Another big FAA fine + vaccines and travel, Spring Break, SFO testing, route news, more

In this week’s air travel news, the FAA has issued another huge fine against a disruptive airline passenger; the CDC still advises against travel, even for vaccinated individuals; spring-breakers are taking to the air even though some destinations are advising them to stay away; Greece and Belize are opening their borders to vaccinated travelers without a testing or quarantine requirement, and Hawaii is working on plans to do the same; San Francisco International moves its rapid COVID testing center this week; Alaska Airlines unveils more new routes and will begin code-sharing with American in more markets (including one from SFO) as AA plans a big build-up at Austin; Southwest Airlines adds three more U.S. airports to its network; Spirit Airlines will offer the only non-stop service between Los Angeles and New York LaGuardia; the JetBlue founder’s new startup carrier gets DOT approval; United trims summer international route plans from Washington Dulles; Japan Airlines returns to San Diego; and British Airways gives its frequent flyers a break.

The Federal Aviation Administration has struck again in its new crackdown on unruly airline passengers, this time slapping a $14,500 fine on a traveler who refused to obey flight attendants. Last week, we reported on the FAA’s imposition of a $27,500 civil penalty against a Delta passenger who struck a flight attendant, part of a new get-tough policy on in-flight behavior that the agency announced in January. In the latest case, the disruptive flyer didn’t hit any of the flight crew, but was loud and obnoxious, causing the flight to return to the airport. According to the agency, the incident happened on a Dec. 23 JetBlue flight from New York to the Dominican Republic.

“The passenger crowded the traveler sitting next to him, spoke loudly, and refused to wear his face mask,” the FAA said. Flight attendants moved the seatmate to another location and warned the unruly passenger about his refusal to wear a face mask and his continued imbibing of alcohol that he brought on board himself, which are both violations of FAA rules.

“Despite these warnings, the passenger continued to remove his face mask and drink his own alcohol,” the FAA said, leading the captain to declare an emergency and take the plane back to JFK Airport, where it landed “4,000 pounds overweight due to the amount of fuel on board.”

A man receives a nasal swab COVID-19 test at Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).

A man receives a nasal swab COVID-19 test at Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Plenty of potential air travelers were hoping that the newest COVID guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, issued last week, would say it is OK for individuals who complete their vaccinations to take flight once again – but it didn’t, much to the dismay of the airline industry. CDC officials were reportedly planning to ease travel restrictions for vaccinated Americans, but decided at the last minute to leave that out of the new guidance. That means the agency’s previous warnings remain in effect, and Americans should continue to avoid all unnecessary travel, even if they are fully vaccinated.

“Travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. CDC recommends that you do not travel at this time. Delay travel and stay home to protect yourself and others from COVID-19,” the agency’s travel guidance says. You can see the full CDC travel policy here.

The younger segment of the population is the least likely to be vaccinated, but that isn’t stopping many of them from hitting the road for their traditional spring-break trips – a season that is now in full swing. On five of the first 10 days in March, the number of TSA passenger screenings at airports topped 1 million, a relatively high number in the pandemic era. Orlando International Airport officials said last week that they are expecting traveler numbers during spring-break season (Feb. 28 to April 13) to increase by 600,000 over the same period last year – a jump of 45%. (By comparison, the number of spring-break travelers at the airport last year fell by 1.8 million from 2019 levels, so this year’s number is still historically low.)

But faced with the prospect of hundreds of unmasked revelers hitting their beaches and potentially spreading the virus, some destinations are less than enthusiastic about welcoming them. According to various press reports, the city manager of Miami Beach has suggested that spring-breakers should go to Las Vegas. The public health director of Los Angeles County, still reeling from a massive virus outbreak, said that “spring travel can lead to another surge that, frankly, would be almost impossible to tolerate,” and warned that anyone arriving from out of state is still required to quarantine for 10 days. UC Davis is offering students $75 gift cards if they stay in town during the school’s March 22-26 break. And the U.S. Embassy in Mexico said in a statement that “U.S. citizens should reconsider Spring Break and other non-essential travel to Mexico due to COVID-19,” noting that “cases and hospitalizations remain high in most of Mexico,” and that Americans who do vacation there have to produce a negative COVID test result before they can board a flight home.

Last year, in March 2020, Miami Beach closed off its beaches to spring break visitors and asked them to refrain from large gatherings.

Last year, in March 2020, Miami Beach closed off its beaches to spring break visitors and asked them to refrain from large gatherings.

Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images

As vaccination numbers continue to grow – in the world’s wealthier countries, at least – there is a growing consensus that destinations could reopen their borders without other restrictions (like testing and quarantines) for those who got their COVID shots. The latest examples are Greece and Belize. Greece’s tourism minister, Harry Theocharis, said last week that the country is preparing to reopen this summer – perhaps as soon as mid-May, according to a Reuters report. “Tourists will be welcome if before travel they are either vaccinated, or have antibodies, or test negative. All tourists will be subject to random testing,” he said. Greece depends heavily on tourism, and it has been urging member countries of the European Union to open their borders to vaccinated visitors this year by adopting a standardized vaccination passport. And Belize said it is now allowing travelers to enter the country without a COVID test if they can show documentation proving that they were vaccinated at least two weeks before arrival.

