6 On Your Side: Pandemic put the brakes on motorcoach industry

Investigations

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Every year, thousands of people book trips to New England to enjoy the foliage. In East Tennessee, Knoxville Tours provides the booking service and buses for the trip.

Like most all trips planned in 2020, a group of friends from Crossville hoping to tour New England found their October trip booked through Knoxville Tours canceled.

In a letter sent by the company, at least two travelers were told they would receive a full refund for the canceled trip.

When that refund was delayed, they called WATE 6 On Your Side Consumer Reporter Don Dare for help. What he discovered was an industry weighted down by cancelations with no federal assistance in sight.

“Oh, I’ve always wanted to go Maine and the New England states. It’s always been so beautiful,” Sandy Doherty, a Crossville resident, said.

Doherty, her friend Carolyn Bryan, Carolyn’s husband, plus another couple booked their 9-day New England excursion in February through Knoxville Tours. The Bryans’ tour amounted to $3,850 while Doherty paid $2,480. They even bought travel insurance for $150 each — all before the pandemic struck in mid-March.

“We made the reservation. We sent out for the insurance; got a letter back from the insurance company, everything was all a go. Then, the COVID hit,” Carolyn Bryan said.

Neither Doherty nor Carolyn Bryan heard from Knoxville Tours regarding their trip. So Carolyn decided to reach out.

“Getting closer to September, I started calling and talking to their agent. Finally I said, ‘Are they going to cancel this trip? Because we need to know’,” Carolyn Bryan said.

Sandy and Carolyn received the cancellation notice for the New England trip in early September. The notice from Knoxville Tours said a “refund will be mailed out in October.”  But they say they didn’t receive their refunds.

“So at the end of October, first week in November, we still had not gotten a check, I started calling. No reply. I called the office. No one called me back.  I emailed, I got no answer from anybody,” Bryan said.

Hitting a dead end, the women contacted WATE 6 On Your Side to ask for assistance.

Knoxville Tours is a private bus operation, it’s been in business for nearly 50 years and has an ‘A’ rating with the Better Business Bureau. The pandemic has been rough on the whole motorcoach industry, according to the American Bus Association.

Last spring, $76 billion of the coronavirus relief bill, or CERTS Act, was sent to airlines, city bus transit, and Amtrak. But the law gave nothing to the motorcoach industry. The next possible stimulus package has been stalled for months, but is now under discussion in Washington.

“This pandemic has really devastated the industry. The motorcoach about 3,000 companies around the country, And, in a normal year, we move as many as 600 million passengers when buses are on the road traveling all the time. This year they came to a grinding halt in the first part of March and have not recovered,” said Peter Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association. “I will tell you that the industry across the board, across all sectors is operating at probably less than 10 percent capacity.”

The amount needed to save businesses in the motorcoach industry is staggering, and the depth of need with each week that passes.

“We in the motor coach industry know we need 10 to 15 billion dollars just to keep the industry alive. We are going to lose 50 percent of the industry without some kind of federal assistance in the next couple of weeks. When we see the industry operating at only 10 percent, we know that they need help. Not only to survive the rest of 2020, but we also know that travel is not coming back right away in 2021. So to get through the first six months of 2021, they need additional help as well.”

“We want our money back. We’re just so frustrated,” Carolyn Bryan said.

In late November, Don Dare heard back from Knoxville Tours about the promised refund.

“Our customers are important to us. We normally do refunds once a month.” said company owner Laura Williams, who declined an on-camera interview. But, she said, “the pandemic leaves us with serious financial limitations.”

Williams later sent us this statement:

“Thank you for bringing to our attention the refund due to Mrs. Bryan and her friends. We apologize for the delay and they have now been sent a full refund. Our office has been closed.  We have been returning calls and emails as best as we can under the circumstances.” 

Carolyn Bryan confirmed she received her refund.

“I’m glad that we got it. I wasn’t quite sure that we were going to get it. But I don’t think we would have gotten it back unless you had intervened and helped us out. Now we are happy,” Bryan said.

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