Routes: UK eyes late summer reopening, SFO to get more warm-weather routes, rowdy fliers get fined – SF Gate

In this week’s roundup, the Transportation Security Administration is encouraging travelers to join its PreCheck program as screening lines grow longer; the U.K. opens the door a bit to international travel, but not yet for American visitors; Delta and Virgin Atlantic move at London Heathrow as a terminal there reopens; Virgin and British Airways prepare procedures for bringing vaccinated travelers to London; the FAA issues a public service ad to shame rowdy passengers and issues heavy fines against nine more of them; United and Delta will boost service to leisure destinations for the winter; low-cost Avelo Airlines will drop two routes out of Burbank; American expands at its Miami hub; Australia is tougher than ever to get to; new international routes opened up by United, Delta and Air France; SFO offers free COVID-19 test kits for inbound international travelers; EVA Air launches a digital health app for SFO-Taipei flights; and Mineta San Jose is making library e-books available to travelers for free.

As the number of U.S. air travelers continues to rise toward pre-pandemic levels, the Transportation Security Administration is encouraging passengers to avoid long security lines by joining its PreCheck trusted traveler program, which provides expedited processing at the airport. The agency said this week that over the July 4 holiday weekend, the number of passengers screened on one day — July 1 — topped 2,147,000, exceeding the number for the same date in 2019. TSA is hiring hundreds of new airport screeners as it tries to keep up with the growing demand. Overall, TSA screenings during the holiday weekend reached 83% of pre-pandemic levels, TSA said, but there was a big difference in wait times between PreCheck versus non-PreCheck passengers. “Over the course of the long weekend, 99.7% of passengers in standard screening lanes waited less than 30 minutes, and 99% of TSA PreCheck passengers waited less than 5 minutes,” TSA said. Joining PreCheck requires filling out an online application and then visiting one of hundreds of enrollment centers nationwide for a personal interview. The $85 fee provides a five-year membership; enrollees get a membership number to include on future airline reservations, guaranteeing access to the faster screening lanes. “With some airports already exceeding 2019 travel volumes and many not far behind, we expect the summer to remain busy for travel,” said TSA Administrator David Pekoske.

TSA PreCheck line entry.

TSA PreCheck line entry.

TSA

In a side note, Pekoske reported on a disturbing trend in these days of irate air travelers. You’d expect that by now, everyone heading to the airport would know enough to leave their firearms at home or pack them in their checked luggage, but they don’t. The TSA chief said that over the holiday weekend, TSA inspectors found 70 guns in passengers’ carry-on luggage.

As airlines and consumers on both sides of the Atlantic become more frantic about the continued shut-down of U.S.-U.K. travel during the peak summer season, there was a sign of progress last week toward reopening the corridor. Under current rules, everyone entering the U.K. from a country on that government’s medium-risk “amber list” (which includes the U.S.) — whether U.K. residents or foreigners — is subject to a 10-day quarantine regardless of COVID-19 status. But effective July 19, U.K. residents who are fully vaccinated are exempt from quarantine when they return from an amber list nation, the country’s transport secretary said this week (although they’ll still have to take a COVID test before and after their return flight). That won’t be much help for Britons who want to come to the U.S., since the U.S. government still doesn’t allow them to travel here. And it still subjects Americans to the quarantine requirement. But U.K. Transport Minister Grant Shapps said more changes are in the works, as the government plans to “extend our approach to vaccinated passengers from important markets and holiday destinations later this summer, such as the United States and the E.U.”

Even though travel to the U.K. remains restricted for now, airlines and airports are preparing for a surge in traffic when it resumes. At London Heathrow, for instance, Delta and its partner Virgin Atlantic said they will move back into Terminal 3 on July 15 when that facility reopens after being shuttered for more than a year. Virgin’s clubhouse in that terminal will also reopen, available to Virgin’s elite-level fliers and eligible Delta customers. Both airlines had moved to Terminal 2 during the pandemic. American Airlines, which formerly used Terminal 3, now operates out of partner British Airways’ home base in Terminal 5 and will stay there. Other airlines that had moved from T3 to T2 and T5 are expected to come back to the reopened terminal in the weeks ahead.

Virgin Atlantic flies 787 Dreamliners between London Heathrow and SFO.

Virgin Atlantic flies 787 Dreamliners between London Heathrow and SFO.

