April 14, 2024

Banos Online

Traveling Around the World

TSA extends mask rule, Breeze blows into SFO

In this week’s roundup, TSA will extend its mask mandate for air travelers through mid-April; low-cost Breeze Airways announced plans to start flying to San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas this spring and summer; Hawaiian Airlines will add more Bay Area flights for the summer; Spirit Airlines plans a new route from Oakland and Sun Country will add one from Reno-Tahoe; Avelo expands to two more markets from Burbank; Frontier announced 27 new routes; United’s regional partner SkyWest wants to drop 29 smaller cities from its network; United extends suspension of some India flights from SFO and Newark; Aeroflot halts all international service as Russia looks for tactics to keep its airlines’ leased fleets from being repossessed; more European countries drop all COVID restrictions for foreign visitors; CDC adds New Zealand, Hong Kong and Thailand to its “do not travel” list; Mineta San Jose tests a new way for travelers with mobility issues to get to their gates; Southwest plans to add more gates at Houston Hobby; and American will split its flights between two terminals at London Heathrow.

The Transportation Security Administration’s mask mandate for travelers in commercial aircraft and airports — and those using other forms of public transportation — has been extended for another month, to April 18. The rule had been slated to expire on March 18, but the TSA said Thursday it was pushing that expiration back at the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “During that time, CDC will work with government agencies to help inform a revised policy framework for when, and under what circumstances, masks should be required in the public transportation corridor,” TSA said. “This revised framework will be based on the COVID-19 community levels, risk of new variants, national data, and the latest science. We will communicate any updates publicly if and/or when they change.” 

Two weeks ago, the CDC ended its recommendation that most Americans should wear masks in indoor public spaces, based on a significant decline in COVID case numbers in recent weeks. When that happened, there were widespread expectations that the mask mandate for public transportation might be the next to go, but the CDC decided otherwise. Since January of last year, TSA has reported a massive increase in the number of “unruly passenger” incidents aboard airlines, and most of them were individuals who refused to obey the mask mandate. Some of these cases have involved abuse of, and even violence toward, flight attendants, and the most serious incidents required unscheduled landings to remove the violators from the plane and turn them over to local law enforcement.

Breeze Airways plans to expand to the West Coast this year.

Courtesy of Breeze Airways

Breeze Airways, the new low-cost carrier developed by JetBlue founder David Neeleman, is coming to San Francisco and the western U.S. this year. Since it started flying in the middle of last year, Breeze has focused on routes mostly in the eastern half of the country, with no service west of Oklahoma and Texas. But as the airline starts to take delivery of new, longer-range Airbus A220s this year, its route map is opening up to transcontinental service. Breeze said this week it will begin flying to 10 more cities this year, including San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas; its route strategy focuses mostly on city pairs that currently have no nonstop service.

From San Francisco International, Breeze’s expanded schedule includes flights to Richmond, Virginia, starting May 25; Charleston, South Carolina, beginning May 26; and Louisville, Kentucky, as of May 27, with introductory fares starting at $99 one-way on all three routes. The Richmond and Louisville service will operate twice a week and the SFO-Charleston route three times a week. On Aug. 4, Breeze plans to introduce intrastate service between SFO and San Bernardino with daily flights and $49 introductory fares. (This will reportedly be the first commercial airline service out of San Bernardino’s airport, which currently handles only cargo and general aviation flights.) The airline normally schedules just a few flights a week rather than daily service. Between June 29 and July 1, Breeze plans to kick off flights from LAX to Providence, Rhode Island; Norfolk, Virginia; and Savannah, Georgia, also with $99 fares. Its new Las Vegas operations are slated to provide service to Richmond, Virginia; Syracuse, New York; and Fort Myers, Florida, staring in June, followed in August by flights from LAS to Charleston, South Carolina; Jacksonville, Florida; Norfolk, Virginia; and Huntsville, Alabama. Overall, Breeze will introduce 35 new routes this summer, nearly doubling the size of its network. 

