SFO to require vaccination, United travel credits, U.S. reopens to int’l visitors, more

Versie Dortch

In this week’s air travel developments, United Airlines introduces new flexibility and transparency for customers holding travel credits; the Biden administration will reopen the country to vaccinated international travelers in November, with new entry rules that also affect U.S. citizens; United says it’s ready to check vaccine certificates if a mandate is extended to domestic flights; the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reports that 10,000 of its workers have tested positive for COVID; the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) defends its efforts to curb unruly behavior from passengers, as Congress holds a hearing on the issue; American Airlines and JetBlue say they’ll fight a new Justice Department lawsuit aimed at blocking their Northeast Alliance; low-cost Avelo Airlines adds another Northern California route; international route news from United and Turkish Airlines; and San Francisco International Airport will require all airport workers to be vaccinated.

Are you holding travel credits on United Airlines for flights you paid for, but didn’t take during the COVID pandemic? The airline said this week that it is changing its rules and procedures to make those credits easier to use. Most significantly, United said that when customers booking new flights get to the checkout process, they will automatically see their travel credits displayed as a payment option. “This functionality will be available for MileagePlus members first, and the airline is working to roll it out to all customers in the near future,” the company said. United is also making the travel credits more flexible, allowing customers to use them for flights on partner airlines, and to apply the value of the credits toward extra-legroom seats and prepaid checked baggage. Credits can also be combined for future bookings. “Customers can now combine multiple Future Flight Credits (FFCs) or Electronic Travel Certificates (ETCs) and will soon be able to combine ETCs and FFCs together,” United said. In addition, the carrier is allowing customers to share credits issued before Aug. 31 of this year with friends and family. For more information on how to use travel credits, visit the airline’s site.

The federal government’s decision this week to end its 18-month ban on visitors from Europe, the U.K. and other nations like India, Brazil and China will also include some new requirements for U.S. citizens returning from travels abroad. The reopening — expected to begin in November after federal agencies and airlines have had time to prepare — will require international visitors to show proof of a completed COVID-19 vaccination before boarding a flight to this country. 

The U.S. will continue to require both international visitors and returning vaccinated Americans to show a negative result from a COVID test taken within three days of departure from foreign airports. But under the new rules, they will also have to undergo a rapid or PCR test within a few days after arrival. Unvaccinated Americans returning to the U.S. will have to get a negative result on a test taken one day before departure, instead of three days, from a foreign airport, and prove that they have purchased a viral test to take after they return home as well. In addition, airlines will have to collect contact-tracing information from all inbound passengers. Jeffrey Zients, the White House’s point person on COVID policy announced the general outlines of the new policy this week, with specific details to be released in the coming days.

The announcement removes a major point of contention between the U.S. and its transatlantic partners, especially since those countries reopened to American tourists earlier this year. With the U.S. reopening, demand is likely to surge, so U.S. and European airlines are expected to add more flights on existing routes this fall and resume service in markets that were suspended due to the pandemic. For example, Lufthansa said this week that its bookings jumped by 40% this week after the U.S. announced lifting its travel ban. The carrier currently operates 200 weekly flights to 17 U.S. cities, and it plans to add more. “From November, travelers will have a full range of flights at their disposal that can easily be expanded as the situation demands,” Lufthansa said. British Airways plans to resume service to London Heathrow from Austin and San Diego on Oct. 13. The U.K.-based airline data analyst OAG commented: “In every major market that has reopened, we have seen very strong immediate demand and the transatlantic will be no different to that for all airlines.”

The new U.S. policy is in line with other nations’ entry rule revisions we’ve seen in recent weeks; changes that generally make it easier for vaccinated individuals to travel internationally, but more difficult — if not impossible — for the unvaccinated.  
With the Biden Administration now planning to require vaccinations for international arrivals, there is continuing pressure from some quarters to do the same for domestic flyers. A former Biden health advisor and an immunologist noted in their Washington Post op-ed this week that after domestic air travel increased during 2020’s year-end holidays, infections did as well. “The outcome was huge surges in infections, reaching 3,500 deaths per day by January,” they wrote. To prevent a similar surge among the 80 million unvaccinated Americans in the months ahead, they recommended that the Biden administration “announce a travel (vaccination) mandate now so that more Americans are protected by Thanksgiving.” If individuals face a choice between getting the shots or staying home over the holidays, they reason, a large number would probably choose the former. United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby suggested last weekend in a CBS News interview that his company will be ready if a domestic mandate does come down. “They’ve got great data and science,” he said of the Biden administration, “and if they tell us that they want us to check everyone (for a vaccination certificate), we’re prepared to do that as well.”

