DULUTH – Less than a year after the Landline Co. launched bus-to-airport services in Duluth and Mankato to connect folks to Sun Country flights out of Minneapolis, the company was hauling a lot of empty seats.

As air travel still recovers from the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Landline has started serving more cities with a different model: car service.

"We're already connecting people to airlines with buses. Why not do it with private cars?" said Landline CEO David Sunde. "We can actually offer an airline ticket that starts at someone's house."

The company now offers Landline Select rides that can seat up to four people to and from St. Cloud, Duluth, Mankato, Rochester, Brainerd, La Crosse, Wis., and Eau Claire, Wis., in addition to continued bus service for Duluth.

Sunde said the pandemic brought "tough times" for the company and forced the pivot to an on-demand car service as opposed to regularly scheduled bus routes.

"We started Landline really focused on these small regional jets disappearing — we can fill the gap with buses," Sunde said. "Now our view is a little broader. We can just be a way that airlines offer ground transportation seamlessly and be a way they meet customers at the their front door." Landline was launched in summer 2019, and the Los Angeles-based company partnered with Sun Country Airlines that fall. Passengers can book a bus or car and flight in one transaction through the Sun Country website, allowing the Minnesota-based airline to reach into communities it didn't directly serve.

In its best month in Duluth, December 2019, Landline carried more than 2,500 passengers, according to Duluth Airport Authority data. In April 2020 that number dropped to 121 passengers, though it rose last summer to an average of about 800 a month. Last month fewer than 400 made the trip.

"It was important for us to continue to operate during the pandemic — we made that commitment to Sun Country," Sunde said.

Sun Country, which undertook an initial public offering this week, declined to comment on its ongoing partnership with Landline.

The Mankato service was discontinued last fall because of low passenger levels. But passengers eager to get back in the sky post-pandemic had taken a liking to Landline's Duluth connection.

'Great alternative'

"Cheap for our family of four and comfortable and clean and very easy," said Jenna Mattson of Duluth in response to a Facebook query. "We will do it again when, sigh, travel is a thing."

In most cases it costs less, though takes more time, to take Landline to MSP compared to flying to the airport on Delta. It can also cost less than driving to the airport and paying for parking. Airfare on Sun Country for a long weekend in Phoenix next month costs about $100 more if starting with Landline in Duluth compared with flying directly out of MSP. A trip to Las Vegas in May is about $120 more.

Landline "continues to provide a great alternative for leisure travelers in this region," said Natalie Peterson, spokeswoman for the Duluth Airport Authority.

Still, there are limitations to the service. Planning on taking Landline to MSP for a flight to Cancun in June? Only Wednesdays and Saturdays are available despite flights five days a week to the Mexican resort city.

Duluth resident Kasey Marie, who said she has used the service multiple times, said on Facebook that the timing of the buses can be an issue, whether it's late at night or hours before a flight departs. But she said there are benefits: "I could read, eat, use my phone, not worry about traffic [and] get dropped right at the gate."

December expansion

In December, Landline Select arrived in St. Cloud, which Mayor Dave Kleis hailed as a way to bring "additional cost-effective travel options for central Minnesota."

The private shuttle, which costs $89 for one passenger to $39 per person for four passengers, makes 10 daily trips to and from MSP and can pick up passengers from homes throughout the greater St. Cloud area. But unlike the buses, the cars only get dispatched when there is a booking through Sun Country.

"Landline Select is a little more flexible," Sunde said. "Even if demand does stay depressed, because we have this new tool, we can continue to serve cities no matter what."

Landline announced it was bringing car service to more cities in February through the Sun Country partnership.

"We're excited to expand our network," said Grant Whitney, the airline's chief revenue officer, in a news release. "Our mission is to provide affordable, hassle-free service, while connecting our customers to great vacation destinations."

Landline still lets passengers book through their site to connect to any flight; a round-trip between Duluth and MSP this weekend was $64.

Long term, Sunde hopes to bring Landline Select customers from their door to the door of the airplane.

The company is still building its bus business, however, and earlier this month announced a new partnership with United Airlines at the Denver International Airport. Landline buses will bring passengers to and from Breckenridge and Fort Collins.

Sunde is confident there are brighter days ahead for the transportation industry, though it will take widespread vaccinations and customer confidence that a return to normal travel routines is safe.

"It does feel like the general sense is trending positive," he said. "We're hoping for brighter days in 2021."

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496