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Hit hard by coronavirus, Alabama charter bus industry seeks emergency funding from Washington

Bus companies from around the country will mobilize in Washington D.C. on Wednesday, May 13.

Posted: May 7, 2020 10:46 PM
Updated: May 7, 2020 11:02 PM

As businesses start to reopen around the country, charter buses remain parked for the last two months.

They exist in a business ecosystem that relies on large crowds, like concerts and sporting events. Because there's no telling when those events will reliably come back, it makes charter bus owners nervous for the future.

"If you go into next spring, there won't be a lot of bus companies left. I just don't see a lot of bus companies that have that kind of capital to hold themselves over," said Bryan Weeks, director of operations at Spirit Coach in Madison.

Weeks said that the first big sign for them that the coronavirus was going to be a major issue for his industry was when the National College Athletic Association (NCAA) cancelled the March Madness basketball tournament. 

"By the end of March, we saw such an influx of cancellations that we knew that it was going to continue to go until they either found a cure for it or figured out how to get the country running again," said Weeks. 

Between March and projecting into June, Spirit Coach has lost more than $800,000 in previously scheduled charters, which Weeks said represents about a third of the business they do in a year. 

He said they've been fortunate that they have received some funds through the Paycheck Protection Program and are working on securing other loans, but said about three quarters of their staff had had to file for unemployment.

A big hurdle for the charter industry is that it depends on consumer confidence. Even when they do receive guidance on when and how they can start chartering people again, there's no way to guarantee when people will feel safe and confident using mass transit. 

Alan Thrasher, the president of the Alabama Motorcoach Association said on a 56-person bus, if they had to maintain six feet between every person, a bus could only hold about 14 people, which would make it financially impossible to run the bus.

"I believe that consumer confidence in so many things, whether it be going to a stadium, a theater, a restaurant or riding on a bus, are depending on us finding a vaccine. I think that really is what it's going to take for people to come back and for normalcy to return," said Thrasher.

"The other thing is, with people being out of work for so long, they're not going to want to take the money out of their account and send their son or daughter to Disney World or wherever on a charter bus," said Weeks.

Thrasher, who has worked in the industry for more than 40 years, said without federal financial assistance to help support them, they're at a real risk of an industry-wide collapse.

"So many things hang in the balance, certainly the motorcoach industry hangs in the balance at this point nationwide," said Thrasher.

On Wednesday, May 13, charter bus owners from all 50 states will gather in Washington D.C. to stage a bus demonstration in order to attract the attention of lawmakers to the plight of their industry, which they said has not received the same kind of attention as other mass transit, like the airlines.

The event, called Motorcoaches Rolling for Awareness is being spearheaded by the American Bus Association and the United Motorcoach Association and their chapters around the country.

While they wait for Congress and the White House to help, they're doing what they can to introduce new cleaning systems and protocols onto their buses to help consumers feel safer when they are able to start offering rides again.

"To us, we keep our buses clean already, but we realize to get consumer confidence, we're going to have to clean the buses above and beyond anything that's ever been done before," said Thrasher.

With hurricane season coming up, they also want to reinforce for lawmakers that their buses are often called upon to help shuttle in first responders and volunteers into disaster zones and help shuttle out those impacted by storms.

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