U.K. reopens next week + new mask rules, flight attendant abuse, Avelo to Monterey, more

Gisela Steep

In the latest news, vaccinated Americans can once again visit Great Britain without undergoing a quarantine, but the U.S. continues to maintain its ban on arrivals from the U.K. and Europe; United and British Airways add more flights to London as bookings are already surging; Nevada casinos impose indoor mask […]

In the latest news, vaccinated Americans can once again visit Great Britain without undergoing a quarantine, but the U.S. continues to maintain its ban on arrivals from the U.K. and Europe; United and British Airways add more flights to London as bookings are already surging; Nevada casinos impose indoor mask rules as delta variant spreads; U.S. flight attendants suggest the number of unruly passenger incidents is worse than the official numbers suggest; low-cost Avelo Airlines adds service to Monterey and three other destinations from Burbank; airline fuel shortages could disrupt flight schedules at Reno-Tahoe and Fresno; Delta extends SkyMiles Medallion status through January 2023, hires hundreds of customer service reps, and waives Basic Economy change fees; United economy customers can now preorder meals, snacks and drinks; American forms a new alliance with a South American airline; and international route news from United, Virgin Atlantic, Air Canada, Frontier and Spirit.

The United Kingdom is finally opening up to U.S. tourists — and really soon. In an unexpected announcement, U.K. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said on Twitter this week that fully vaccinated citizens of the U.S. and the European Union (except France) will be able to enter Britain starting Aug. 2 without having to go through a quarantine after arrival. The U.S. was granted entry rights even though it remains on the U.K.’s “amber list” of countries with some COVID risk. Vaccinated American visitors will need to show proof of their inoculation status and will also have to get a negative COVID test result before their trip and again two days after arrival, but a second post-arrival test on the eighth day will no longer be required.

The Biden Administration has been in discussions with the U.K. and the E.U. about removing the U.S. ban on transatlantic travel even as most European nations have already started to admit U.S. citizens who are vaccinated and/or pre-tested. But those talks didn’t work out as the Europeans had hoped. The White House said this week that considering the ongoing surge in COVID delta variant cases, the U.S. will leave its current travel restrictions in place, meaning that residents of the U.K. and Europe’s Schengen area (i.e., most of the countries on the continent) still can’t come here, whether they are vaccinated or not. The U.S. last week raised its advisory for U.K. trips to Level 4 — “do not travel” — and now it has done the same for Spain and Portugal based on advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even though it’s only one way for now, the resumption of U.S.-U.K. tourist travel has been the subject of intense lobbying by airlines and other travel industry interests on both sides of the Atlantic for months. Great Britain is the number one European destination for U.S. travelers, and though the peak summer travel season is already half over, airlines and hotels can now start to collect some of that desperately needed revenue.      

With the U.K. opening to vaccinated U.S. travelers, United Airlines said this week it is adding more capacity to London Heathrow effective Aug. 2. The carrier will add a second daily departure to LHR from its Washington Dulles hub and will increase frequencies on the Houston-London route from five a week to daily. United said its August schedule also includes a continuation of daily London flights from San Francisco, Chicago and Newark. The airline said it expects to continue operating that schedule during September, and that it “looks forward to resuming additional London service in the coming months as well as launching new nonstop service between Boston and London.” British Airways said its bookings from the U.S. “surged by 95% within hours of the U.K. government announcement,” so it is increasing transatlantic capacity. On Aug. 16, BA will boost its New York JFK-London Heathrow schedule from 17 to 21 flights a week and will increase LAX-LHR and Chicago-LHR from seven weekly flights to 10. On Aug. 23, LAX-LHR service will get an additional four weekly flights, to twice-daily operations, and Seattle-LHR will increase from four flights a week to seven. The airline said it will “continue to broaden its schedule between the USA and U.K. throughout September.”

The opening up of travel to London couldn’t have come at a better time for JetBlue, which is scheduled to begin New York JFK-London Heathrow service on Aug. 11. The British announcement apparently caught JetBlue off guard, because just two days earlier the carrier said that because of U.K. travel restrictions, it was going to reduce frequencies on its new JFK-LHR route from daily to four flights a week in September. There’s no word yet whether the September cuts will remain in place. JetBlue also plans to add JFK-London Gatwick flights on Sept. 29.

