Amtran GM gets OK to act as necessary

Amtran is allowing General Manager Eric Wolf to act as he deems necessary in response to the coronavirus crisis, without obtaining specific approval from the board — though eventual confirmation from the board will be required.

Most transit agencies have adopted such resolutions, said Jill Nagy of Summers Nagy Law Offices of York and Wyomissing, a firm that specializes in legal issues for transit organizations.

“Things are happening so quickly day-to-day,” Nagy said at a meeting this week at which most attendees participated remotely.

The decisions that could end up needing to be made by Wolf may include a shutdown of routes and reduction of employment, Nagy said.

The board can repeal the resolution when the crisis abates, Nagy said.

At the meeting, the board confirmed Wolf’s recent elimination of fares — the kind of action for which the new resolution is designed. Wolf had obtained prior consensus, based on individual conversations with board members.

The elimination of fares eases the financial burden on the authority’s low-income riders and enhances employee safety, by allowing riders to enter buses through the back door, keeping their distance from drivers.

Nagy knows of six other transit agencies that have eliminated fares.

PennDOT is OK with the elimination of fares and the back-door entries, although it insists on continued accurate counting of riders, because its operational subsidies are based on ridership, Wolf said.

Amtran’s buses are equipped with automatic counters that record the number of people who get on and get off the buses, even through the back doors, Wolf said.

Because of the backdoor boarding requirement, drivers must be extra careful that riders have stepped on or off cleanly, and that the doors are closed, before pulling away from stops, said board member Bob Reifsteck.

The loss of fare money is not a problem for the foreseeable future, because Amtran has a $4 million reserve, Wolf said. The reserve is equivalent to about 75 percent of operating expenses.

Regular ridership is down 50 percent — 65 percent if one counts the loss of students from Penn State and the Altoona Area School District, Wolf said.

The biggest downturn is in routes that cater primarily to those going to or from work — but even on those routes there are still “a handful,” Wolf said.

Amtran keeps a large reserve based on an experience a decade or more ago, when operational subsidy issues at the federal and state levels forced Amtran to cut service and lay off employees, Wolf said.

That experience led him to resolve to do all in his power to avoid laying off good employees. The effort has involved maintaining a level of service that’s sustainable through subsidy fluctuations, with the help of that large reserve, he said.

Based on a recent directive from the Federal Transit Administration, Amtran can also supplement its operational expenditures with more capital funding that it currently has permission to use, based on its being a small urban system, Wolf said.

Transit is continuing to run even in counties where Gov. Wolf has imposed a stay-at-home order, as he understands it, Wolf said.

“(But) like all else, that could change,” he said.


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