New Reno-Tahoe airline, pilots’ holiday travel warning + SFO-Hong Kong, AA/UA, more

Versie Dortch

In this week’s developments, a new regional carrier will start flying later this month from Reno-Tahoe Airport to eight destinations in California, Oregon, and Washington State; pilot unions at American and Southwest suggest that holiday flight schedules could be affected if they don’t get exemptions from vaccine mandates; Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduces a bill requiring domestic passenger vaccinations or negative COVID tests; Singapore Airlines will bring back SFO-Hong Kong flights next month; international route news from JetBlue, Turkish Airlines, KLM, Delta, Icelandair, Air New Zealand and Qantas; Thailand will end quarantine requirement for vaccinated foreigners in November; American Airlines has a new code-sharing partner in India and United adds one in South Africa; European start-up Norse Atlantic wants to fly to Ontario, Calif.; Avelo adds Burbank-Tucson service; and the TSA reduces the cost of renewing PreCheck membership.

ExpressJet, a carrier that operated regional flights for United Airlines under the United Express banner until its contract expired last year, is putting on a new identity as aha!, based at Reno-Tahoe Airport. The new carrier’s strategy is to fly 50-seat Embraer ERJ145 jets to regional destinations that currently have no non-stop service into Reno. (What’s with the name? The company says aha! Is “the air-hotel-adventure leisure brand of ExpressJet Airlines.”) Its initial schedule, due to begin Oct. 24, includes three flights a week from Reno/Tahoe in each of eight markets: Fresno, Eureka/Arcata, Ontario, and Bakersfield, Calif.; Redmond/Bend, Eugene/Springfield and Medford/Ashland, Ore.; and Paco/Tri-Cities, Wash.

“In the coming months, aha! plans to reach more than 20 destinations from Reno-Tahoe in the western United States,” the company said. In addition to offering flights in underserved markets, “aha! will soon partner with resorts, casinos and attractions to bundle value-priced vacation packages,” the company said. The carrier’s website is at 

Pilots at American Airlines and Southwest Airlines – the nation’s two largest carriers — are digging in their heels against mandatory COVID vaccinations and are warning that any attempts to enforce compliance with such an order could result in a shortage of flight deck personnel as the airline industry heads into what is expected to be a booming holiday travel season. While United, Frontier and Hawaiian have all made vaccinations mandatory for their workforces, and Delta is charging unvaxxed workers an extra $200 a month for health insurance, American and Southwest have not imposed a mandate. But the pilot unions at those two airlines are concerned that the Biden administration’s mandatory vaccination plan for any company with more than 100 employees could be a real problem for their members, and they want an exemption from it, arguing that potential side effects from the shots could be “career-ending” for some pilots due to the strict medical testing requirements they face from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Capt. Eric Ferguson, president of American’s Allied Pilots Association, told his members that the union is not opposed to a vaccine mandate for other airline employees, but when it comes to pilots, “you need to have the option not to get vaccinated.” And the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association argues that each pilot should be able to decide whether or not to get the vaccine. United Airlines had set a deadline of this week for all its employees to get the shots and was planning to terminate several hundred who had not done so, but that deadline has been pushed back to Oct. 15 after several employees filed a class action lawsuit against the airline. About 98% of United’s workforce has already received shots, and CEO Scott Kirby said on CNBC this week that if United is allowed to move ahead with firing non-compliant employees, it would not have any impact on the airline’s operations.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 17: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

WASHINGTON, DC – NOVEMBER 17: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

Pool/Getty Images

The latest proponent of a COVID vaccine mandate for all domestic airline passengers is Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D.-Calif.), who introduced legislation to that effect this week. Feinstein’s U.S. Air Travel Public Safety Act would require all passengers to be fully vaccinated, or to show a recent negative test result or proof of recovery from COVID-19. The Biden administration recently announced that it plans to reopen the U.S. to foreign travelers in November, but only those who have proof of vaccination. “We know that air travel during the 2020 holiday season contributed to last winter’s devastating COVID-19 surge. We simply cannot allow that to happen again,” Feinstein said. Similar legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives last month by Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.)

On Nov. 2, Singapore Airlines will bring back San Francisco-Hong Kong-Singapore service, operating three flights a week (departing SFO on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays). It’s a “Fifth Freedom” route, which means travelers can take just the SFO-Hong Kong portion or continue on to Singapore. On the same date, Singapore said, it will revive daily New York JFK-Frankfurt-Singapore service – another Fifth Freedom route. Both routes will use 777-300ERs with first class, business class, premium economy, and regular economy seating. Singapore Airlines is a member of United’s Star Alliance.

In other international route developments, JetBlue this week started its second London route, supplementing its New York JFK-Heathrow service with flights from JFK to London’s Gatwick Airport. JetBlue is using the same A321LR transatlantic configuration that it offers on the Heathrow route; it will operate four flights a week to LGW through October, then increase to daily service. Turkish Airlines has resumed service to Istanbul from Dallas/Ft. Worth – its 11th U.S. gateway – with four flights a week. The Dutch carrier KLM said that in view of the easing of travel restrictions between the U.S. and Netherlands in both directions this fall, it now plans to bring back previously suspended service to Amsterdam from Miami and Las Vegas, offering three flights a week in both markets effective Dec. 6. 