The state of Hawaii is working on plans to exempt vaccinated mainland visitors from its mandatory 10-day quarantine, just as it currently exempts those who show a negative COVID test. However, local news reports suggest that program isn’t likely to take effect until May at the earliest, as Hawaii Gov. David Ige is concerned about the CDC’s continuing guidance against all nonessential travel. “In addition, there is currently no way to verify if a person has been vaccinated, and there isn’t sufficient information on the length of the vaccine’s efficacy beyond three months,” Ige said last week.
With the focus of public health officials shifting gradually from COVID testing to vaccinations, the travel industry is pressuring the federal government to come up with a standardized “health passport” that can be used by all travelers and will be universally accepted as proof that they have been tested and/or immunized. More than two dozen airline, travel and business groups sent a letter to the White House last week urging the Biden administration to take the lead in creating standardized health credentials that could facilitate the resumption of travel. However, the groups also said that a COVID vaccination should not become mandatory for travel, either domestic or international.

Speaking of testing, San Francisco International Airport said its on-site rapid COVID testing center, which opened in July, is moving on March 15. It will still be in the International Terminal, but will move from Level 1, Courtyard A to Level 3, at the Aisle 6 ticket counter in the Edwin M. Lee International Departures Hall. SFO said the new location for the appointment-only testing center “will provide travelers with easier access to other airport facilities for their travel, including ticket counters, security checkpoints, and shopping and dining.” Travelers can book an appointment through the GoHealth Urgent Care site here.

Alaska is flying new routes to destinations in the Pacific Northwest, including to one in Northern California.

Alaska is flying new routes to destinations in the Pacific Northwest, including to one in Northern California.

Mike Siegel/TNS

U.S. airlines are continuing to add new domestic routes as travel slowly revives, concentrating on destinations that would likely appeal to leisure travelers. Alaska Airlines last week announced four more new routes beginning June 17, including one to Northern California. The airline said it will introduce daily year-round Q400 flights from its Seattle hub to Redding, Calif., and to Idaho Falls, Idaho, along with daily E175 service to Boise from Austin and Chicago O’Hare.  And Southwest Airlines, which has already added 14 new destinations to its route map since the pandemic started, just announced three more, with plans to begin service at Eugene, Ore.; Bellingham, Wash.; and Myrtle Beach, S.C. – although in typical Southwest fashion, it didn’t immediately say when, or where it will fly from those airports. (Last week, Southwest also kicked off its previously announced new service at Colorado Springs Airport, with flights to Denver International, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Dallas Love Field and Chicago Midway.)

The next phase of Alaska Airlines’ growing partnership with American Airlines will include more code-sharing in the western states starting May 6. American said last week it will put its AA code on Alaska’s flights between San Francisco and Austin, San Diego-Austin and Portland-Austin, as well as Austin-Seattle and Alaska’s recently announced Austin-Boise service. That’s just part of American’s plan for substantial growth at Austin this summer. On May 6, AA said, it will begin new daily service from Austin to Las Vegas, Nashville, Orlando and New Orleans, followed by new routes from Austin to Tampa starting June 3, Raleigh-Durham beginning July 2, and Washington Dulles starting Aug. 17. American said it sees real promise for the Austin market due to “the exponential growth of the region.”

One new route announcement last week really caught our eye: Spirit Airlines said that on June 12, it will begin new non-stop service between Los Angeles International and New York LaGuardia. You know how many airlines fly non-stop between LAX and LGA? None. That’s because LaGuardia has a “perimeter rule” banning flight of more than 1,500 miles. However, there are two exceptions: One is for flights from LGA to Denver and the other is for flights on Saturdays. And that’s the loophole Spirit will use: Its LAX-LGA flights will only operate once a week, on Saturdays. Spirit said it will also introduce new service from LaGuardia to San Juan in April and to Nashville in May, and will expand its space at the New York airport by moving all Ft. Lauderdale departures to Terminal A, the old Marine Air Terminal. Meanwhile, Spirit also announced last week it will add St. Louis to its network, launching daily flights starting May 27 to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Orlando and Ft. Lauderdale.

The U.S. Dept. of Transportation last week gave its approval for Breeze Airways to begin interstate passenger operations. Breeze, the startup carrier created by JetBlue founder David Neeleman, has already started hiring staff and taking delivery of 15 leased Embraer 190 aircraft, although for the longer term, it has ordered 60 Airbus A330-200s, with the first one expected in August. Under Neeleman’s business plan, Breeze will operate on routes between secondary U.S. cities that are currently unserved or underserved by existing airlines. It’s unlikely Bay Area travelers will see Breeze jets anytime soon, however. In a DOT filing last fall, Breeze said it expects to begin flying from a city in the southeast to four northeastern airports, then expand to another southern airport with flights to points in the northeast, southeast and southern plains. It did not name any of the airports.

In international developments, the ongoing stagnation of travel has reportedly led United Airlines to give up on a number of global routes from its Washington Dulles hub this summer, as the carrier has decided to suspend them at least through October. That includes United transatlantic service from IAD to Amsterdam, Dublin, Geneva, and Tel Aviv, as well as transpacific service from IAD to Beijing and Tokyo Haneda. Seasonal summer flights from Dulles to Edinburgh and Lisbon will be dropped for 2021. In other news, Japan Airlines has resumed service three days a week between San Diego and Tokyo Narita, a route that is code-shared with American Airlines. And British Airways said it will give a break to its most frequent flyers by extending their Executive Club tier status for another year if it is due to expire in 2021.