June 17, 2024


sights and trips

Air travel slump gets worse, plus EU rules confusion, Southwest, United, new Alaska lounge

In this week’s roundup, there are troubling new signs that the COVID-19 delta variant is resulting in more airline trip cancellations and fewer new bookings, reversing the industry’s summer revival and bringing new schedule reductions; after the European Union decided this week to remove the U.S. from its COVID “safe list,” some member nations have adopted tough new entry rules while others are sticking with their previous requirements in order to keep American tourists coming; the CDC adds more destinations (including some U.S. territories) to its “do not travel” warning list; there are new Bay Area routes from Southwest, United and Alaska and an LAX route from United; Delta adds a Spotify option to its in-flight entertainment lineup; international route news from JetBlue, ITA, British Airways, Iberia and Air Senegal; and Alaska Airlines opens a new lounge at San Francisco International.   

As the COVID delta variant continues its unrelenting spread, there’s more evidence that the weeks ahead are looking much worse for airlines than they did a couple of months ago. A few weeks ago, Southwest Airlines warned that its advance bookings were slowing down and cancellations were increasing, and now American Airlines has said the same thing — especially about business travel. AA’s Chief Revenue Officer Vasu Raja told an investment conference that the airline is now expecting “a slower recovery in business demand than what we’ve seen” as more companies delay reopening their offices in the face of increasing virus cases.  

A similar observation came this week from the American Hotel & Lodging Association, which said its newest survey found that “U.S. business travelers are scaling back travel plans amid rising COVID-19 cases.” According to AHLA, the Aug. 11 and 12 survey determined that 67% of U.S. business travelers are now planning to take fewer trips in the months ahead, with “52% likely to cancel existing travel plans without rescheduling, and 60% planning to postpone existing travel plans.” Two-thirds said they are only likely to make business trips to places they can drive to. 

The downturn started after airlines had enjoyed a hopeful summer of increasing passenger numbers and advance bookings. A key indicator is the Transportation Security Administration’s daily tally of passenger screenings at the nation’s airports. From early July through mid-August, the number of daily screenings frequently topped 2 million, sometimes matching or surpassing totals for the same dates in 2019. But since Aug. 16, the number has not hit or surpassed 2 million on any days, even though August is prime vacation travel season. And a new report from the Adobe Digital Economic Index found a downward trend in U.S. consumer spending on domestic flights: Spending for online bookings during June was just 5% below 2019 levels, Adobe said, but that dropped to a 16% deficit in July and 33% for the first three weeks of August. “Domestic flight bookings in August thus far show that U.S. consumers are taking the delta variant seriously and once again shifting their travel plans,” said Vivek Pandya, lead analyst for Adobe Digital Insights.

A similarly pessimistic outlook comes from OAG, the U.K.-based tracker of global airline schedules and data. The company reported this week that since the first week of August, the world’s airlines have collectively slashed their planned future capacity by 100 million seats, representing an estimated revenue loss of $20 billion. And those cuts were made even before the European Union decided this week to recommend that its member states reimpose entry restrictions on U.S. travelers. “Chances are, the transatlantic market will now be closed until late November, when the Thanksgiving season may offer a glimmer of hope,” OAG said. “Even the most optimistic analyst or airline CEO will now accept that the indicators for a further recovery by the end of the year have been blown away; the situation is grim with many international markets heading in the wrong direction for at least the next few months.”

This apparent reversal of the air travel revival will no doubt inspire carriers to offer new fare discounts and other incentives to encourage more bookings. One example was just announced by Southwest, which told its Rapid Rewards loyalty members that they can get a faster track to elite status over the next few months. The airline is offering double tier-qualifying points on flights from Sept. 3 through Nov. 30 to members who register online for the promotion and book their trips through Southwest.com. Registration must be completed before booking flights.

When the European Union decided this week to remove the U.S. from its “green list” of COVID-safe nations because of sharply rising case numbers here, there were some immediate concerns that it could lead to a renewed ban on nonessential travel by Americans to the E.U.’s 27 member nations. But it didn’t. Instead, it just added a new round of confusion for U.S. travelers as they had to wait and see what kinds of new restrictions, if any, those 27 nations would impose on their entry.  And the results so far have been mixed. The first country to revisit its rules was Italy, which said this week that all arriving U.S. travelers must now provide a negative COVID test result no more than 72 hours before they leave home and fill out a passenger locator form. But if they’re not vaccinated, they now must undergo a five-day quarantine upon arrival and take another test after that. Previously, the quarantine was not required. 

The Netherlands adopted tough new rules that take effect next week: Unvaccinated U.S. travelers will no longer be able to enter the country. Those who got their shots will still be allowed in, but now they’ll also need a negative result on a COVID test. And that’s not all: They’ll have to quarantine for five to 10 days after arrival (depending on the results of a second COVID test). Bulgaria’s government went even further, deciding this week to ban U.S. visitors altogether, effective immediately.

But other countries are leaving their entry rules unchanged despite the E.U.’s recommendation for a tougher approach. Croatia, home to the popular Adriatic walled city of Dubrovnik, has seen its tourism spike since it reopened to Americans, and it told the E.U. this week that it plans to leave its previous entry rules in place: Americans must show a negative test result or proof of vaccination and nothing more. Portugal also decided to leave its relatively easy entry requirement in place: proof of a negative COVID test result before boarding their flight and again upon arrival. Ireland is also keeping its previous rule, which allows entry to Americans who are fully vaccinated with no testing requirement as long as they fill out a passenger locator form. 