During its initial operations, Breeze has been flying leased Embraer regional jets with 108 to 118 seats in an all-coach configuration. The new A220s — it has 80 on order, with more than a dozen coming this year — have 126 seats and will introduce a 36-seat first class cabin with fares that include free checked luggage, a carry-on and a drink and snack, things that cost an extra fee in coach. (Like other low-cost carriers, Breeze depends on so-called “ancillary fees” from passengers for much of its revenue.) Meanwhile, the satellite communications company Viasat said this week that it will equip Breeze’s new planes starting in October with high-capacity satellite Wi-Fi service available via passengers’ personal electronic devices. 

Hawaiian Airlines is resuming more West Coast service, including to Kona from Oakland.

Hawaiian Airlines is resuming more West Coast service, including to Kona from Oakland.

Courtesy Hawaiian Airlines

The Bay Area will also get more flight options to Hawaii this summer as Hawaiian Airlines plans to expand its schedule. Hawaiian said it will resume daily service on a seasonal basis between Oakland International and Kona on the Big Island — a route it hasn’t flown since 2016 — from June 15 through Sept. 6. The carrier already flies from OAK to Honolulu, Maui and Kauai. And from May 15 through Aug. 1, Hawaiian said, it will schedule a second daily departure from San Francisco International to Honolulu. That flight will be an eastbound red-eye, leaving Honolulu at 8:45 p.m. and arriving in SFO at 5:05 a.m.; the SFO-Honolulu segment departs San Francisco at 7 a.m. and arrives in HNL at 9:30 a.m.  

In other regional route news, May 25 is the launch date for a new Spirit Airlines route between Oakland and San Diego. The airline will operate daily flights on the route, its seventh out of OAK. Minnesota-based Sun Country Airlines plans to introduce new service on Sept. 1 between Reno Tahoe Airport and Minneapolis-St. Paul. The carrier will fly the route twice a week, on Thursdays and Sundays, with fares starting at $69 one-way. Sun Country also plans to kick off new routes to Las Vegas from Green Bay and Madison, Wisconsin, beginning Sept. 9. 

A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 taxis past an Avelo Airlines aircraft at Hollywood Burbank Airport on April 28, 2021.

A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 taxis past an Avelo Airlines aircraft at Hollywood Burbank Airport on April 28, 2021.

PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

Elsewhere, low-cost startup Avelo Airlines plans to add two more routes from its base at Hollywood Burbank Airport in late May, when it begins twice-weekly service to Boise, Idaho, and to Spokane, Wash. Low-cost Frontier Airlines this week announced its latest big expansion, with plans to add 27 new routes during April, May and June. That will include flights from Las Vegas to Albuquerque and the Mexican destinations of Guadalajara and Monterrey operating two or three times a week; and from Denver to Providence, Rhode Island; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Huntsville, Alabama; and Rochester, New York. Most of the other new routes are in the eastern half of the country, primarily out of Philadelphia, Raleigh-Durham and Atlanta.

More than two dozen smaller cities across Middle America are facing the loss of United Express flights into United’s major hubs, and for most of the affected communities, those flights represent their only commercial airline service. According to The Points Guy, all the routes involved are operated by SkyWest under Essential Air Service contracts with the federal government — i.e., they are subsidized to keep flights available in smaller markets. But SkyWest told the Transportation Department it has such a severe shortage of pilots that it just can’t keep flying all those contract routes, which it serves with 50-seat CRJ200s. SkyWest told DOT it wants to exit all 29 markets by June 10, although the agency could require the company to maintain service until it finds a replacement carrier. The affected airports are spread across 15 states, including Colorado, North Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, Michigan, West Virginia, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Last week, when long-haul global air routes were thrown into uncertainty after Europe, Canada and the U.S. banned Russian carriers from their airspace and Russia reciprocated, United said it had temporarily suspended its India routes from San Francisco to New Delhi and from Newark to Mumbai. Now United has decided those suspensions will continue indefinitely, as a viable rerouting for those flights has proven elusive. United is still flying to Delhi from Newark and Chicago O’Hare. Last month, United said its planned new route from San Francisco to Bangalore, India — which was due to begin in May — has been pushed back to October. Other carriers that suspended some service between Europe and eastern Asia last week are finding new routings. For instance, Japan Airlines has revived its Tokyo-London service by directing its planes eastward over Alaska, Canada and Greenland instead of westward over Russia, increasing flight time from 12 hours to 15. And Finnair has resumed limited service from Helsinki to Seoul and Shanghai as well as Tokyo, although it has suspended service to Osaka and Hong Kong through April.