Delta Airlines aircraft at Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia.

Delta Airlines aircraft at Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia.

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Delta plans to resume a pair of pandemic-suspended U.K. routes for next summer, operating daily Salt Lake City-London Heathrow flights beginning March 26 and Boston-Edinburgh service five to seven days a week during July and August. Icelandair is continuing to replace the aging 757-200s on its U.S. routes with new Boeing 737 MAX 8s. The latest destination to get the MAX 8 is Portland, where Icelandair will start flying it to Reykjavik twice a week as of Oct. 9. Air New Zealand’s winter schedule update includes three weekly flights between Auckland and Los Angeles Jan. 1-March 26, but a continued suspension of service to other U.S. gateways including San Francisco, Houston, and Chicago.

Qantas announced this week that it plans to resume a couple of international long-haul routes in November instead of in December as previously planned, including three weekly flights between Los Angeles-Sydney and London-Sydney. But don’t get too excited – that news doesn’t apply to you unless you’re an Australian citizen or permanent resident or their family members. And even those passengers will have to provide a negative COVID test result and vaccination certificate and will have to quarantine for even days after arrival. “At this stage, all other international routes that were scheduled to resume from 18 December 2021 will continue as planned,” Qantas said, subject to government and regulatory approval.

The latest transpacific destination to announce reopening plans is Thailand, which said it will end its mandatory quarantine Nov. 1 for fully vaccinated foreign visitors to Bangkok and nine regions of the country, including popular destinations like Chiang Mai and Pattaya. During October, the mandatory quarantine period for vaccinated visitors has been reduced from 14 to seven days.

After announcing or strengthening partnerships with two South American carriers in recent weeks, American Airlines is now adding a new partner in India. The deal with IndiGo, India’s largest airline, should bring more traffic to the two India routes that American will soon start – New York JFK to Delhi on Oct. 29 and Seattle-Bengaluru (Bangalore) on Jan. 4. The agreement will put the AA code onto 29 IndiGo domestic routes from those two gateway airports. American’s AAdvantage loyalty members will be able to earn miles on code-share routes operated by IndiGo, and passengers in the Flagship business cabin on AA’s new India routes will be able to use IndiGo’s lounges at the Delhi and Bengaluru airports. The partnership is expected to start in October, subject to U.S. and Indian government approvals.

Tourist Archana Srijeyanathan hikes the Light House Keepers Trail at Cape Point, South Africa, the southwestern tip of the Afican continent. (Chris Reynolds/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
Tourist Archana Srijeyanathan hikes the Light House Keepers Trail at Cape Point, South Africa, the southwestern tip of the Afican continent. (Chris Reynolds/Los Angeles Times/MCT)Chris Reynolds/MCT

United Airlines is also adding an overseas code-sharing partner as part of its growing African presence. The new partner, subject to government approval, is Johannesburg-based Airlink, which flies from that city to 40 destinations in the Southern Africa region. MileagePlus members will be able to earn and burn miles on Airlink. United currently flies to Johannesburg from its Newark hub five days a week and plans to initiate Newark-Cape Town service on Dec. 1. Elsewhere in Africa, United flies from Washington Dulles to Accra, Ghana three times a week and has announced plans to launch Dulles-Lagos, Nigeria service on Nov. 29. United also has a partnership with South African Airways, a Star Alliance member carrier, but SAA is just starting to resume operations this fall on a limited route network within Africa.

Norse Atlantic, the new low-cost European carrier that hopes to pick up some of the transatlantic market abandoned by Norwegian Air last year, has its eye on flights from Oslo to Ontario, Calif. That’s one of the three U.S. airports targeted by the company in its application with the U.S. Transportation Dept. for a foreign air carrier permit. The other two are New York Stewart International Airport, 60 miles up the Hudson River from Manhattan; and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.; Norse hopes to serve those two from Oslo as well. Both Stewart and Ft. Lauderdale were previously served by Norwegian. Norse plans to start flying next summer, initially using three 787s in a two-class configuration, and eventually to add transatlantic service to other points in Europe.

In domestic California route news, the low-cost start-up Avelo Airlines has announced plans to start operating seasonal service Dec. 16 between its Hollywood Burbank base and Tucson, Arizona, with twice-weekly flights on Thursdays and Sundays. When it began operations last spring, Avelo had a Burbank-Phoenix route but dropped it after a few months. Elsewhere, United is slated to end its Denver-Rochester, Minn. service Oct. 30, and Delta will eliminate Salt Lake City-Durango, Colo., flights Nov. 1. Frontier Airlines said it will add service to Tampa in November and December from Rochester, N.Y.; New York LaGuardia; Green Bay, Wis.; Bloomington, Ill.; and Columbus, Ohio, with two to four weekly flights in each market.

Is it time to renew your five-year membership in the Transportation Security Administration’s PreCheck program? TSA this week said it has reduced its online renewal fee for PreCheck from $85 to $70, effective immediately. First-time enrollment still costs $85. The eight-year-old PreCheck program provides expedited airport screening lanes for members, who do not have to take off their shoes, belts, or light jackets, or remove laptops and liquids from their carry-ons. TSA said that in the past month, “96% of passengers in TSA PreCheck lanes waited less than five minutes to go through airport security checkpoints.”

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