Decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the motorcoach or charter bus industry did not receive vital economic relief from Congress during the CARES Act and are hoping the Coronavirus Economic Relief for Transportation Services (CERTS) Act language is included in the next stimulus package. The CERTS Act would provide $10 billion in grants and loans to the industry. The industry’s 3,000 small businesses have closed their doors and furloughed more than 100,000 employees and left idle 36,000 buses.
Daily now, you see headlines about long-standing bus companies going out of business, family-owned companies that have been in business for decades now permanently closing their doors. What was once a vibrant, independent industry moving 600 million passengers a year and meeting public transportation needs for commuters, schools, travelers, military personnel and their equipment, and sports teams, along with fulfilling a vital emergency response function for hurricanes and wildfires, is on the brink of collapse. Now nearly 15,000 of the industry’s buses are facing repossession as banks can no longer offer flexibility. In fact, some financial institutions are predicting up to 40-50 percent of the industry will be permanently out of business before the end of 2020.
We spoke with several local bus and tour companies in the Columbia market about their experience since the beginning of the pandemic.
Capital Tours – West Columbia, SC
Buddy and Mary Young along with their son Matt Young own Capitol Tours in West Columbia. This family-owned business has been in operation since 1981. The company offers tours for senior citizen groups, school groups, civic organizations, family reunions, businesses, churches, youth groups, musical groups as well as charter operations.
Mary Young said, “The pandemic has definitely affected everyone in the tourism industry, even if people wanted to go, there’s been no place open to take them.”
While Capitol Tours has some contract business to keep the businesses going, it is nowhere near the activity levels seen in 2019.
C & S Tours – Irmo, SC
Established in 2013, C&S Tours works with the “groups” segment of the market. Schools, churches, senior groups and the military make up the majority of the company’s clients. Also popular are the company’s bi-monthly Cherokee Casino trips to Cherokee NC. With the pandemic, C&S Tours has not run a trip since March.
While some companies were able to obtain loans to help under the PPP, C&S Tours found the restrictions on the use of the funds made it useless to apply.
According to Sharla Savage, Operations Manager, “The PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) really wouldn’t have helped us very much due to the restrictions on its use, so we didn’t apply.” Savage added, “We’ve been really fortunate that our vendors have worked with us on suspending insurance coverage and deferring bus payments during this time.”
Savage does not see the current situation improving until the Spring or Summer 2021.
Until then Savage says, “Things happen and we have to do the best we can to look at the situation as positively as we can.”
Cole’s Tours and Travel – Columbia, SC
Cole’s Tours & Travel is a charter bus company in Columbia owned and operated by Chris Cole. The company has operated for nearly 15 years in the market. As an independent owner-operator, much of Cole’s business is schools, churches, senior groups and family groups.
“My last trip was on March 14th, and I don’t have any trips currently on the books”, says Cole.
Cole also does not see the situation improving before the Spring or Summer 2021.
“Half of my business is in the most vulnerable senior market and I believe they are going to be reluctant to travel for some time”, says Cole.
Since Cole owns his Prevost charter bus outright, he does not have any payment to keep up. This has allowed him to park his bus and suspend his insurance payments as well.
While Cole has a Class A CDL license, which has allowed him to have a backup employment opportunity of driving a tractor-trailer he says, “I really miss the bus and the relationship with the groups of passengers.”
Much like the buses being parked, The CERTS Act is currently stalled in Congress as stimulus talks have ground to a halt. Right now the CERTS Act has more than 56 bi-partisan co-sponsors in the Senate (S. 4150) and 253 bi-partisan co-sponsors in the House (H.R. 7642), or basically more than a majority in both chambers for a total of 300 sponsors in Congress, and more are signing on every day. These co-sponsors have crossed the aisle throwing their support behind the transportation sectors left out of the CARES Act when airlines, Amtrak, public transit and airports received nearly $100 billion in aid.
“Motorcoaches move Americans, even politicians,” said Peter Pantuso, American Bus Association President & CEO. “Since March the industry has been mostly shut down, 80,000 jobs furloughed and permanent closures happening daily, and yet these same politicians who have used buses for campaigning have not given us a lifeline at all, even when they are helping other transportation sectors. And although we turned to Congress for help, our appeals have been ignored, yet here we are in election season these same politicians turn to our buses to help them keep their jobs – when will they help us keep ours?”