An Airbus A320-251N passenger plane operated by Aeroflot at the Tolmachevo International Airport.

An Airbus A320-251N passenger plane operated by Aeroflot at the Tolmachevo International Airport.

Kirill Kukhmar/Kirill Kukhmar/TASS

But the Russian national carrier Aeroflot, beset not only by wide-ranging bans from flying over other countries’ airspaces but also by economic sanctions that could take away some of its aircraft, has now stopped all international flights except to Belarus. Russia’s second-largest airline, S7, did the same last week. Russian carriers have obtained hundreds of their planes from European-based leasing companies, and Europe’s economic sanctions require those firms to end their deals with Russian companies and take back their aircraft by the end of March. However, the Russian government is reportedly fighting that effort by ordering its airlines to keep their leased aircraft — worth at least $10 billion — in Russia so they won’t be subject to seizure by pro-western government authorities. The government has told its airlines to re-register those leased planes in Russia, making them harder to repossess. A Reuters report this week said the Russian government is drafting a new law that could effectively block leasing firms from taking back their aircraft from Russian operators and would require Russian airlines to pay for their leased planes not with dollars but with rubles — a massively devalued currency that no one wants these days.

More European countries are dropping all COVID-related entry restrictions for international travelers. The governments of Ireland and Hungary this week said inbound passengers are no longer required to present proof of COVID vaccinations or negative test results upon arrival, won’t have to fill out a passenger locator form and won’t be subject to testing or quarantine after arrival. Earlier, the governments of Iceland, Norway and Slovenia also dropped all COVID-related entry requirements. Meanwhile, France said that effective March 14, residents and visitors will no longer need to present a COVID vaccination passport in order to enter restaurants, bars, entertainment venues and other public places. 

New Zealand and Hong Kong have made valiant efforts over the past two years to keep COVID out — New Zealand banned foreign visitors while Hong Kong has blocked arrivals from some foreign airlines and banned international passenger connections at its airport — but to no avail as both places are now being overrun by the virus. So this week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention added New Zealand and Hong Kong to its Level 4 “do not travel” list due to the high risk of contracting the disease there. The CDC also added Thailand to the list this week.

In airport news, Mineta San Jose International this weekend started testing a new way for passengers with mobility issues to get to their gates. It’s an “autonomous wheelchair” that is free and available on demand. As the airport explains it, “The autonomous power chairs are free and easy to use: Passengers simply select a destination on a screen and the device independently navigates through the terminal to their gate, then automatically drives itself back to its base at the security checkpoint. For safety, the device is equipped with an automatic collision avoidance system.” The airport noted that the devices will not replace existing wheelchair services that require a staff escort provide by the airlines.

In 2015, Southwest Airlines opened a new five gate concourse at Houston Hobby Airport to meet its needs for international route expansions there. And now Southwest apparently needs even more space at HOU. The airline has been in talks with the Houston City Council about a project to develop another seven gates at the airport, six for domestic flights and one a common-use international gate. The council has proposed an appropriation of $20 million to Southwest to begin planning and design work for the $250 million expansion project. 

At London Heathrow, American Airlines is planning to split its presence between terminals 3 and 5 this summer. The carrier has normally operated out of Terminal 3, but its trans-Atlantic partner British Airways uses Terminal 5, and AA wants to make connections to BA and other Oneworld alliance airlines easier. So through the end of October, American said this week, its flights to London Heathrow from Dallas/Fort Worth, Los Angeles, Miami and New York JFK will arrive and depart from Terminal 5, while flights from Boston, Chicago, Charlotte, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Raleigh-Durham will keep using Terminal 3.