Orange County charter companies prepared Monday for what is expected to be one of the most profitable events of the year: today's caravan of 1,200 Southland buses carrying the faithful to see Pope John Paul II in Los Angeles.
As some Roman Catholic parishes scrambled to arrange last-minute rides to the Pope's evening Mass at the Los Angeles Coliseum, charter companies said they had committed all available buses and were recruiting auxiliary vehicles from as far away as Oregon and Minnesota.
Adding to the crunch, some of the buses originally slated for the papal event have been diverted to Northern California to transport firefighters combating a rash of blazes during the last two weeks.
As of Monday, 249 buses were scheduled to pick up parishioners from various Catholic churches in Orange County and deliver them to the Coliseum, according to the Diocese of Orange, which is distributing parking passes to participating bus operators.
Transportation coordinators for some parishes complained that in recent months prices charged by some charter companies had increased sharply as demand for buses outstripped supply.
Tom Markle, who is arranging transportation for Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in Newport Beach, said the parish canceled its arrangement with one charter company when its daily price doubled from $450 to $900 per bus. "We said, 'No way,' " said Markle, who eventually found more reasonably priced transportation.
Spokesmen for some charter companies contend they are not sticking with their regular rates because of the religious nature of the papal visit. They said they are forfeiting the fatter profits gleaned from past events such as the Super Bowl, Rose Bowl and the 1984 Olympics.
But others acknowledged that they are charging premium prices, in some cases to cover the added cost of importing buses and drivers and in other instances simply to pad their profits.
David Gregory--general manager for Mark IV, a Gardena-based charter company providing transportation to the Pope's Mass for parishes scattered from Ventura to the Mexican border--said: "When you get a chance to get a little extra money, you might as well."
Gregory declined to say how large a premium he is charging to provide chartered buses for the visit, but he estimated that most of his competitors are adding "a 25% to 100% premium."
He said the Pope's visit "is positive for the charter bus industry in what is typically a slow time." Public interest in chartering buses usually ebbs in September, he said, because "people don't travel heavily when kids are going back to school and they are just coming back from summer vacation."
For today, however, the Southland has no buses to spare.
Jim Hanning, director of sales at Roberts Holiday Lines in Santa Ana, said the company is sending all of its 43 buses to the Coliseum and probably "could have sold another 85 to 90 bus orders" if it had more vehicles.
"You can't even find a school bus right now," said Hanning, who had reason to know. Late Wednesday, one of his buses developed a mechanical problem, and he was looking for a replacement in case it could not be fixed by this morning.
Hanning said he was charging the prevailing rate of $500 per bus for an 8-to-9-hour work day Tuesday, in contrast with the $1,100 he generally charges to take spectators to and from the Super Bowl.
Although "a lot (of other bus companies) are charging as much as $800 to $1,300 for a bus," Hanning said he doesn't "believe in gouging the church."
Ten of the Holiday Lines buses were inspected by the California Highway Patrol and Secret Service Tuesday, Hanning said, because they will be carrying visiting bishops to the papal Masses today and Wednesday, accompanied by a police escort.
Ray Gilligan, sales manager for Anaheim-based Transportation Services Co., said it will have more than 70 school and coach buses in transit to the Coliseum. Some of the vehicles were leased from other bus companies in San Francisco and Bakersfield.
Gilligan said his company is charging parishes day rates ranging from $300 for a locally procured coach to $1,000 for some buses brought in from out of town. He said the higher rates reflect the added cost of housing a driver for two nights in a motel.
Moreover, Gilligan said the company's potential profits from the visit are not that great because the movement of drivers and buses absorbs "three days for a one-day event."
Gilligan said there is a shortage of both buses and qualified drivers, partly because many buses and drivers are being used on the fire lines by the U.S. Forest Service. "Forestry will grab equipment anywhere they can get it," he said.
Although the Northern California fires are subsiding and some of his buses and drivers were returning Monday, Gilligan said many were still being retained by the Forest Service.