As indoor mask mandates spread through California (including Disneyland) due to the rise of the COVID delta variant — especially among the unvaccinated — there’s a new indoor mask mandate in neighboring Nevada, too, and it could affect travelers’ decisions on whether to visit or not. Following the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nevada’s Gaming Control Board this week ordered that face masks must be worn by all casino employees and guests, effective immediately. The new rule applies at casinos in Las Vegas, Reno and Tahoe — a total of 12 counties in all (Carson, Churchill, Clark, Douglas, Elko, Esmeralda, Lincoln, Lyon, Mineral, Nye, Washoe and White Pine). From early June to late July, the number of new daily COVID cases in the state shot up from 132 to 870.  As more frightening news emerged this week about the transmissibility of the delta variant, travelers should expect to see mandatory mask rules popping up all over the place. Example: In New York City, The Broadway League said this week its 41 member theaters will require vaccinations and masks for all audience members through October.

A Delta flight attendant works with a protective mask and gloves during a flight to Philadelphia, Nov. 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)Paul Sancya/Associated Press

We’re all aware by now that the number of “unruly passenger” incidents on U.S. airlines is skyrocketing this year – but is it even worse than the official numbers we’ve seen? The Federal Aviation Administration says it has received more than 3,600 such incident reports from the airlines so far this year, but a new survey from the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA suggested that in-flight misbehavior is now almost commonplace, and that airlines may not be reporting all of it to the government. So what’s life like for a flight attendant these days? According to AFA’s survey of 5,000 members, 85% of them said they had to deal with unruly travelers so far in 2021. More than half (58%) said they did so at least five times, and 17% said they were involved in a “physical incident.” 

And how are the airlines and the FAA treating the situation? “Survey data confirmed that existing measures were failing to address the problem,” the AFA said. “Seventy-one percent of flight attendants who filed incident reports with airline management received no follow-up and a majority did not observe efforts to address the rise in unruly passengers by their employers.” The organization said that the “vitriol verbal and physical abuse” from passengers “is completely out of control.” Asked to characterize the behavior of misbehaving passengers, flight attendants reported “extensive verbal abuse, including from visibly drunk passengers, passengers yelling and swearing in response to masking directions, and often aggressively challenging flight crew working to ensure compliance with federal rules. Many respondents recounted aggressive incidents, including shoving, kicking seats, throwing trash at flight crew, defiling the restroom in response to crewmember instructions, and following flight crew through the airport to continue yelling and harassment,” the AFA said.

BURBANK, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 28: Avelo Airlines takes off with first flight between Burbank and Santa Rosa at Hollywood Burbank Airport on April 28, 2021 in Burbank, California.

BURBANK, CALIFORNIA – APRIL 28: Avelo Airlines takes off with first flight between Burbank and Santa Rosa at Hollywood Burbank Airport on April 28, 2021 in Burbank, California.

Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Avelo Air

California’s new ultra-low-cost carrier Avelo Airlines, based at Hollywood Burbank Airport, is coming to Monterey. That’s one of four destinations Avelo will add to its route map in September and October, along with Provo and St. George, Utah, and Ft. Collins-Loveland, Colorado. All four routes will initially get two flights a week. The Monterey-Burbank service launches Sept. 30, while Provo flights begin Sept. 17, Ft. Collins Oct. 6 and St. George Oct. 7.

Are you planning to fly out of Reno-Tahoe Airport in the coming weeks? Better keep checking the schedules. A group of airlines asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to take emergency action that could help alleviate a shortage of aircraft fuel at the airport. They said that flight schedules could be disrupted unless FERC can provide the airport with an extra 541 barrels of jet fuel per day through the first week of September. Besides passenger flights, the fuel is also needed for firefighting efforts and for transporting medical workers and supplies. And apparently it’s not just a problem at Reno-Tahoe. According to wire service reports, American Airlines sent its pilots a memo this week urging them to conserve jet fuel supplies as much as possible, citing a problem with transportation logistics, including a shortage of fuel trucks and drivers. The Associated Press said this is causing flight delays and cancellations at other airports in the West, including Fresno, Calif., and Bozeman, Mont.