Virgin Atlantic

Meanwhile, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Heathrow Airport are teaming up to test new COVID clearance procedures that can speed up processing of fully vaccinated travelers, hoping to give the U.K. government another reason to open up to visitors from countries on its amber list. The pilot project will seek vaccinated volunteers on flights to LHR from Los Angeles and New York and will verify their health status “upstream and away from the border, ensuring no further pressure in U.K. immigration halls,” the airlines said. Vaccine verifications will be provided by government-recognized paper certificates or digitally through apps like VeriFly (British Airways) or a new tool developed by Virgin and Delta. “As the proof-of-concept develops, the options for customers to show vaccine status will rapidly be expanded, across physical, digital and integrated formats, including IATA Travel Pass,” the airlines said.

The Federal Aviation Administration is trying everything it can think of to stem the tide of bad in-flight behavior by irate airline passengers. First it adopted a “zero tolerance” policy for such activity, slamming violators with five-figure fines. More recently, the Transportation Security Administration revived self-defense classes for cabin crew members. And now the FAA has come out with a new public service announcement apparently intended to shame travelers from giving in to their terrible tempers. The ad, available on YouTube, is a series of filmed comments from young children who speak out about why it’s a bad idea to disrupt a flight. “They should know better if they’re, like, adults,” one kid remarks. 

The FAA also released a summary of its most recent enforcement actions against fliers who violated its in-flight regulations, assessing a total of $119,000 in civil penalties against nine more individuals, some of whom were arrested upon landing. As usual, most of the incidents involved face mask violations and excessive drinking. A typical case cited a woman who refused to wear a mask and who was traveling with a group that “continued to play loud, obscene music and used obscene language against the flight attendants and other passengers,” the FAA said. When the captain took the plane back to the gate and came down the aisle to tell the woman she would have to deplane, “she began to argue and use obscene language with the captain. As she stood up to leave the aircraft, she punched the female passenger who was seated in front of her, holding a small infant, in the back of the head,” the FAA said. She drew a fine of $18,500. In another case, a man who apparently changed his mind about taking his flight called 911 as it pulled away from the gate and claimed the aircraft was being hijacked by someone holding a flight attendant at knifepoint. He asked the dispatcher to stop the flight, and it worked — up to a point. The pilot taxied to a cargo ramp where “law enforcement boarded the aircraft armed with rifles and evacuated passengers and crew.” But this guy wasn’t finished: “While at the cargo ramp, the passenger called the FBI and made mention of a bomb. The aircraft was temporarily taken out of service for bomb screening,” causing a delay of several hours. His fine was $10,500. 

United Airlines aircraft are on the tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles on Oct. 1, 2020. 

United Airlines aircraft are on the tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles on Oct. 1, 2020. 

Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Since business trips are coming back much more slowly than vacation travel, major airlines are continuing to focus on the leisure market in their upcoming winter schedules. United said this week it will significantly increase its operations to warm-weather and beach destinations this winter in the U.S., Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America. That will include up to three additional flights a day from San Francisco to Orlando and Fort Myers, and up to four additional daily flights from Los Angeles to Orlando, Tampa and Fort Myers. And Delta is planning winter ski service to 10 Rocky Mountain destinations this winter, including daily flights from Los Angeles to Aspen, Colorado; Sun Valley, Idaho; and Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

The new California-based low-cost carrier Avelo Airlines (read more about it here), which operates out of Hollywood Burbank Airport, is taking a second look at its route network. The company plans to drop two of its 12 current routes in the months ahead, including Burbank-Grand Junction, Colorado, on Aug. 16 and Burbank-Bozeman, Montana, on Sept. 15. On some other routes, Avelo will reduce flight frequencies as it tries to get a better handle on its market. But it’s hardly unusual for an airline to make schedule adjustments from time to time, and the carrier also suggested that it expects to announce more West Coast destinations in the near future.

Avelo Airlines takes off with first flight between Burbank and Santa Rosa at Hollywood Burbank Airport on April 28, 2021, in Burbank, Calif.

Avelo Airlines takes off with first flight between Burbank and Santa Rosa at Hollywood Burbank Airport on April 28, 2021, in Burbank, Calif.

Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Avelo Air

American Airlines’ big hub at Miami International has been under assault lately, with competitors introducing new service there — e.g., Southwest entered the Miami market last fall and now has a dozen routes there; JetBlue, American’s partner in the Northeast, made its own foray into MIA this spring, introducing five routes there; and Spirit Airlines recently announced plans to fly to 30 destinations from Miami International despite its large presence at Fort Lauderdale, just up the road. Now American is striking back, adding new routes of its own this winter. That includes twice-weekly service from MIA to Chetumal, Mexico, and San Andres Island, Colombia, starting in December; seasonal daily Miami-Salt Lake City service beginning Dec. 16; and seasonal weekly flights starting in November between Miami and Albany, N ew York; Burlington, Vermont; Madison, Wisconsin; and Syracuse, New York, along with year-round weekly flights to Miami from Tulsa. And flight frequencies will be increased on some existing routes. “With today’s announcement, American further solidifies its position as the largest airline at MIA, operating 341 peak daily flights this winter,” the airline said.

American Airlines planes are seen at Miami International Airport (MIA) in Miami, Florida, March 3, 2020. 

American Airlines planes are seen at Miami International Airport (MIA) in Miami, Florida, March 3, 2020. 

Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images

Getting to Australia is tougher than ever now that the Australian government has sharply reduced the number of travelers allowed into the country to just a few hundred a day — and only Australian citizens — effective July 14 through Aug. 31. As a result, American Airlines will no longer carry passengers on its LAX-Sydney flight starting July 12 (although it will carry cargo and will take both passengers and cargo for the Sydney-LAX segment). United is planning to resume LAX-Sydney service three days a week Sept. 10, but apparently the flight will be mainly for cargo, with no more than 50 passengers allowed per flight.

With its sail-inspired tile roofs, the iconic Sydney Opera House stands as the center of bustling Sydney Harbour.
With its sail-inspired tile roofs, the iconic Sydney Opera House stands as the center of bustling Sydney Harbour.Bob McCullough/For the Express-News

In other international developments, both United and Delta this month started new service to Dubrovnik, since Croatia was one of the first European nations to reopen to American visitors. Both are flying there four times a week with 767-300ERs — United from its Newark hub and Delta from New York JFK. United has also kicked off daily service from Washington Dulles to Athens, continuing through Oct. 3. Delta partner Air France has launched a new route from Denver to Paris Charles De Gaulle, which will operate three times a week through Oct. 29. And Canadian low-cost carrier Flair, anticipating that transborder travel restrictions can’t last forever, is planning to start service Oct. 31 to six U.S. airports from eight Canadian cities. In California, that will include flights to Hollywood Burbank from Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto; and to Palm Springs from Vancouver. 

San Francisco International Airport already has several COVID testing options for outbound passengers, but now it has one for arriving travelers. The airport has teamed up with the California Department of Public Health to offer free COVID tests for inbound international travelers. The five-week pilot program is voluntary and is intended to help the state monitor for COVID-19 variants and plan mitigation strategies. Inbound travelers who want to participate will be given two free self-test kits from Abbot as well as a PCR test kit. “The first test is to be self-administered on the day of arrival, and the second test 3-5 days later,” SFO said. “The Abbot BinaxNOW test kits return results in about 15 minutes. If either result in a positive test, the participant will be directed to use the PCR test and send results to a state laboratory that monitors variants of COVID-19.” SFO said it is the first airport in the country to offer such a program.

SFO also announced that Taiwan’s EVA Air has introduced a digital health app called the ICC AOKPass, available for travel between SFO-Taipei and LAX-Taipei. “Using the app, travelers will be able to securely verify their COVID-19 test results with EVA from laboratories approved by local health authorities. They will benefit from fast-track channels in San Francisco and Los Angeles, while retaining the privacy of their personal health data,” the airport said. Travelers to and from Taipei are required to take a COVID PCR test 72 hours before departure.

Travelers who forgot to bring reading material for their flight out of Mineta San Jose Airport have a new option thanks to a partnership between the airport and the San Jose Public Library. It’s a digital “Pop-Up Library” near gates 12 and 24, with 400 e-books available for download. There’s no fee, and travelers don’t need a library card or a special app to use the service — just go to the pop-up library and connect to its Wi-Fi network, SJPL Free eBooks. “Passengers of all ages can download up to four eBooks using their smartphone, tablet, or laptop device and can enjoy them for 3 weeks,” the airport said. “Once the books are installed and downloaded, passengers can instantly open them and save them to read offline.” Selections include best-sellers, fiction, nonfiction, children’s and young adult titles. Books are available in Spanish and English, and new selections will be added every month.