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Bus and Motor Coach Library

The Parcel or the Passenger

Author – Brian Niddery (2002)

Exactly which is getting the Better Transportation Service These Days? Is it the parcel or the passenger?
We hear all the corporate buzzwords - "seamless passenger service", "service beyond expectations", "customer driven".  But what do these buzz phrases really mean, and are passenger transportation companies really providing the public with the highest quality of service possible?  Are we employing the latest technologies available to us?  In this treatise, we are including all major forms of passenger service - air, rail, and bus service.  On the question of whether the passenger transportation industry as a whole is providing the best service possible, we might wish to compare it to another kind of transportation service - parcel express.

Less than 30 years ago, one individual not only took the phrase "customer service beyond expectations" to new heights, but created an entirely new industry built around that very phrase.  That individual is Fred Smith, and Fred is the founder of Federal Express.  In the 29 years and 7 months since the very first Fedex overnight delivery took place, which by the way totaled a mere nine packages, it has become an $11.6 billion dollar sales corporation, employing a fleet of more than 600 aircraft and 52,000 trucks worldwide.

It was Fred's overriding desire to gain an intimate understanding of customer needs that formed the basis of the Fedex system.  From a customer point of view, Fred realized that it was not good enough to simply be able to transport a parcel from point A to point B.  Just about anybody can do that!  Customers wanted the assurance that their parcel or letter would arrive at its destination exactly on time, every time.  "When it just has to get there!" was one of the company's early advertising slogans.  Further, customers wanted the comfort of being able to know instantly the whereabouts of a particular letter or parcel at any point in time, and that it could almost never get lost or delayed.

Thus from the get-go Fred realized that Federal Express was really in the information business.  He put great emphasis on the fact that knowledge about a parcel's origin, present whereabouts, and its destination, estimated time of arrival, price and cost of shipment was as important as its safe delivery.  He insisted that a network of leading-edge information systems must be developed that paralleled the quality of the transportation network - both air and ground vehicles.  He created a level of customer service, which couldn't have been imagined just a few short years earlier.  

For a moment though, let's go back to the philosophy of the actual transportation of the parcel from point A to point B.  It is an interesting fact of life that in the parcel delivery business when we talk about point A, we are talking about the actual originating address of a parcel.  And when we consider point B, we are talking about the ultimate destination address of that parcel.  If you think about it, in the most simplified manner possible, we naturally think in terms of door-to-door service. A parcel in fact enjoys a truly seamless form of transportation service.  When one ships a parcel by Fedex, the thought never enters one's mind about how this parcel is going to get to its destination.  It is taken for granted that Fedex automatically provides for seamless door-to-door service. 

Someone wanting a parcel delivered to some far-off address never has to think in terms of having to call the airline and book that parcel's ticket aboard the correct flight number so that the parcel reaches the destination city at the appropriate time.  Neither does one have to be concerned with calling a delivery van to pick up the parcel, nor explain that it must be delivered to the airport, and specify that it must reach a particular gate number at the airport in time to catch that particular airline flight to the destination city.  Nor does one have to track down and somehow find a van delivery service in that destination city to arrange transportation from that airport to the actual intended delivery address.  And all along the way, one does not have to continually confirm and re-confirm the appropriate time of arrival every step of the way to ensure that it will arrive when it’s supposed to arrive, and not get lost along the way.  In parcel transportation, we take it for granted that one simple call will provide a full and seamless service.  The Fedex system - the system itself, takes on the entire responsibility of ensuring delivery of your parcel in a safe and timely manner.

This concept of a system taking on the full responsibility of providing door-to-door service is in fact the key to a true "seamless transportation service".

Is there an equivalency in the passenger transportation industry?  In a word, no, there is not!
The idea of providing consumers with the same level of service as enjoyed by parcels has seemingly not yet occurred to anybody in the passenger service business - not to airline people or passenger rail people, nor to anybody in the bus industry.  For whatever reasons, passenger service providers hold onto the notion that it should be  the passenger's responsibility to get from one mode of transportation to another, so much so that it has become deeply rooted in our lexicon, as in "catch a train", catch a plane", and "catch a bus". 

It is up to the passenger to book his or her travel itinerary, and to appear at the right airline departure gate, the correct railway platform or at the bus stop on time.  And if the passenger is delayed or for some reason late - too bad!

Maybe this is part of the reason why most North Americans prefer to use their car to get to where there're going, and why the public has a certain disdain for public transportation services.  You hardly ever hear anyone say, "how great that airline service was", or "isn't it fun to travel by rail!"  For most North Americans, passenger transport is often more of an experience in frustration and inconvenience.  

Maybe the passenger transportation industry should consider redefining its role.  Are the technology, the systems, and the expertise available to a point where it is possible to begin offering a more comprehensive and complete passenger transportation service? We only have to look at the existing parcel and courier companies to know that the technology and the means do exist.  

It is more of a question of whether continues in the business of merely running our vehicles from one pick-up point to another, or does the industry have the necessary motivation and passion to move forward and provide a truly responsive and customer-driven form of passenger service that is more the equal of parcel express service?

If the passenger transportation industry should decide on the latter, then we must become committed to providing services that "exceed customer expectations".  We must do what Mr. Smith has done for overnight parcel express.  We must think in terms of seamless door-to-door passenger service.  There can be no question in anyone's mind that if the consumer had a choice, they would most likely choose a "seamless" level of service that is more the parallel of today’s parcel and courier industry.  

