Van Galder buses will hit the road this week as the company resumes some busing routes it had suspended when COVID-19 shutdowns halted the economy and travel.
The Janesville charter bus company announced it plans by Monday to rekindle routes out of Janesville to Chicago O’Hare International Airport.
The move comes as Van Galder’s own research shows recent upticks in airline travel and increased demand by bus riders.
Yet even as state governments lift COVID-19 restrictions and travel increases, Van Galder President Al Fugate said it likely will be months before the company regains some of the momentum it had prior to the pandemic.
In early April, Van Galder shut down all of its routes for the first time in its 70-year history and furloughed 277 of its approximately 300 workers, including all of its 139 charter bus drivers.
At the time, the company told state officials that the layoffs were tied to statewide and nationwide shutdowns and restrictions that had marooned the travel industry. Travel analysts reported that domestic and international airline travel was down 75 to 80% through April because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Van Galder plans to resume a limited number of daily bus routes to O’Hare out of Janesville, Beloit and Rockford, Illinois. That will put about 10 of the company’s charter bus drivers back on the road.
Fugate said there’s been a lot of news about the pandemic’s affect on the travel and tourism industry but a shortage of information on how the recovery is going as people begin to travel more.
He said the company used “old-fashioned” data-gathering methods, such as analyzing phone inquiries for bus service and federal data that showed an increase in flights from airports such as O’Hare, to gauge whether demand was high enough.
“We could see that we were coming off the bottom because there was starting to be a trend line of more and more people traveling,” Fugate said. “I say more and more like it’s a big amount. It’s still not a big amount, but we could at least follow a trend line that’s on an upswing.”
Later this summer, the company aims to resume other regional routes, including transport from Madison to Chicago, and newer routes to downtown Chicago and Amtrak.
Those routes might start up after the Fourth of July, Fugate said, although he said Van Galder will continue to monitor trends and demand before adding routes.
“We rely solely on the fare box, solely on the ridership. We don’t have any government subsidy, any kind of outside funding for our service. The risk is all on us,” Fugate said. “We have to know there’s an adequate number of people needing to take the bus before we go out and just start blowing fuel out the tailpipe with no way to recover our costs. We have to be a little cautious to begin with.”
Fugate said the company will operate under public health advice issued last week under Rock County’s phase two reopening guidelines.
“We’ll run at 50% capacity” for ridership, he said. “Demand-wise, I don’t think that’ll be an issue for a little while here for us. We’ll add additional equipment and drivers and schedules as the demand is there.”