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For $30, a no-frills bus trip to NYC - Charlotte Observer
By Sarah Ovaska
Posted: Saturday, Apr. 10, 2010

OUTSIDE RICHMOND It was 4:30 a.m. at a bleak truck stop when the driver stopped the New York City-bound bus, waking passengers and reeling off what sounded like very important instructions in Chinese.

The passengers, who boarded in Charlotte and Raleigh, needed to grab their luggage and get on another bus that had come down from New York. The travelers on the second bus would take their places and head south to North Carolina.

Confused? Imagine it in Mandarin.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, a woman ran up to the driver with the realization she'd slept through the transfer. Muttering, the driver made a U-turn, chased down the other bus now waiting on the side of Interstate 95 and the woman dashed into it while cars sped by feet away.

Such is life on the Sky Express bus, where $30 secures a one-way ticket from North Carolina to New York's Chinatown.

Charlotte-based Sky Express is part of a cobbled-together fleet known collectively as "Chinatown buses," which crisscross urban centers of the Northeast with dirt-cheap fares to the epicenter of the East Coast's Chinese population in lower Manhattan.

Now the South is connected to that pipeline. Sky Express boasts daily routes that leave Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham and Greensboro parking lots late at night and drop passengers off in the morning on a curb on Canal Street.

Long a mainstay in northeastern cities with sizeable Asian populations, the bus lines offer a no-frills way to get to New York for $50 to $100 less than other buses or trains.

But Chinatown bus journeys are not without risk.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has serious concerns with Sky Express' safety record. Out of a range of 100, where higher scores signify more serious driver violations, the company received a score of 98.62 during a March 26 inspection.

Candice Tolliver, a spokeswoman for the federal agency, said drivers are cited for working beyond the allowable number of hours, not having proper licenses or drug or alcohol violations.

David Wong, the operating manager of Sky Express, said the low rankings stemmed from an incident in Durham where a bus driver hit a pedestrian. Wong said he's since fired that driver, and said the buses are checked for maintenance problems every time they arrive in New York.

The South emerged as an attractive market after Sky Express owners noticed people in the Chinese community were moving from the New York area to booming Southern cities, Wong said.

Buses began intermittently running from North Carolina cities in 2003.

"Even if people move down from New York to Charlotte ... they still have a family and connection to New York City," Wong said.

Travel time from Charlotte is 12 hours overnight and passengers can sleep on the way. It can be cramped, but comfort is not a selling point. Cost and efficiency are.

Sky Express saw ridership dwindle with the economy; in response, fare prices were slashed two months ago from $100 each way to $30. Word of the bus line's $30 tickets has spread from the local Chinese and Asian communities to college students and beyond, Wong said, and he's seen his buses fill up to the point that he's stopped advertising.

"Before, 99 percent of our passengers were Chinese," Wong said. "After we dropped the prices, we're receiving people from all over."
(Based on estimates from, Amtrak and Greyhound for travel next week)