In route news, Singapore Airlines will revive San Francisco flights next month; Cathay Pacific is dropping some U.S. routes; Copa is back at SFO this weekend; Frontier Airlines will move into Oakland; Southwest and Allegiant add California service; Alaska and American announce new mutual perks for their frequent flier members; major carriers extend change fee elimination to international routes; Delta pushes its empty-middle-seat promise into the spring; airlines prepare to put 737 Max aircraft back into service; Norwegian files for reorganization; new U.S.-U.K. bilateral air agreement is signed; Aer Lingus gets the nod to join AA/British Airways joint venture; Korean Air will buy a controlling stake in Asiana; and Los Angeles International opens COVID-19 testing facilities for passengers.
Singapore Airlines is coming back to San Francisco International next month following a pandemic-induced interruption of service. The airline said it will use an ultra-long-range, two-class Airbus A350-900 to fly to Singapore three times a week starting Dec. 17, with SFO departures for the 17.5-hour flights on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The SFO-SIN aircraft will have 67 seats in business class and 94 in premium economy — no regular economy. And on Dec. 2, the airline said, it plans to increase frequencies on its Los Angeles-Singapore route from three flights a week to five, using a three-class A350-900. Singapore Airlines recently resumed its New York JFK-Singapore route as well. To see Singapore’s current entry restrictions on U.S. citizens, click here.
At the same time, Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific plans to make permanent some of the COVID-related cutbacks in its U.S. routes. The carrier has reportedly decided not to restore service to Seattle, Newark, or Washington Dulles in the months ahead; Cathay service on all three routes is currently suspended because of the pandemic. The airline is currently flying to San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York JFK, and has temporarily suspended flights to Boston and Chicago.
Copa Airlines announced Friday that it will resume operations between San Francisco International Airport and Tocumen International Airport in Panama after an eight-month hiatus because of COVID-19 restrictions. In a statement, the airline said, "As of November 21, Copa Airlines will connect San Francisco to 25 destinations in 15 countries in the Americas beginning with up to three weekly flights. Flight CM382 will initially operate from San Francisco departing at 7:50 p.m. and arriving in Panama at 6:18 a.m. +1 (local time). The return flight, CM383 will depart Panama at 10:11 a.m. arriving in San Francisco at 2:58 p.m. (local time). Copa Airlines will operate this flight on a Boeing 737-800 NG with 154 passengers, 16 in business class and 138 in the main cabin." No word yet on when Copa will bring back its new 737 Max with lie-flat business class seats. (More about that here.)
On the domestic side, Frontier, Southwest and Allegiant this week all announced plans to add routes from California airports in the months ahead, with a focus on leisure destinations.
Frontier will add Oakland to its route map in February, with four flights a week to Denver starting Feb. 4 (increasing to daily March 11). On Feb. 5, Frontier will kick off twice-weekly service from OAK to Las Vegas and Phoenix, boosting frequencies on both routes to four a week on March 11. The airline already flies to Las Vegas, Phoenix and Denver from SFO, and to Las Vegas and Phoenix from San Jose. In addition, Frontier will start flying twice a week from Ontario, Calif., to San Francisco International and to Sacramento as of March 11 and 12, increasing both routes to four flights a week in mid-May. On Feb. 11, Frontier will add new service from Sacramento to Phoenix, starting with two flights a week and increasing to four on March 11. Frontier’s winter expansion also includes a number of new routes out of Denver and Orlando as well as new service from Ontario to Chicago O’Hare, Las Vegas, Miami, Orlando and Phoenix.
Meanwhile, Frontier has come out with a status match offer in its Frontier Miles program for elite members of other U.S. carriers’ loyalty programs. Frontier’s Status Match program requires verification of a frequent flier’s current status with another airline and will give applicants an equivalent level in Frontier Miles, where elite tiers include Elite 20k, Elite 50k and Elite 100k. For details and to apply, go to www.FrontierStatusMatch.com.
