In route news, BA’s departure will leave SFO with no London non-stops; dozens of nations shut down air routes from the U.K.; Singapore Airlines adds SFO flights; Japan Airlines will resume SFO-Haneda while ANA eyes a return to San Jose; man who died on United flight may have spread COVID-19 to other passengers; Alaska Airlines goes all in on Boeing’s 737 Max; tourism to a reopened Hawaii is not exactly booming; United execs see stagnant passenger numbers for several months to come; and American strikes back at JetBlue in south Florida.
Following the recent news that United plans to suspend its San Francisco-London Heathrow flights in early January, an SFO spokesperson now tells us that British Airways is going to do the same. “We can confirm the suspension of BA flights between SFO and LHR from January to mid-March,” he said. “Please note that this suspension was planned prior to the current emerging (COVID) strain in the U.K., not as a reaction to it.”
That would leave San Francisco with no nonstop airline service to London. Virgin Atlantic, which filed for protection from creditors last summer, still shows LHR-SFO service in its reservations system, but those are code-shares via New York JFK or Atlanta operated by its joint venture partner Delta. British Airways used to fly between London and San Jose, but that route was suspended due to the pandemic, and is tentatively slated to resume in late April. (There was a bit of confusion this week when BA announced the elimination of some long-haul routes, including London-San Jose, but that turned out to be San Jose, Costa Rica.)
Anyway, that “current emerging strain” of COVID that the SFO spokesperson mentioned is a new variant spreading wildly in and around London, one that seems to be more highly contagious than the original. That has led dozens of countries around the world to ban all flights to and from the U.K. temporarily – not only many European nations, but dozens of others ranging from Canada to South Korea. The U.S. did not immediately impose a similar ban, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is currently advising Americans to “avoid all travel to the United Kingdom.” But on Christmas Eve, the U.S. said it will now require a negative COVID test result from all U.S.-bound travelers coming from the U.K. Most individuals who have been in the U.K. over the previous two weeks are already barred from entry to the U.S. (but not U.S. citizens or green card holders). Some scientists believe the new strain is probably in the U.S. already.
On Thursday, United updated its requirements for customers traveling from London Heathrow to its U.S. hubs, “including San Francisco, with customers originating in the U.K. now required to present proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken no later than 72 hours prior to departure,” according to a statement from the airline.
In trans-Pacific route news, Japan has halted the entry of all foreign nationals to ward off the new strain of COVID-19 found in the UK and other nations. According to the Japan Times, “The Japanese government said Saturday it will ban new entries of all non-Japanese nationals from around the globe in principle from Dec. 28 through the end of January.” Singapore Airlines will soon boost frequencies on the San Francisco-Singapore route it revived this month. The airline’s current three weekly flights will increase to daily service on Jan. 18. On the same date, the carrier will institute daily flights to Los Angeles (currently five a week) and New York JFK (now three times a week). Meanwhile, Japan Airlines said it plans to resume San Francisco-Tokyo Haneda service in March, as well as San Diego-Tokyo Narita and Seattle-Narita flights. The SFO-Haneda flights will operate three times a week and will supplement JAL’s four weekly SFO-Narita flights. Japan’s ANA posted a February schedule update that shows three weekly flights between San Francisco and Haneda but no SFO-Narita service, along with a note that it expects to resume San Jose-Haneda flights on March 1.
Last week, we reported on the death of a passenger on a United Orlando-Los Angeles flight who was removed from the plane during an emergency stop at New Orleans. This week, a coroner’s report confirmed that the deceased, a 69-year-old man, died from respiratory failure associated with COVID-19. During the initial incident on the aircraft, some thought he was having a heart attack, and other passengers — including an emergency medical technician named Tony Aldapa — stepped in to administer CPR to the victim. Now Aldapa has reported feeling some COVID symptoms himself and went into quarantine — ironically, just before he was due to get a COVID vaccine this week. Before the flight, the victim had reportedly filled out United’s health declaration form saying he had no COVID symptoms. The website TMZ this week contacted some other passengers from that flight who said that they might be developing symptoms and are considering legal action against the airline.
