train from a point like Princeton, New Jersey, and head to EWR before catching a flight off to London, Orlando, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, or more.

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Could airlines partner with Amtrak?

Given that the highest-profile partnership with United was cut only about eight months ago, there does not seem to be too much appetite for US airlines to partner with Amtrak in the current environment.

For airlines to partner with Amtrak, the train company would likely need to make significant improvements. One of the first steps would be to offer higher-speed rail services that make it worthwhile for airlines to partner with a train service to cover a short-haul business route such as between New York and Philadelphia or Philadelphia and Washington D.C.

Amtrak is looking to invest in its trains and network, which could lure in some airline partners. Photo: Amtrak

Second, Amtrak would also need to broaden its reach to cover even smaller communities where air service does not exist and to which there is little likelihood of airlines coming to add new services.

There is an appetite to expand rail infrastructure in the United States, and that could benefit Amtrak. This would come at a significant investment and would require a sizable overhaul of the current rail infrastructure.

For now, Amtrak remains without a major airline partner. There could certainly be room for a partnership in the future, though the appetite seems a little weak at this point.

Do you think airlines should partner with Amtrak for train and plane itineraries? Did you utilize the United-Amtrak partnership when it existed? Let us know in the comments!