TSA officers wear protective masks at a security screening area at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Monday, May 18, 2020, in SeaTac, Wash.

TSA officers wear protective masks at a security screening area at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Monday, May 18, 2020, in SeaTac, Wash.

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

TSA screeners would probably welcome a vaccination requirement for domestic travelers. The agency revealed last week that since the pandemic started in early 2020, more than 10,000 of its employees have tested positive for the disease — mostly airport security screeners. That number includes 571 currently active cases. The agency said 26 of its employees have died of COVID. About 72% of TSA workers are reportedly vaccinated against COVID — a number that is sure to increase with the Biden administration’s plan to make such vaccinations mandatory for all federal workers. 

On the eve of a House subcommittee hearing this week on unruly airline passengers, the Federal Aviation Administration defended its efforts on the issue, while admitting that more needs to be done. In January, the FAA initiated its “zero tolerance” campaign against misbehaving travelers, and the agency said it is now having an impact. Last week, the FAA noted, the rate of unruly passenger incidents was six per every 10,000 flights. “That’s an approximately 50 percent drop from early 2021, but it’s more than twice as high as the end of 2020. Since the FAA launched its public awareness campaign with memes and two public service announcements, the rate has fallen approximately 30 percent,” the agency said. The FAA has also created a web page at www.faa.gov/unruly, with details on the programs. The House subcommittee hearing on Thursday included graphic testimony from flight attendants on passenger abuse, and committee members debated ways the federal government could help solve the problem through new legislation or increased enforcement.

FAA officials also met with airline industry groups this week, asking them to “commit to take more action” against disruptive passengers, according to a Reuters report; it also plans to hold similar meetings with representatives of airports and labor groups. The FAA said that “additional action by the airlines and all aviation stakeholders is necessary to stop the unsafe behavior.” Both the FAA and the Justice Department this week received a letter from Senators Maria Cantwell (D.-Wash.) and Dick Durbin (D.-Ill.) – chairs of the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Judiciary Committee, respectively — urging the agencies to work together more closely on the unruly passenger problem. The senators said that civil penalties like FAA fines “are failing to deter criminal activity by airline passengers,” and noted that only the Justice Department has the authority to launch criminal prosecutions of violators. “It is critical that DOJ direct federal law enforcement agents and prosecutors to use these authorities to fully investigate reported incidents on aircraft,” they wrote, “and, when supported by the evidence, prosecute those who are criminally responsible.” 

Scott Kirby, president of United Airlines since 2016, sat down with Chris McGinnis for a wide-ranging interview on March 28, 2019.

Scott Kirby, president of United Airlines since 2016, sat down with Chris McGinnis for a wide-ranging interview on March 28, 2019.

United Airlines

United CEO Scott Kirby said in a CNN interview that incidents of passengers refusing to wear masks have declined by 50% since the beginning of the year; the airline has banned almost 1,000 customers from flying United because of those refusals. Kirby said United flight attendants are supplied with warning cards to give uncooperative passengers, telling them that they’ll be banned from future United flights. That usually keeps the attendants out of danger from angry flyers, he said. Meanwhile, American Airlines has changed its contract of carriage — which details the rights and responsibilities of the airline and its passengers — adding language that says any customer who displays abusive or harassing behavior towards any AA employee could be temporarily, or permanently, banned from the airline. And Delta said in a memo this week to flight attendants that it has asked all major carriers to share their internal no-fly lists with other airlines. “A list of banned customers doesn’t work that well if that customer can fly with another airline,” the memo said. Delta has banned more than 1,600 individuals since the FAA’s mask mandate took effect.

American Airlines and JetBlue are vowing to fight a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Dept. of Justice and several state attorneys general that seeks to block the two airlines’ Northeast Alliance (NEA) on the grounds that it will hurt competition and thus injure consumers. The alliance, announced last year, created a broad program of code-sharing and coordinated route planning centered at Boston and the three New York-area airports: JFK, LaGuardia and Newark. 

In announcing the DOJ lawsuit, Attorney General Merrick Garland called the American/JetBlue alliance “an unprecedented maneuver to further consolidate the industry. It would result in higher fares, fewer choices, and lower quality of service if allowed to continue.” And DOJ antitrust attorney Richard Powers said the “sweeping partnership” between the two carriers “is unprecedented among domestic airlines and amounts to a de facto merger between American and JetBlue in Boston and New York City. The impact on consumers extends far beyond Massachusetts and New York, as evidenced by the participation and our ongoing cooperation with Attorneys General from across the country, including Arizona, California, Florida, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia, in this lawsuit.” He said that if the alliance is allowed to proceed, JetBlue and American are less likely to compete vigorously against each other in other parts of the country.

