MIAMI — For a route spanning just 250 miles, the New York City to Washington D.C. travel market is one of the most heavily traveled corridors in the world. A myriad of travel providers offer service in the market, from trains to planes to bus.  Specifically with regards to aviation, the Shuttle from New York’s La Guardia Airport to Washington’ Reagan National Airport is amongst the world’s most lucrative routes

However, since the introduction of the semi-high speed Acela Express train service in December of 2000, the air travel on the route has steadily eroded. In fact, the Acela today commands a significant premium over the Shuttles operated by Delta and US Airways. Given the evolving nature of the market, Airchive set out to test both the train and the plane(s) in the form of a race between the New York Stock Exchange and the Capitol Building.

Historical Foundations

The air shuttle between New York La Guardia and Washington Reagan (as well as Boston) dates back to April 30th, 1961, when Eastern Air Lines’ visionary founder Eddie Rickenbacker came up with the idea to offer a consistent scheduled shuttle between New York City and Washington. The cities were initially served every two hours between 8:00 am and 10:00 pm, though the immense customer response quickly led to frequencies being increased to hourly between 7:00 am and 11:00 pm.

An Eastern Airlines route ad from 1961 touts the advantages of the Air Bus air shuttle service. (Credits: Airways Airchive)
An Eastern Airlines route ad from 1961 touts the advantages of the Air Bus air shuttle service. (Credits: Airways Airchive)

Structurally, the shuttle flights were optimized for massive productivity on the business traveler’s end, with no reservations or check-ins required and no boarding passes despite guaranteed seats. If a flight was over-booked, Eastern had another aircraft on standby to accommodate overflow passengers. The policy led to such historical oddities as the 10 pm flight on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 1961 carrying 623 passengers – distributed amongst seven aircraft.

The airplane in question was the venerable 95/96 seat Lockheed L-1049/1049C Super Constellation (“Connie”) turboprop, and the Shuttle represented a unique utilization for a fleet of Connies that was rapidly being rendered obsolete on longer trunk routes by Douglas DC-8s and Boeing 720s. The Connies were soon joined by DC-7Bs, which plied Shuttle routes between Newark, Boston, and Washington Reagan, and then began to be replaced with Lockheed L188 Electra turboprops seating 127 passengers in 1965.

Though American may not have flown the shuttle, the DC-7B (above in AA livery) did. (Credits: Airways Airchive)
Though American may not have flown the shuttle, the DC-7B (above in AA livery) did. (Credits: Airways Airchive)

The last Connie flight on the route occurred in 1968, and by the early 1970s, turboprops had been eliminated on the route in favor of Eastern’s newer Douglas DC-9 and Boeing 727 aircraft, which offered even faster travel times. Thus by the early 1980s the Eastern Shuttle was a veritable travel institution in the Northeast; a highly lucrative franchise that was solidly dominant over commuter rail of the period.

But as deregulation is wont to do, competition was quickly thrust into the market once the restrictions on domestic routes had been ended, and in 1980 competition did arrive in the form of New York Air, a subsidiary of reviled airline entrepreneur Frank Lorenzo’s Texas Air Corporation. New York Air was larger than just its shuttle, with services cresting in 1986 with service to 19 destinations along the East Coast, and in the Midwest. On the Shuttle, it quickly ramped up to offer hourly services with its twenty Douglas DC 9-32s, focusing on offering comparable service levels to Eastern at significantly discounted prices (three guesses as to how profitable that strategy was, especially during the tumultuous 1980s).

New York Air route map from 1983. (Credits: Airways Airchive)
New York Air route map from 1983. (Credits: Airways Airchive)

In 1986, Frank Lorenzo acquired New York Air, merging it with his existing airline portfolio of Eastern Air Lines and Continental Airlines, and due to antitrust concerns over control of the Shuttle, the DOJ required the new merged carrier to divest a portion of its Shuttle operations, which were acquired by Pan Am, then on its last legs. If New York Air represented something of an LCC approach to the Shuttle, Pan Am was a swing in the opposite direction, bringing its patented, if somewhat faded, full service approach. Pan Am brought the modern approach of airport ticketing, free snacks and beverages, and other amenities.

Thanks to noise abatement policies, Pan Am initially had to use its Airbus A300s until it could outfit their fleet of Boeing 727-200s with hush kits. Due to noise curfews, the last flights of the day were operated with DeHavilland DH7 turboprops. The airline also moved its Shuttle operation to the once-defunct Marine Air Terminal, fleeing the Central Terminal Building. But in 1991 Pan Am crumbled, and the Shuttle was sold to Delta as part of an asset fire sale.

Meanwhile, the Eastern Shuttle had been sold by a cash-strapped Frank Lorenzo to Donald Trump for $380 million in 1989, and the Trump Shuttle that ensued was designed as a luxury service. The Trump Shuttle’s 727s were outfitted with maple wood veneer, chrome seat belt latches, and gold colored lavatory fixtures, with the goal of enhancing the luxury brand image of the Trump name. The Trump Shuttle was also on the cutting edge of technology, as it became one of the first US airlines to offer self-service check in kiosks and even rented out (primitive) laptop computers to passengers. But despite its superior service, the highly leveraged purchase by Trump (large chunks of the $380 million and the recession post-Gulf War) meant that the Trump Shuttle was quickly hemorrhaging money. In 1992, the branding was shifted to US Airways as the latter purchased a 40% stake with branding rights. By 1997, US Airways had purchased the remaining 60% and taken full control of the franchise.

Over the course of the 1990s, both US Airways and Delta minted money on the Shuttles within the general context of the economic boom. Near the end of the decade, Delta began to shift its Shuttle fleet to Boeing 737-800s while US Airways began to introduce Airbus A319s. But the launch of the Acela changed everything.

The Acela is not high speed rail, nothing close to it. But as the TSA began to rear its head in the wake of 9/11 and air travel became a process fraught with an ever-increasing array of complications and delays, the relative high speed rail of the Acela became far more attractive in the market. Over the past twelve years, air traffic for the Shuttle has undergone a steady decline, with Delta down-gauging to Embraer E170 and E175 regional jets (after briefly using McDonnell-Douglas MD-88s) and US Airways down-gauging by mixing in Embraer E190s during off-peak times.

Join us for part two, when we take a deep dive look into the numbers behind the travel.