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The pandemic has left the private bus sector in crisis

Kai Ryssdal and Sean McHenry Nov 2, 2020
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Motorcoach owners and drivers rendezvous near O'Hare Airport on May 11 in Rosemont, Illinois. Scott Olson/Getty Images
COVID-19

The pandemic has left the private bus sector in crisis

Kai Ryssdal and Sean McHenry Nov 2, 2020
Heard on:
Motorcoach owners and drivers rendezvous near O'Hare Airport on May 11 in Rosemont, Illinois. Scott Olson/Getty Images
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Airlines aren’t the only industry looking for congressional relief. According to the American Bus Association, the trade group for the private motorcoach industry, over 100,000 workers have been furloughed in this sector, and the industry could disappear without a relief bill.

“Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal spoke with Upma Martin, the COO of Wise Coaches in Nashville, Tennessee, about the challenges facing her business. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: Tell me about Wise Coaches. What’s your business?

Upma Martin: Sure. So Wise Coaches is a motor coach company. We’ve been around for over 23 years now. We have a mixed fleet of motor coaches and school buses and minibuses. And, you know, we’re in the travel business. So we take people wherever they want to go.

Ryssdal: The catch, of course, is that not a lot of people are wanting to go to a whole lot of places these days. What has the pandemic done to the Wise company?

Martin: Well, I mean, for us, we kind of shut down operations, you know, mid-March when the pandemic hit. And that has affected 80% of our revenue, we’ve had to layoff and furlough a majority of our staff. So things have been rough, I won’t lie.

Ryssdal: Yeah, there was a press release or a statement that came out from the American Bus Association, which I will assume Wise Coaches is a member of or at least familiar with.

Martin: Yes.

Ryssdal: And the headline was grim. It said, “Death of an Industry.” Can that be that this disease is going to put the private coach business and transportation business out of business?

Martin: It’s a very real danger. And not just our industry, Kai. This is going to have a domino effect on all the businesses that work with the coach companies, and we’re talking attractions, hotels, restaurants, just all kinds of things. It’s a domino effect for sure.

Ryssdal: The story has been well told, of the government not being able to figure out a way to get relief to this economy. What happens if nothing happens, stimulus- or relief-wise until say, January or February, right, when there could conceivably be a change in government?

Martin: Then I mean, it’s a real possibility that we may be one of the ones that aren’t around. I hope that’s not the case. We are working to find any little bits of business that we can. But I mean, we just don’t know.

Ryssdal: I always hate to do interviews like this, where it’s nothing but doom and gloom, either. And, look, I appreciate your situation. And I’m not I’m not asking you to tell me things that aren’t true. But are there any green shoots, any bright spots?

Martin: Yeah, I mean, so Macy’s used buses to transport employees to workplaces every year. They have ramped up operations. Now, if there’s one thing good that has come out of this pandemic, it’s social distancing. So whereas a bus that was a 56 passenger vehicle used to be up the whole 56 people, now you’re limiting those numbers to half or less. The person that might have rented one bus now has to rent two or three. That’s a good thing for us. But we also know that this is not long-term. And you know, we just really need people to be able to travel again, to have that confidence to travel again. I think lots of people are itching to travel, but they’re just scared.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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