JetBlue and American Airlines have joined forces to create the Northeast Alliance (NEA).

JetBlue and American Airlines have joined forces to create the Northeast Alliance (NEA).


In response, American said the alliance has already brought increased opportunities for consumers since it has led to 58 new routes, more flights on existing routes, and code-sharing on 175 routes. According to AA CEO Doug Parker, “Before the alliance, Delta and United dominated the New York City market. The NEA has created a third, full-scale competitor in New York and is empowering more growth in Boston. Ironically, the Department of Justice’s lawsuit seeks to take away consumer choice and inhibit competition, not encourage it. This is not a merger: American and JetBlue are — and will remain — independent airlines.” JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes said the alliance is helping his carrier grow in markets where it has been denied access previously. “In New York’s airports, there has been quite literally no room for us to add flights. There are no slots available at LGA and JFK, and it remains extremely difficult to grow in Newark given gate and space constraints,” Hayes said. “Delta and United — with large international networks, ample financial resources, and significant airport gate and slot holdings — have a lock on the market and make it impossible for an airline like JetBlue to grow and introduce sorely needed low-fare competition.”

Ironically, the Justice Department lawsuit seeking to untraveled the partnership was filed shortly after the two airlines launched a new post-security bus service for connecting passengers, linking their two terminals at New York’s JFK airport.

Low-cost start-up carrier Avelo Airlines, based at Hollywood Burbank Airport, is adding another new Northern California route. Earlier this month, Avelo started flying between Santa Rosa’s Charles M. Schulz Airport and Las Vegas. Now it plans to add twice-weekly flights to Las Vegas from Redwood Coast-Humboldt County Airport — serving Eureka and Arcata — beginning Nov. 18.

In international route news, United’s plan to begin the first non-stop service between Washington Dulles and Lagos, Nigeria on Nov. 29 will be followed on Dec. 1 with the airline’s resumption of flights between Newark and Cape Town, South Africa. Meanwhile, the Points Guy reports that United will be bringing back three new 2021 transatlantic routes again in 2022, including Newark-Dubrovnik service starting May 27, Washington Dulles-Athens launching June 3, and Chicago-Reykjavik beginning May 26.

A Vietnamese groundstaff watches an Airbus A321Neo airplane of Vietnam's newly launched Bamboo Airways taxis on the runway during a welcoming ceremony on the airline's first day of operation at the Noi Bai Domestic airport in Hanoi on January 16, 2019. 

A Vietnamese groundstaff watches an Airbus A321Neo airplane of Vietnam’s newly launched Bamboo Airways taxis on the runway during a welcoming ceremony on the airline’s first day of operation at the Noi Bai Domestic airport in Hanoi on January 16, 2019. 


Representatives of San Francisco International and the Vietnamese carrier Bamboo Airways just signed a memorandum of understanding for SFO to be the first U.S. airport served by Bamboo with regular scheduled service. Although no start-up date was mentioned, Bamboo said it plans to begin operating four non-stop flights a week between SFO and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) using a 787-900 Dreamliner, increasing to daily service “based on market demand.” The size of the U.S.-Vietnam market is estimated at 800,000 passengers annually. There are currently no direct flights between the U.S. and Vietnam. When Bamboo starts service, “The nonstop flights connecting Vietnam and the U.S. will help reduce the travel time from about 20 hours to 15-16 hours compared to transit flights,” officials said. Bamboo is also working to establish a second U.S. route to Los Angeles International.

Turkish Airlines has filed for U.S. permission to expand its seven-year-old code-sharing agreement with JetBlue, which thus far has been limited to putting the Turkish carrier’s code on JetBlue domestic flights. Now the airlines want to make that reciprocal by putting JetBlue’s code on Turkish Airlines flights from the U.S. to Istanbul, and on connecting flights beyond the Turkish airport. That would permit 43 JetBlue-coded international routes like New York to Bangkok and Boston to Bahrain. 

Aerial view of San Francisco International Airport.

Aerial view of San Francisco International Airport.

Skyhobo/Getty Images/iStockphoto

San Francisco International became the nation’s first major airport to require COVID vaccinations for all its workers this week. Effective immediately, SFO said, all tenants and contractors at the airport must require on-site employees to be “fully vaccinated,” with free shots readily available at the airport’s medical clinic. Employers can grant exemptions for medical or religious reasons, but any employee that is exempted must undergo weekly testing. “Tenants and contractors will also be required to submit reports on the status of their respective workforce until all on-site personnel are fully vaccinated. Failure to comply could result in fines under the Airport’s Rule and Regulations,” SFO said.


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