Rising IU sophomore Jiacheng Li always takes GO Express Travel’s Bloomington Airport Shuttle whenever he needs to travel between the Indianapolis International Airport and his dorm, Willkie Quad. With each one-way trip taking just 80 minutes and costing about $25, the shuttle is a reasonable choice for him and for many other IU international and out-of-state students who need to fly home through the Indianapolis airport during school breaks.
Normally the shuttles would be at least half-full during vacation time, Li said. On his most recent trip in mid-May, though, he saw only one other passenger on board.
Li’s observation reflects the ongoing financial difficulties of GO Express Travel.
“I think the other day we got excited when there were seven people,” Doug Tingley, the company’s chief operating officer, said.
The company usually employs 150 to 200 employees, depending on the season, but with the company significantly scaling back its shuttle services due to low demand, Tingley said the business had to make many layoffs. He said that currently the company is operating with 30 to 40 employees and that state and federal unemployment benefits are available to those laid off by the company due to the pandemic.
Before the pandemic, even during slow seasons, the Bloomington Airport Shuttle would serve 200 to 300 people per day. During vacation and holiday seasons, there would have been 1,300 to 1,500 passengers daily.Now, daily ridership has fallen to single-digit figures.
Andrew Butters, assistant professor at the IU Kelley School of Business, said the low ridership experienced by GO Express is pretty consistent with what is experienced in the travel industry in the United States.
According to data from the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, during one of the peak days of the pandemic in April, the number of total travelers passing through TSA checkpoints per day dropped to just 3.7% of the people who passed through on the same day last year.
GO Express Travel, formerly Bloomington Shuttle, originated from a one-man business in 1993. Martin Bentley, business development director of the company, said back then, the business consisted of the current CEO Chris Gourley driving people between the IU-Bloomington campus and the Indianapolis airport.
With high demand, the business has since expanded to now having a fleet of 80 vehicles. They offer services ranging from shuttles within Indiana and to Chicagoland to private chartered vehicles that can reach as far as California, Bentley said.
In fact, Tingley said that GO Express is deemed an essential business as it is contracted with IU Health to provide shuttle services to transport health care workers. The IU Health shuttle in downtown Indianapolis, for example, is run by GO Express and connects Methodist Hospital, University Hospital, Riley Hospital for Children and other facilities. Tingley said currently the company transports 200 to 300 health care workers and staff for IU Health on a daily basis. Prior to the pandemic, the figure would be 2.5 times that number.
Addressing the pandemic, the company’s current sanitation and social distancing policies include regular cleaning of its vehicles, providing drivers with sufficient masks and hand sanitizers and operating vehicles at half-full capacity.
“Holistically, we try to attack it two ways, both with the vehicles and the drivers who will be providing the transportation services, to give them the best opportunity to be safe,” Tingley said.
Despite the pandemic that will continue to impact the transportation industry throughout this year, there are reasons for the company to remain hopeful.
Butters said that because bigger businesses such as GO Express Travel tend to benefit from more access to capital and multiple different markets, they are generally more likely to survive than smaller businesses.
Bentley recognizes their advantage during this pandemic. “There’s a natural thinning effect in the industry when something like this happens," he said. "You see consolidation of the marketplace where successful businesses end up with more business because smaller operators go under.”
“This is definitely going to be a low-revenue year for us, but we’re diversified enough that we will power through this, and we’ll come out on the other side probably – it’s crazy to say, but stronger than we were before the pandemic,” he said.
The interview with Jiacheng Li is translated from Chinese.
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