MIAMI — The Washington-New York City metro travel markets are certainly massive, with average per day each way (PDEW) traffic of 1,465 passengers. The vast majority of these origin and destination (O&D) passengers ply the main route between La Guardia and Reagan, and the air travel market alone is still worth more than $233.1 million in annual O&D revenues, with additional revenue from connecting traffic for Delta’s hub complex at La Guardia and US Airways’ at Washington Reagan.

However, the air traffic on the route is declining rapidly. The following graph show Shuttle traffic, combined between the two carriers. A decline in both capacity and overall passengers is clear:

(Credits: Laura Dwyer-Lindgren)
(Credits: Laura Dwyer-Lindgren)

It’s interesting to note that traffic on the Shuttle has dived nearly 50% since 2000 (and the figures for 2013 are probably a bit worse). This has occurred, even as the actual air time (not discussing the added pressures of TSA and the like) has not increased significantly (so the share shift is probably not tied to air travel congestion). Delta in particular carries a quarter as many passengers on the Shuttle as it did in 2000.

Meanwhile, the Acela Express carried roughly 1.7 million travelers between Washington DC and New York City (roundtrip), holding a roughly 38% share of the market. More importantly, it shifted the balance of power in the New York – Washington DC market from planes to trains, which (including the slower Northeast Regional and other commuter trains), now hold a 75% share of the combined train and plane market, up from 37% pre-Acela. Total revenues for the Acela are $508.1 million, but this is inclusive of the services to Boston. Indeed, close to 25% of Amtrak’s US-wide revenues come from the Acela Express, and it is the most profitable sector of Amtrak’s product offering.

The plane plus high speed rail traffic figures have increased from roughly 1.8 million to 2.7 million, though the bulk of the growth has gone to the trains.  The growth in the overall market has really come from three places. First, people upgrading from commuter rail to Acela. Second, people shifting from the Shuttle to Acela, and third, indigenous growth in the market. The middle factor is likely the most important one, though O&D demand has certainly increased as Washington D.C.’s economic importance has grown over the past fifteen years.

The dynamics of the New York City – Washington market are incredibly unique. For starters, thanks to its extremely high fares, the Shuttle is one of few air routes in this country that is still (relatively) profitable with load factors under 70%. However, the profitability is tied in part to the corporate contracts that flow to Delta and US Airways in NYC and Washington because of the Shuttle presence. Fares are unusually high for the route, in the range of $250, which represents yields in the range of $1.10. By comparison, the average domestic yield for US full service carriers are somewhere in the range of $0.20 to $0.25. The Acela is similarly priced, but it also has the additional problem of having to compete on the lower end with the slower Northeast Regional trains.

With regards to passengers on the route, volume is split about 50% between business and leisure. Business traffic on the route comes from a myriad of sources: On the business end, time-sensitive travelers have a choice between the Acela and the Shuttle, while leisure travelers tend to choose between driving and commuter rail (though the wealthiest of them do occasionally fly). Very few air travel markets of this size (Los Angeles-San Francisco, Miami-Orlando, New York – Boston, Chicago – Detroit, Austin-Dallas/Houston, and Seattle-Portland do come to mind) have to deal with substitution threats not only from trains, but from road travel as well.

Comparative Analysis – General


In order to test the Shuttle vs. the Acela, we put together two races between myself and fellow Airchive correspondent Jason Rabinowitz. While the reviews of each transport method are presented through in-depth narratives below, the following table provides a succinct summary comparison of the Acela, the Delta Shuttle, and the US Airways Shuttle. While this comparison is accurate for New York City and Washington D.C., everything except for the ground experience is similar in Boston.

(Credits: Author)
(Credits: Author)

Comparative Analysis – Schedule


The schedules are pretty competitive with each other, save that Delta is at a slight disadvantage because its last flight of the night usually departs 1-2 hours before those of Acela and the US Airways Shuttle. On the Washington-NYC leg, the Acela has a 5:00 am departure which is helpful because it makes up the speed disadvantage. Regardless, the hourly departures for each offering make all of the schedules competitive.

(Credits: Auhor)
(Credits: Author)

Join us next week as the race officially begins, when fellow Airchive correspondent Jason Rabinowitz and I take to the streets and sky between New York and Washington DC for an epic adventure!