Even more complications could be in store as health officials debate how long the vaccines remain effective. ThePointsGuy.com reports that two European destinations — Austria and Croatia — have established new entry rules stating that inbound travelers’ COVID vaccines must have been administered no more than 270 days before arrival.  

The new E.U. recommendation adds more uncertainty for Americans who may have been considering a fall trip to the continent as they now must research entry rules and requirements once again. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to revise its own list of “Level 4” nations — i.e., places where it says Americans should not travel because of a very high COVID-19 risk. In the latest changes, the CDC has moved seven more destinations from a Level 3 warning to Level 4. And they’re not all other countries: Two of the new Level 4 destinations are the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and Guam. Nations added to the list include Switzerland, Estonia, North Macedonia, Azerbaijan and the Caribbean island of St. Lucia.

In Bay Area route news this week, Southwest Airlines has kicked off new service from Oakland to Eugene, Oregon, operating two flights a day. United Airlines is due to resume nonstop service between San Francisco International and San Antonio on Sept. 8 with 76-seat E175s, operating six flights a week but increasing to daily in October. And who knows what’s going on with Alaska Airlines’ San Jose-Palm Springs route? It was supposed to start last winter but was postponed; Alaska’s web page of upcoming routes shows it beginning Sept. 8, but Alaska’s reservations system doesn’t show any nonstop service on the route during September. So we checked Palm Springs Airport, where schedule information says Alaska’s SJC-PSP flights will begin Nov. 19.

Elsewhere in California, United Airlines this winter plans to introduce nonhub service between Orange County Airport in Santa Ana and the Colorado ski mecca of Aspen, operating daily flights with a United Express/Skywest CRJ 700 from Dec. 16 through March 26. That will give Orange County residents a new option instead of driving to LAX, where United’s winter ski schedule includes service to eight destinations in the Rocky Mountain states.

Delta is bringing a new wrinkle to its Delta Studio in-flight entertainment options thanks to a partnership with Spotify, the giant audio streaming service. The airline said this week that starting in September, passengers will be able to hear “specially curated versions of Spotify’s most popular playlists and more than 40 select podcasts” through their seatback screens. “These curated playlist mixtapes and podcasts will be regularly updated and expanded with new tracks and episodes to ensure customers always have the latest hits and new playlists during their journey,” Delta said.

In international developments, JetBlue is scaling back its new trans-Atlantic schedules to London. Its New York JFK-London Heathrow flights, which started last month as a daily operation, will now operate just four times a week in September and October. Its new JFK-London Gatwick service is set to begin Sept. 29 as planned, but with four flights a week instead of seven. The new Italian carrier ITA, a successor to the defunct Alitalia effective Oct. 15, has asked the Transportation Department for permission to operate flights from Milan to New York and from Rome to New York, Boston and Miami starting this fall, followed by Rome-Washington Dulles and Rome-Los Angeles in 2022 and then adding Rome-San Francisco and Rome-Chicago service in 2023. British Airways this week resumed service from Denver to London Heathrow, operating three flights a week with a 777. With Alaska Airlines now a full member of American’s Oneworld global alliance, Alaska and Oneworld partner Iberia have applied for code-sharing permission. Specifically, they want to put Iberia’s code onto 62 of Alaska’s domestic routes and 16 of its routes to Mexico and Costa Rica. The two airlines’ systems connect at San Francisco (where Iberia flies to Barcelona twice a week) and Los Angeles (with three weekly Iberia flights to Madrid). And the West African carrier Air Senegal started new twice-weekly U.S. service this week but switched its routing from Dakar-New York JFK-Washington Dulles to Dakar-JFK-Baltimore/Washington International.

Some Giants love at SFO's new Alaska Airlines lounge. 

Some Giants love at SFO’s new Alaska Airlines lounge. 

Courtesy Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines this week opened its eighth airport lounge, in San Francisco International’s Terminal 2, using space formerly occupied by an American Airlines Admirals Club. The 9,200-square-foot lounge includes a full bar with complimentary Bay Area craft beers and regional wines. It also has an espresso bar with Starbucks coffee; an all-day buffet with fresh salads, soups and made-to-order pancakes; a Sourdough Cart with bread from local bakeries and special toppings; and a “Candy Bar” with sweet treats like jellybeans and Ghirardelli chocolate. The new lounge is decorated with works produced by Bay Area artists and features a kids’ play area with baseball-themed games. Effective Oct. 1, a basic membership in the Alaska Lounge program costs $450 a year, or $350 for Mileage Plan elites, while an Alaska Lounge Plus membership — which also includes access more than 90 partner lounges in the U.S. including American’s Admirals Clubs — goes for $600 (or $500 for Mileage Plan elites). Lounges are also open to first class customers, day pass purchasers, and select Emerald and Sapphire members of American’s Oneworld alliance. Alaska also has three lounges at its Seattle-Tacoma International hub and one each at Portland, Los Angeles, New York JFK and Anchorage.