Do you really think that the traveling public wants the aggravations of trying to figure out what time they must leave their home, in order to arrive at the airport, the station, or the bus terminal in good time; having to standing in line to purchase a ticket, or having to tag their baggage and simply hoping that it will appear safely at the other end?  Do people really like to stand at a curb, trying to figure out which bus is the right bus, or stand at a rail platform or airline gate along with the stress and fear of being possibly late? There is the inevitable hassle of figuring out the best way to get to the airport, or to the railway station, or the bus terminal.  Does one take their car and put up with the inconveniences associated with trying to find a place to park a car, or worry about being shuttled from some remote parking lot to the terminal in a timely manner?  Or is it better to ask a friend or relative to drive, or hire some shuttle service and hope that they can be reliably delivered to the airport on time. 

And then there’s the destination! Do you rent a car, take a cab, or could there be an available shuttle bus service?  Of course, bus service is seldom an option, because it is virtually impossible to arrange a shuttle service ahead of time, because there is no known national consumer access to bus services.  The traveling public has learned to accept a rather high degree of hassles and stress because they usually do not have a choice.

What if it were possible to develop a passenger service that is more the equivalent of the parcel delivery industry?  A single telephone call or reservation via the Internet could provide a "seamless" passenger service that provides for "door-to-door" passenger service.  Not a second thought as to how one would be transported, just the assurance that every step of the way, a passenger will be taken care of, and that it becomes the responsibility of the system to get passengers to their destinations safely, comfortably, and on time. 

If we should accept the possibility of a “seamless” passenger transportation service, perhaps we should consider which passenger mode would likely be the most capable of providing the “seamless” in such a service.   Trains can't provide it, nor can the airlines! If a “seamless” system could be devised, the key player in developing such a system would the bus industry.  

For a moment let's imagine how a truly "seamless" passenger service might look in the future. Nearly everyone will be carrying personal communications/mobile devices (PCD) that combine many of today’s features - telephone, messaging, pager, fax, email, GPS, with the computing power of today’s desktop computers. Much of this is already taking place. Many of the disciplines now employed by parcel carriers, such as bar coded ticketing, and intranet communications systems can be easily adapted for passenger service and fully integrated through all modes of transportation. 

This will enable one to instantly create a personal travel itinerary, confirm and pay for it, with a detailed travel itinerary beginning with a pick-up time at their door and ending at the destination address. The system will embody a number of available options or electives to the traveler. Options might range from private limousine service, taxi, to shuttle bus service. Whether a short commuter trip within an urban area or a trip halfway around the world, each of the travel elements, schedules and times are at one’s fingertips, but most importantly once booked, the system itself will take care of our traveler. The system will provide real time voice/text reminders, detailed information, real time ETA & locator/map information. Using GPS, the system will track our traveler’s progress, answer any questions, and if needed will provide real time directions to our traveler to the next gate, platform or boarding stop. If an element – bus, or airplane is running late, the system adjusts the schedule to suit, and if required will automatically alter the schedule, with continuing updates to the traveler.  For multi-day travel, the itinerary can include hotel components.

The system will also contain airport pre-security clearance as well utilizing an electronic travel identifier and personal identifiers such as fingerprint, voice or retina scanners. Every aspect of one’s travel itinerary is tracked on a fluid and continuing process by the system. 

The system eliminates two of the most obvious frustrations in bus. With minute by minute updates one is never kept waiting, nor stressed in any way by having to stand at curbside keeping a lookout for the bus, or wonder if the bus is on time or running late.  At the “One-Minute” PMD signal   one can immediately proceed to the street as the bus pulls up to the curb. Upon boarding, the driver may greet you by name, as the on-board reader automatically records that the traveler is safely aboard the shuttle.  In the case of long distance travel, one’s suitcase will also be coded, assuring that it will follow exactly the same itinerary, making "lost baggage" a thing of the past. The system tracks the traveler every step of the way, signaling directions to the proper gate/platform.  The need to appear at a check-in desk or gate is eliminated.

In short a traveler will never experience a situation where it becomes his responsibility to correct a situation or make alternative arrangements.  The system takes care of the details, automatically updates and reports to the traveler, ensuring that the traveler arrives at his or her destination in a safe and timely manner.

Is this scenario now possible? Mr. Fred Smith made it a reality some years ago, with his company Fedex, which currently ships some 3-million packages daily, with a next to zero incident of lost or mishandled shipments; a system that handles more than 60-million information requests from more than 3,000 databases worldwide. The average parcel can board upwards of a dozen different vehicles - trucks and planes within 24-hour period, and every parcel is scanned and read and its exact location is reported an average of 21 times during its journey.

It is this implicit determination by the people at Fedex to serve its customers "beyond their expectations" that has generated $11-billion in annual sales.  There can be no doubt in anyone's mind that eventually this technology and expertise will eventually find its way into the passenger transportation industry.  The question is who and when will have the determination to make it happen?

"Today, companies must move fast, or they won't be moving at all"
- Michael Hammer and James Champy, co-authors of “ReEngineering the Corporation”.

“I think people have not recognized yet what a powerful engine of change the Internet will be. I think it is going to allow people to sell and source things without regard to time and place.  That’s never been true in the history of the world.”
- Fred Smith, President & CEO of Fedex in a 2001 interview with Forbes Magazine