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Train vs. plane: Does Amtrak's new Acela ad do the service justice?

March 17, 2013 at 12:53 PM ET

Amtrak's new Acela ad campaign focuses on addressing business travelers' pain points, many of which are common complaints about airlines.

Amtrak's new Acela ad campaign throws some elbows at the airlines, but considering how ample the elbow room can be on a train compared to in the air, those jabs aren't totally unwarranted.

Claiming to "reinvent business travel," Amtrak's new ad shows scenes of travelers doing things that are forbidden, or hard to do while flying. The passengers stand in front of a schedule board showing all trains as on time, they're able to use their devices without any one telling them to shut down their Words with Friends game, and they move about the train socializing freely. The only time any employees show up is to quickly scan a train ticket QR code from a traveler's smartphone and to make drinks discreetly in the background while business professionals smile and chat in the bar car.

Amtrak's ad highlights the Acela line, a high-speed intercity train whose Express service gets passengers from New York City to Washington, D.C., in under three hours.

"Our goal has always been to make sure all potential travelers, be it by plane, car or bus, understand the options available to them when riding on the Acela, and if they choose to take advantage of our amenities and hassle free mode of travel, then we welcome them aboard,” said Amtrak spokesperson Cliff Cole.

The ad, "using visuals similar to what one sees on an airplane, like overhead bins, sleek lines of the train ... hits very hard on the things everyone hates about flying," said Steve Posavac, professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University. While the ad "tries to establish parity with air travel by demonstrating speed and efficiency," he said, it also "positions the Acela experiences as far superior to taking a plane."

"Amtrak’s new ad seems to stake claim to Acela’s position as the 'un-airline,'" said "Branding For Dummies" author Barbara Schenck.

Karl Heiselman, CEO of the the international brand consultancy Wolff Olins said, "It's a "smart communications strategy aimed at the pain points of business travelers."

Plane vs. train
So how does the hype match up to the reality? NBC News' Joe Myxter recently flew to the Northeast from Seattle and spent a week in New York City. While there, he hopped the NYC-to-D.C. Amtrak Acela train. With both trips fresh in mind, here's how he ranked the services:

Comfort
I spent five hours in the middle seat on a Newark, N.J.-bound Alaska Airlines flight and nearly six hours on a United Airlines jet on the return trip home. Legroom was an issue on both flights. At 6-foot-3, my knees were pressed into the back the seat in front of me, and I couldn’t get off the flights fast enough.

The Acela service, meanwhile, offered a much more comfortable ride – more leg room and space to stretch out – and getting up and moving around the train was much easier.

Winner: Train

Hassle
I am well versed with the airport security drill – laptop out and in its own bin, liquids and gels (no more than 3.4 ounces) in clear, zip-top bags, shoes and belt off, etc. It’s not fun, but a savvy traveler can breeze through with few issues. Both trips through TSA checkpoints were uneventful.

Hopping on the Acela at Penn and Union Stations, however, was a dream. No security checkpoints, no articles of clothing removed, no nothing. Just show your ticket and hop on board.

Winner: Train

Price
A roundtrip cross-country plane trip -- leaving Seattle-Tacoma International on a Sunday afternoon and returning late Friday -- cost about $800.

A roundtrip Acela ticket -- leaving New York City on a Thursday and departing Washington, D.C., the same day -- cost about $400.

In other words, the flight cost nearly 17 cents per mile while the rails cost about $1 per mile.

Winner: Plane

Time
When it comes to a journey in the Norhtheast corridor, the plane vs. train dilemma can be a toss-up. Planes are faster once in the air, but moving through train stations (no TSA checkpoints, hubs in cities instead of in outlying areas) can even the score.

When traveling 2,400 miles across the country, however, flying is easily the most time-efficient mode of transportation.

Winner: Plane

Service
Flight attendants on both flights efficiently helped passengers get seated, briefed passengers with a safety lecture, offered food and beverage service early and were friendly in each leg of my journey.

The only service I encountered on the Amtrak was in the food car when I bought a cup of coffee for breakfast. The Amtrak worker was professional and upbeat.

Winner: Tie

Bottomline

I live in the northwest corner of the U.S. When I travel, I have to cover long distances.

While I loved the train – and train stations – for me, there is no better way to travel than by plane.

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