Business Travel Briefing
For March 26-April 9, 2020
The briefing in brief: Airlines get $58 billion in grants and loans, but there are strings. Canada says airlines can steal fare money from flyers. If you must fly, expect much less in-flight service and dark, empty airports. Hilton extends elite status and weekend-night awards. Surprise! Real ID gets delayed--again. And much more, including our daily Coronavirus update.

The House of Representatives on Friday (March 27) should pass the mammoth $2 trillion national bailout bill and then it will be rushed to the president for his signature. If you have the stomach for it, you can download and read the leviathan legislation for yourself. If you're looking for a bullet-point rundown of how the bill will impact travel, then consider:
        U.S. passenger airlines get $29 billion, but with strings. The money can only be used to pay employee salaries. Any carrier that takes funds must agree not to lay off workers or reduce their pay and benefits through September. There are limits on executive compensation and severance pay for two years and a one-year ban on stock buybacks and dividends.
        U.S. airlines also get $29 billion in loans and loan guarantees, but those, too, will have strings. Any airline tapping a loan would have to defer pay and benefit cuts for a year and couldn't reduce its workforce by more than 10 percent. We'd get stock as collateral if the Treasury Secretary exercises the right. Airlines would also have to maintain routes deemed necessary by the Transportation Secretary.
        Airports get a $10 billion grant. If an airport takes funding, it must maintain 90 percent of its workforce.
        Amtrak receives $1 billion in assistance, about half of which is specifically earmarked for the Boston-Washington Corridor.
        Hotels receive no special treatment, but are eligible for a general loan program embedded in the legislation.

Several U.S. airlines--largely United, but Delta, too--and scattered international carriers have tried to steal their passengers' money by refusing refunds when they cancel flights. None of their alternative gambits--vouchers, long involuntary changes, invocation of obscure ticketing rules--are honorable, ethical or legal. My advice to travelers remains the same: If you used a U.S. bank's credit card to buy a ticket and your airline balks at a refund, don't waste your time fighting with them. Call your credit card company and demand a chargeback. But Canada today (March 26) inexplicably told Canadian flyers that they can pound financial sand. The Canadian Transportation Agency has ruled that Canadian airlines can refuse refunds for cancelled flights and issue vouchers instead. The agency says the voucher must be valid for two years and insists only "specific situation[s] brought before the CTA" will be considered for refunds. The agency claims it has struck a "fair and sensible balance." It hasn't, of course, only placed airline convenience over passenger and consumer rights.
        Lufthansa says all domestic German flights and flights departing Germany will come with a guaranteed empty middle seat in coach and premium economy. The policy applies until April 19. Of course, Lufthansa has slashed its schedule and customers aren't flying so maybe this is a lot less of a benefit than it seems. The chances of a crowded row are pretty slim right now. One note: Flights to Germany are exempt because the airline says it is prioritizing capacity to get German citizens home.

If you must fly, you are certainly one of the very few. The TSA said only 239,000 passengers flew yesterday (March 25) compared to 2.2 million flyers last year. And the numbers have been collapsing remarkably quickly. Just ten days ago, 1.5 million passengers flew. So traffic isn't just down 90 percent year-over-year, it's also down around 85 percent from earlier this month. If you must travel, however, you will find very little the same. Airports, including New York/Kennedy and Miami, are beginning to combine and close terminals. Almost all retail shops and most restaurants and club lounges are closed. And airlines are slashing in-flight service--such as it was--to minimize chances of community spread. Southwest Airlines, for example, is now offering only canned water. American Airlines says coach travel on routes shorter than 2,000 miles will basically be the same: mostly water and packaged snacks. First class passengers can still get booze, but no meals will be served. Delta Air Lines is offering a bit more, but not much. Internationally, British Airways has dumped glassware, menus, towels, newspaper and magazines and virtually everything else, including special-meal service. Plan accordingly, or, you know, just stay home.

As occupancy plummets--it was around 30 percent in the United States last week--hotels face a problem: As travelers stay away, they'll either have to extend elite status or risk losing their grip on guests' loyalty when they return to the road. So expect more moves like this in the weeks ahead. Hilton said this week that members whose silver, gold or diamond elite status was due to expire at the end of the month will automatically be extended through 2021. And if you already earned status for 2020, your privileges will extend through March, 2022. Any points scheduled to expire this year will automatically "pause" and remain valid for an unspecified time. Free weekend-night awards earned through a Hilton-branded credit card that might have expired this year will be extended through August 31, 2021.

Effective October 1, the TSA had threatened to stop honoring drivers licenses as identification unless they met the Real ID standards. I told you months ago that no government agency would make such a major move just a month before a presidential election and now the TSA has used the Coronavirus pandemic as an excuse. Real ID rules will now kick in on October 1, 2021. Or, you know, not. The Real ID law was passed in 2005 and has been regularly delayed because the dog ate Congress' homework. Or something equally ridiculous.
        Waffle House, which is so reliable in a crisis that FEMA has an informal Waffle House Index, has closed about a quarter of its restaurants. As of 5pm today (March 26), around 20 percent of its 2,000 shops have closed.