COVID-19 variant threatens travel, Spirit’s woes continue, plus United, Delta, AA, more

Alison Rombough

In this week’s news, the rise of the COVID-19 delta variant could set back the recent reopening of international travel; domestic travelers face vaccination requirements for more typical tourist activities, starting in New York and Palm Springs; United Airlines requires shots for all employees; Spirit Airlines’ wave of flight cancellations […]

In this week’s news, the rise of the COVID-19 delta variant could set back the recent reopening of international travel; domestic travelers face vaccination requirements for more typical tourist activities, starting in New York and Palm Springs; United Airlines requires shots for all employees; Spirit Airlines’ wave of flight cancellations will continue into next week; study predicts the full revival of business travel is still many months away; the FAA urges airports to crack down on “to-go” alcohol sales to passengers; Delta adds another San Jose route and scraps same-day standby fee; American offers passengers free TikTok access; Alaska Airlines enhances in-flight food service; international route news from Delta, WestJet, American and Turkish Airlines; Lufthansa offers “Sleeper’s Rows” to long-haul economy fliers for a surcharge.

The ongoing surge of COVID delta variant cases worldwide in the past few weeks is making the future of international travel more uncertain even as many nations have started to welcome American travelers back. Even for domestic trips, U.S. travelers may find themselves facing new restrictions on normal tourist activity, from wearing masks indoors to presenting proof of vaccination. 

While popular international destinations like the U.K. and many European nations have recently started accepting visits from Americans who are vaccinated or pre-tested for COVID, there is no guarantee that those new rules will remain in place as the number of new U.S. coronavirus cases is now on a sharp upward track. One ominous example comes from Israel, which this week added the U.S. and several other nations to its list of “red” countries. Effective Aug. 11, Americans flying into Tel Aviv will be required to go into quarantine for a week, whether they have been fully vaccinated or not. It might be no coincidence that the new restriction comes just a few days after the U.S. added Israel to its “do not travel” list.

Officials in Europe and the U.K. have been pressing the U.S. for weeks to lift its 16-month-old ban on visits by their citizens – something that the Biden administration said last week it was still not prepared to do, citing concerns about the delta variant spread. This week, however, Reuters reported that the White House is working on a plan that would reopen U.S. borders to “nearly all” foreign visitors who can prove they are fully vaccinated. It cited a White House official who said interagency working groups are devising a plan “to be prepared for when the time is right to transition to this new system,” and that the White House is in talks with airlines about the specifics of implementing a vaccine-based entry policy. Still, the report said travel industry officials “think it will be at least weeks and potentially months before restrictions are lifted.”

For domestic travelers, the big news this week came from the East Coast, where New York will become the first major U.S. city to impose a vaccination requirement for both residents and visitors to gain access to indoor activities such as restaurant dining and entertainment venues. The city is expected to announce the specifics of the policy by mid-August, with enforcement set to begin Sept. 13 after a public education campaign. City officials said they consulted with the U.S. Justice Department before announcing the controversial plan, and DOJ assured them it was legal. The announcement by New York could embolden other cities to take up similar rules. Palm Springs did something similar this week, announcing that a vaccine card or negative COVID test within 72 hours would be necessary to enter bars and restaurants. Many individual restaurants in major cities nationwide have also adopted vaccine mandates for customers in the past several days.  

While New York City’s impending vaccine requirement is believed to be a first in the U.S., similar rules are becoming commonplace in Europe. Last month, we reported on new vaccination requirements for indoor activities in France and Italy, but according to the website Schengenvisainfo.com, which tracks all COVID-related restrictions in the Schengen Area, 16 countries in the European Union now require vaccine proof to enter indoor public spaces like restaurants, bars, and hotels. The list includes Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain.

A United Airlines airplane is seen at a gate of Miami International Airport, in Miami, Florida, on June 16, 2021.

Anadolu Agency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

United Airlines this week became the first major U.S. carrier to announce that it will require all its employees to be vaccinated against COVID. Most of United’s 67,000 workers have already received the shots, the company said, but those who don’t do so by Oct. 25 could lose their jobs. Since June, United has required newly hired employees to be vaccinated.


Spirit Airlines’ massive operational problems this week haven’t ended yet. The low-cost carrier canceled about 2,000 flights since Sunday, Aug. 1, with the problems peaking Wednesday and Thursday, when 50% to 60% of its total schedule was scrapped. On Friday, the cancellation rate was down to about 36% of its schedule, but airline officials said they expect the difficulties to continue into next week. Spirit’s website on Friday carried a warning to passengers that it is still seeing “a high volume of (flight) cancellations throughout our network,” and advising customers booked on upcoming departures to check their email and their flight status before going to the airport. Spirit CEO Ted Christie said Thursday that the company’s operations have been disrupted by a perfect storm of problems including staffing shortages, bad weather, computer problems and a big increase in passenger volume this summer. 

A Spirit airlines commercial airplane is seen taxing on the tarmac as another takes off from the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on March 18, 2020. 

A Spirit airlines commercial airplane is seen taxing on the tarmac as another takes off from the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on March 18, 2020. 

