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Aviation Feature: Trains Replacing Planes

In 1981, with one eye on its balance sheet, the then West German national airline Lufthansa wanted to lower the costs of short haul connections (with flight times of only forty to forty-five minutes) between Düsseldorf, Cologne, Bonn and Frankfurt, replacing these flights with rail transport. In partnership with Deutsche Bundesbahn, three complete train sets were refurbished and re-fitted with the same seats as used on Lufthansa’s DC-10 business class cabins with the airline’s livery on the outside. (image: Lufthansa)

Calling at the city centres rather than at the airports, on board the passengers were served by Lufthansa stewardesses as they would have been on an airliner. It appeared to be successful in both passenger figures and costs compared to the Boeing 737 used before. In the summer of 1988 the seating capacity was enlarged and one year later the same formula was introduced between Frankfurt Airport and Stuttgart. With the extension to the south more rolling stock was needed and additional trains were repainted in Lufthansa livery and coaches were refurbished in the same way as the earlier trains had been. Despite a hiatus in the early 1990s, and with Germany now reunited after the fall of the Berlin wall and East Germany, the airline’s train services were subsequently revived and now extend to more cities and are set to grow further due to its successful codeshare alliance with Deutsche Bundesbahn under which passengers travel across the German countryside in dedicated compartments (rather than the airline running an entire train).

“The passenger travelling with the train stays our customer, as he travels with a Lufthansa ticket - not in the air but on the ground,” says Lufthansa spokesman Boris Ogursky.

The German airline might have been one of the first to employ trains instead of planes but the world has moved on: CNN’s Francesca Street and Isabelle Gerretsen look at further moves in airline and rail partnerships:

We might not all be Greta Thunberg, shunning air travel for weeks-long odysseys aboard Atlantic yachts, but turning our backs on short-haul flights in favour of train travel is, for many of us, a more practical enterprise. Rather than bemoaning the loss of eco-conscious travellers, some airlines seem to be embracing this rail-orientated gear switch. Dutch airline KLM recently announced plans to partner with European train companies Thalys and NS to replace one of its five daily flights between Amsterdam and Brussels with a high-speed rail service. Elsewhere in Europe, Austrian Airlines is offering ‘AIRail,’ another terrestrial service in partnership - or codeshare, in aviation parlance - with that country's national rail operator ÖOB.

So are these down-to-earth moves by air carriers being made for the sake of the environment, or the bottom line?

There's clearly a business rationale. Replacing short-haul flights with trains frees up landing and departure slots at busy airports that can be used for more lucrative long-haul services. They also make the airline look greener, even if there may be little long-term difference to its carbon footprint.