Southwest Airlines said this week it plans to make Long Beach its fifth California gateway to Hawaii, with daily flights to Honolulu set to begin March 11. On the same date, it will begin daily service from Orange County Airport to both Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta. Elsewhere, Southwest this week started up its previously announced Oakland-Palm Springs route. Southwest’s two daily flights are the only OAK-PSP nonstops; Alaska, United and Sun Country fly nonstop between San Francisco and PSP, and Alaska will add a nonstop from San Jose on Dec. 17.
And Allegiant will plant its flag in Santa Ana’s Orange County Airport in February, offering twice-weekly service to eight destinations, including Boise, Idaho; Grand Junction, Colorado; Medford, Oregon; Provo, Utah; Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada; Missoula, Montona; and Spokane, Washington.
Big changes are coming in the months ahead for frequent fliers at Alaska Airlines and American Airlines as those two carriers ramp up their partnership, which includes Alaska joining Oneworld on March 31. Alaska said that starting this spring, all members of its Mileage Plan elite tiers will get free access to preferred seats on American, including Main Cabin Extra seats. In addition, Alaska’s MVP Gold 75 members will be able to earn global upgrade certificates that they can use to move from the main cabin to business class on American, including its planned international nonstops from Seattle to London and Shanghai next year. “Later in 2021, Alaska MVP Gold 75K members will be eligible for unlimited complimentary, space available upgrades to business or first class when traveling on American's domestic flights,” the company said. “These benefits will be in addition to the elite perks offered as part of Alaska's membership in the Oneworld global alliance.” American’s AAdvantage members will get equivalent reciprocal benefits for travel on Alaska, the company announced.
A few months back when major carriers eliminated their change fees, that only applied for domestic flights or close-in international destinations in North America and the Caribbean. But now that policy is spreading to longer-haul flights. American said this week it is getting rid of change fees for all international flights that originate in North or South America. The expanded policy covers tickets for first class, business class, premium economy and regular economy seats, but not Basic Economy tickets. American noted that it lets customers keep the full value of eligible tickets if they change their plans: “Although customers will have to pay the fare difference for a new flight, customers will not lose their ticket value if the new flight is less expensive.” The company said it is also eliminating the service charge that formerly applied for booking through AA reservations. “The service charge had been waived during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic but will be eliminated going forward,” American said.
As soon as American’s expanded change fee waiver was announced, we got a statement from United telling us that its decision to permanently eliminate change fees “currently includes Basic Economy and International tickets booked through the end of this year. United plans to announce an extension of its change fee waiver for Basic Economy and International tickets later this year to continue to offer more flexibility to all customers who travel with us.”
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Delta Air Lines continues to double down on its empty-middle-seat pledge as its competitors drift away from that policy. Instead of ending that policy in early January as previously planned, Delta now says it will continue to block out middle seats through the end of March. “Several independent studies have validated the effectiveness of the Delta Care Standard’s multi-layered protection, like advanced ventilation and an extensive cleaning regimen, which together significantly reduce the risk of flight-related transmission,” said Bill Lentsch, chief customer experience officer. “However, we recognize some customers are still learning to live with this virus and desire extra space for their peace of mind.” American and United have already given up on empty middle seats, and Southwest will do the same on Dec. 1. JetBlue currently blocks out 30% of the available seats on its aircraft, and will reduce that to 15% on Dec. 2, continuing to offer some empty middle seats through Jan. 7.
Now that the Federal Aviation Administration has finally given airlines the green light to bring their 737 Max jets back into service after they make the required software changes and retrain their pilots, carriers are laying plans to insert the aircraft back into their schedules. American had said previously that it expected to be the first to fly the Max, using it for one daily round-trip between Miami and New York LaGuardia from Dec. 29 through Jan. 4. “After that, we expect to gradually phase more 737 Max aircraft into revenue service throughout January, with up to 36 departures from our Miami hub depending on the day of the week,” AA chief operating officer David Seymour said this week. Alaska Airlines said that its first 737 Max, a Max 9 model, is scheduled for delivery early next year and will begin passenger service in March 2021. United is also expected to start flying the aircraft sometime in the first quarter. At Southwest, which has the largest number of Max aircraft in its all-737 fleet, CEO Gary Kelly said the 737 Max is expected to return to the skies “no sooner than the second quarter of 2021.”