Alaska Airlines keeps doubling down on Boeing’s 737 Max before the troubled airliner has even returned to commercial service. Alaska has had 32 Maxes on order for several years, and last month added 13 more leased planes to its order book. This week, the airline said it has revamped its order with Boeing and now will acquire a total of 68 737 Max 9s, with an option for 52 more. Alaska’s strategy remains the same: to use the 737 Max planes as replacements for the Airbus aircraft it took on with its acquisition of Virgin America. “The 737-9 will replace all A319 and A320 aircraft in Alaska’s fleet to improve the airline’s overall operational, financial and environmental performance,” the company said. “With this plan, Alaska will reduce its Airbus fleet to 10 A321neos by the summer of 2023. The 737-9 is 20% more fuel efficient and generates approximately 20% less carbon emissions per seat than the A320. Its larger, improved engines fly significantly quieter, and the Boeing Sky Interior lends a feeling of spaciousness to the cabin. The 737-9 can also fly up to 600 miles farther, which opens the possibility of new nonstop routes and destinations.” The carrier is due to put its first Max into service in March of next year and have five more in the air by next summer. Deliveries of the new aircraft will continue into 2024.
It’s been more than two months since Hawaii reopened to visitors who get a negative result on a predeparture COVID test, and airlines have ramped up their schedules to the islands in recent weeks to handle the expected demand. But according to a report in the Honolulu Star Advertiser this week, consumer response to the reopening has been less than robust. During November — the first full month after the reopening — hotel occupancy in the state (i.e., percentage of rooms occupied) was a lackluster 22.1%, way below the 72.1% occupancy in the same month last year. What happened? “Part of the issue for Hawaii hotels is that fewer arriving passengers are staying in them,” the newspaper said. “Also, constant changes to the Hawaii Safe Travels program have created market confusion, which has led to cancellations of existing reservations and a slowdown in future bookings. Tourism is not expected to get much better soon, exacerbating already bleak trickle-down economic impacts that have left Hawaii with the nation’s highest unemployment rate.”
Although the nation’s airports have seen a spike in passenger traffic in the days leading up to Christmas, airlines caution that probably isn’t more than a holiday blip in longer term trends, which remain dismal as the coronavirus tightens its grip on the nation. United’s CEO Scott Kirby and President Brett Hart made that clear in a message to all employees this week. “We don’t expect customer demand to change much between now and the end of the first quarter of 2021,” the executives said. “United has been realistic about our outlook throughout the crisis, and we’ve tried to give you an honest assessment every step of the way. The truth is, we just don’t see anything in the data that shows a huge difference in bookings over the next few months.” If there’s any “light at the end of the tunnel,” they said, it’s that distribution of COVID vaccines has finally begun. “But even though vaccinations have started and there are millions of doses being distributed around the country, we’re still months and months away from the majority of the population getting vaccinated,” they noted.
American Airlines is punching back at JetBlue for invading its Miami hub.
We reported last week that JetBlue has decided to add Miami International Airport to its route map in February, launching new service there to New York JFK, Newark, Boston and Los Angeles. Who has a hub at Miami? American Airlines does. So it might not be a surprise that this week, American announced some new domestic routes of its own starting in April — routes to New York JFK, Boston and Los Angeles from Fort Lauderdale. And who has a hub at Ft. Lauderdale? JetBlue does. American will use an A321neo for the twice-daily LAX flights and 737-800s for the others. Seems like a pretty intense south Florida rivalry for two airlines that just a few months ago announced their plans for a big, friendly interline partnership at New York JFK, where they plan to feed traffic to each other between JetBlue’s domestic network and AA’s international routes. Elsewhere, American said it will introduce service in May from its Charlotte hub to Honolulu, using a 777-200.
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