RICARDO ARDUENGO / AFP via Getty Images

During earnings calls with Wall Street analysts in recent weeks, airline executives have been making rosy predictions about the return of business travelers this fall when working from home will supposedly be replaced by work in the office (although in the past two weeks, some major companies have pushed back their dates for returning to the office). But a new study from Deloitte suggests that a full recovery of business travel — which airlines and hotels depend on for the bulk of their revenue — is likely more than a year away. The firm surveyed 150 corporate travel managers and interviewed executives at U.S. firms that spend tens of millions of dollars annually on airline travel. Its conclusion: “Although business leaders expect steady increases, corporate travel is unlikely to make a full recovery within the next year. Just over half (54%) of survey respondents expect their companies to reach 2019 levels by Q4 2022.”  And the business trips that do start up again, the firm notes, will be mostly domestic — especially as the course of COVID remains uncertain. “Even when (government) policies enable better ease of movement, the unpredictable and uneven nature of the pandemic across countries and regions will depress international corporate travel demand,” Deloitte said. In addition, company travel managers expect “employee and client resistance to travel and in-person meetings to slow the return of corporate travel.”

The Federal Aviation Administration’s latest tactic in the battle against disruptive passengers is an appeal to airport managers to crack down on the sale of “to-go” alcoholic drinks and to work with local law enforcement in making sure criminal charges are filed against unruly fliers. FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said in a letter to U.S. airport managers that too many fliers are stocking up on airport booze that they carry onto their flight, which is a violation of FAA regulations. In many unruly flier incidents, flight attendants have reported that the disruptive passengers had been drinking alcohol that was not supplied by the airline. Dickson urged airports to help solve the problem using signs, public service announcements and education of concessionaires to make sure travelers are aware they can’t take alcoholic drinks onto aircraft. He also said that in too many unruly passenger incidents, local police meet the flight at the gate and interview the alleged miscreants but then them let go. Although the FAA has been issuing a significant number of fines in these cases, Dickson noted that the agency doesn’t have the authority to initiate criminal charges. While the Justice Department could file federal charges against such individuals, it generally does so only in the most serious cases. Local authorities should be encouraged to file charges, he said, or “we miss a key opportunity to hold unruly passengers accountable for their unacceptable and dangerous behavior.”

Bay Area travelers heading to the southeast have a new option. Delta this week brought back service from Mineta San Jose Airport to Atlanta, its largest hub. The daily 757 flight to ATL operates as a red-eye eastbound, with a 10:55 p.m. departure time from SJC. Last month, Delta resumed service from SJC to its Minneapolis-St. Paul hub.

A Delta Air Lines jet waits on the tarmac at LaGuardia Airport in New York,  Aug. 8, 2017.

A Delta Air Lines jet waits on the tarmac at LaGuardia Airport in New York,  Aug. 8, 2017.

Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

As of this week, Delta passengers who want to change their flight on the day of departure can stand by for an earlier one without paying a fee. The exception: The new no-fee standby policy doesn’t apply to those traveling on basic economy fares. “The new flight must depart the same day, and standby requests or a confirmed change must be made within 24 hours of departure. Customers can make their same-day travel change directly within the Fly Delta app or delta.com,” Delta said. It noted that if a seat is available in the customer’s originally purchased fare class, the standby option is not available, although the traveler can book a confirmed seat for a $75 fee (that fee is waived for SkyMiles Medallion members). 

American Airlines this week introduced a new in-flight entertainment option for passengers, allowing them 30 minutes of free access to short-form TikTok videos if they are flying on narrow-body planes equipped with Viasat Wi-Fi service. “How it works: Enable airplane mode and connect to the AA-Inflight signal,” American said. “Once connected, customers will be redirected to aainflight.com, the Wi-Fi portal. Simply click on the TikTok ad for free access to the platform. Pro tip: If you are not a TikTok user, you can connect to aainflight.com while inflight and download the app without having to pay for Wi-Fi.”

In-flight food and beverage service continues to make a comeback. Alaska Airlines said this week it has expanded the hot meal selections available for first class fliers, with new menu options for breakfast, lunch and dinner on flights of more than 1,100 miles, and has resumed “full tray service” in first class on flights exceeding 670 miles. The airline is also now offering a “full selection” of alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages in all cabins on flights of more than 1,100 miles and has increased the variety of snack selections on flights of 670 to 1,099 miles. Customers can preorder food selections through Alaska’s app or its website.

In international route news, Delta this week restarted the longest flight in its system, from its Atlanta hub to Johannesburg, South Africa – a route it had abandoned more than a year ago. The carrier is using an Airbus A350-900neo to fly the route three times a week. Delta noted that South Africa requires foreign visitors to show evidence of a negative PCR test 72 hours prior to arrival. Delta also launched Boston-Rome service this week with flights operating three times a week. Canada’s WestJet has announced new transborder service starting Nov. 4 between Seattle and Calgary, initially operating four Q400 flights a week and increasing to twice-daily on May 19 of next year. American Airlines, which recently suspended its Los Angeles-Sydney service for September and October, has reportedly extended that suspension through summer of 2022. Australia has cut the number of international travelers allowed into Sydney on all airlines to just 1,500 a week, forcing American to operate LAX-SYD flights as cargo-only. And Turkish Airlines has set a Sept. 24 start for service between Dallas/Fort Worth and Istanbul, operating four weekly flights with a 787-9.

Lufthansa is the latest carrier to let customers occupy a full row of three to four adjacent seats in economy class for easier sleeping – for a surcharge, of course. It was introduced this week on select long-haul routes out of Frankfurt, including Los Angeles, Sao Paulo and Singapore. Lufthansa calls it the Sleeper’s Row, and it offers a maximum of three of them per flight at a surcharge of 159 to 229 euros one-way ($188-$271).  That includes a pillow, blanket and mattress topper “of business class quality,” the airline said, as well as a special seat belt that stays fastened while the passenger is lying down. Here’s the catch: “Reservations in advance are not possible,” Lufthansa said. It tested the Sleeper’s Row option on Sao Paulo flights last year and found “high demand” from passengers and “much positive feedback,” Lufthansa said. 

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