What is Ireland’s equivalent of Chapter 11 in the U.S.? It’s called examinership, and that’s the process that low-cost transatlantic carrier Norwegian has put its Norwegian Air International Ltd. subsidiary into this week. The company said it will continue to operate its current route network – limited to regional flights within Europe – during the reorganization process, which it initiated in Ireland because that’s where its aircraft assets are held. Examinership under Irish law gives a company about three months of protection from creditors. Norwegian recently sounded the alarm about its fiscal situation after the Norwegian government turned down its request for a new round of financial aid. The airline’s spring 2021 schedule envisions the revival of a number of transatlantic routes, including San Francisco to London Gatwick, but Norwegian said nothing about the viability of those plans in announcing its examinership filing.
The U.K.’s ongoing separation from the European Union – aka Brexit – becomes final on Jan. 1, 2021, so on that date the U.K. will no longer be included in the Open Skies agreement that regulates air travel between the U.S. and the E.U. To preclude any service interruptions or uncertainties about the status of U.S.-U.K. air travel, those two nations this week signed their own bilateral aviation agreement, promising “a seamless transition in international air transportation markets for the traveling public,” according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. “The Agreement meets all the criteria of the U.S. Open Skies policy and provides for additional traffic rights for U.S. all-cargo operations to and from the United Kingdom,” DOT said. “The Agreement also includes the UK Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies, expanding and modernizing our air transport relationship with those regions.” But the U.K. has yet to form a new aviation agreement with the E.U., which will be needed to keep air traffic flowing smoothly between the two regions after Jan. 1.
In other trans-Atlantic developments, the U.S. DOT has tentatively approved and granted antitrust immunity to Aer Lingus in its bid to join the trans-Atlantic joint venture that currently includes American Airlines, British Airways, Iberia, Finnair and OpenSkies. The decision is likely to become final in about a month after a public comment period. Once it does, “Aer Lingus will be integrated into the joint venture’s network planning, pricing, and sales activities,” DOT said. “With Aer Lingus’ addition, over time the carriers are expected to expand capacity on some existing routes while introducing services on several new routes, allowing more options for travel to and from Ireland and the rest of Europe.”
Across the Pacific, meanwhile, airline consolidation is coming to Korea, as Korean Air plans to spend $1.6 billion to acquire a controlling 64% stake in financially troubled Asiana Airlines. Asiana currently flies from Seoul Incheon to San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York JFK; Korean Air serves those U.S. destinations along with Seattle, Boston, Washington Dulles, Atlanta, Dallas/Fort Worth and Chicago O’Hare. The acquisition isn’t expected to close until the second half of next year. Korean Air is a joint venture partner of Delta and a member of that carrier’s Skyteam global alliance, while Asiana belongs to United’s Star Alliance. Together, their combined operations would create the world’s 15th largest carrier. According to Reuters, a Korean Air official said that for the immediate future, KAL and Asiana will continue to operate as separate entities, “but once integrated, Asiana’s brand will be phased out.”
More and more airports are adding on-site COVID-19 testing facilities for travelers these days, and Los Angeles International this week opened three of them. Airport officials said the new testing sites are a “pilot program” that will be “replaced and enhanced with a full, on-site rapid testing laboratory in early December.” Operated by Clarity Lab Solutions, the three locations will offer FDA-approved PCR nasal swab tests for $150 and will provide results directly to participants within 24 hours. The facilities are in Terminals 2 and 6 on the Lower/Arrivals level at the information booth and in the Tom Bradley International Terminal on the Upper/Departures level at the check-in counters located in Aisle C, along the north side of the terminal. No appointments or reservations are required, and the facilities will be open seven days a week from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. LAX officials said the permanent testing facility coming in December will be across from Terminal 6 on the Lower/Arrivals level, and it will offer both the PCR test and a rapid antigen test, with results available in just a few hours.
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