Delta A350 vamping on the ramp at LAX

Delta A350 vamping on the ramp at LAX

Tim Jue

Delta SkyMiles elite members got some good news from the carrier this week: It is automatically extending their 2021 Medallion status by another year, to Jan. 31, 2023 (that includes members of the airline’s super-elite, invitation-only Delta 360 program). In addition, the validity of all unused Global and Regional Upgrade certificates currently held by Diamond and Platinum Medallions has also been extended to Jan. 31, 2023. The same extension applies to unused benefits of Delta SkyMiles American Express Card members, including companion certificates (Delta Platinum and Reserve Cards), Sky Club one-time guest passes (Delta Reserve Card) and $100 Delta flight credits (Delta Gold Card). The airline’s new policy of allowing members to earn status credit on award travel has been extended for another year, through Dec. 31, 2022; and all Medallion Qualification Miles in a member’s account balance at the end of 2021 will automatically roll over into 2022. 

Meanwhile, Delta CEO Ed Bastian said this week that the airline has launched a major effort to improve its customer service levels, which have suffered greatly this year – especially its phone lines, where some customers have reportedly been on hold for hours before they could talk to a service rep. Bastian said that as flight bookings have surged this year, Delta has run into “unforeseen challenges” in staffing its call centers, so it is bringing back “hundreds of Delta alumni” to reduce wait times and hiring 1,300 new ones who will be trained and at work by September. The CEO encouraged customers who need to cancel or change flight plans to use the Fly Delta app or the airline’s website rather than calling on the phone. He also announced that effective immediately, Delta is waiving change fees through Dec. 31 for passengers traveling on Basic Economy fares. 

Airplane food (Flickr / Calgary Reviews)
Airplane food (Flickr / Calgary Reviews)

United also announced a new customer service enhancement this week. It said flyers in all classes of service, including economy, can now use the airline’s mobile app to pre-order in-flight meals, snacks and beverages up to five days in advance. The new option was created as an extension of United’s digital payment platform that lets customers store credit card information in the app’s wallet. Pre-ordering is now available on United flights from Chicago to Sacramento, Orange County, San Diego and Honolulu, and will be extended to all flights over 1,500 miles by this fall.

American Airlines’ network planning department seems to be focusing on the western hemisphere these days. Last year, it negotiated a new West Coast partnership with Alaska Airlines (which has since joined AA’s global Oneworld alliance) and one in the Northeast with JetBlue to coordinate schedules out of New York and Boston. And now American is turning its gaze to the south, announcing this week a new South American deal with JetSMART. That’s the name of a low-cost carrier based in Chile and Argentina that operates a fleet of Airbus A320s to 33 regional destinations on the continent. American said it plans to acquire a minority stake in JetSMART and to link the two airlines’ route networks through connections at Santiago and Buenos Aires. The deal will create code-sharing between the two carriers and let American AAdvantage customers earn and redeem miles on JetSMART. 

Cape Town, South Africa.

Cape Town, South Africa.

Chris McGinnis

In international route news, United plans to scale back its service to South Africa, trimming its Newark-Johannesburg schedule from daily flights to five a week Sept. 7-Dec. 1 and pushing back the resumption of Newark-Cape Town operations from October to Dec. 1, when it will offer three weekly flights on that route. Virgin Atlantic inked a new code-share agreement with Middle East Airlines-Air Liban that it says will accommodate U.S. travelers heading to Beirut. “Customers booking through Virgin Atlantic are now able to travel between U.S. airports such as Boston, New York JFK and Los Angeles and Beirut, connecting seamlessly between the two airlines at London Heathrow Terminal 3 with a single booking reference and check in,” Virgin said. Air Canada on Aug. 1 will bring back daily flights between San Diego and Vancouver. Frontier’s latest route announcements included new weekly service from Denver to Belize starting Dec. 11 and new routes coming in November and December from Orlando to Montego Bay, Jamaica; Nassau, Bahamas; Antigua & Barbuda; San Salvador, El Salvador; Cozumel, Mexico; Liberia, Costa Rica; Belize; and Turks & Caicos. And Spirit Airlines on Nov. 17 will introduce service to the new Palmerola Airport at Tegucigalpa, Honduras from Ft. Lauderdale, Miami and Houston.

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