Business Travel Briefing
For June 11-June 25, 2020
The briefing in brief: Making sense of flying statistics during a pandemic. Hyatt Hotels mounts an impressive promotion, BA belatedly extends elite status. The next phase of the renovated LaGuardia opens this weekend. Alaska and United will ask silly health questions before you're allowed to fly. More bailouts for troubled airlines. And more, including our daily Coronavirus update.

The TSA's "throughput" numbers of people passing through airport checkpoints has provided a daily heat check on the state of commercial flying during the pandemic. What the stats tell us is open to interpretation, however. One thing they do show, however, is that a V-shaped recovery isn't in the cards. It took only 45 days to go from 2.28 million daily travelers on March 1 to about 88,000 on April 14, the lowest traffic day since the pandemic began. It took 54 days, until last Sunday (June 7) to reach a post-pandemic high of 441,000. Commercial flying is surely recovering--April 14's 88,000 was 4 percent of 2019 totals while yesterday's (June 10) of about 387,000 represents 15.4 percent--but only in fits and starts. Just 12.8 million people have flown since Monday, April 13, compared to about 141 million during a similar period in 2019. In other words, cumulative travel has been down 91 percent after travel reached its 2020 lows. The numbers don't even tell us whether leisure or business travel is leading the (ahem!) recovery. Mondays, Fridays and Sundays, all traditionally heavy business travel days, remain the busiest since the pandemic began. However, Saturdays, an almost purely leisure day, have recovered a cumulative 9.60 percent of 2019 traffic since mid-April. That's better than Mondays (9.09 percent) and Fridays (9.43 percent).

As the smallest of the major hotel chains, Hyatt should always be front-running with promotions. But it has never recovered from the ham-fisted, cost-cutting switch from the much-loved Hyatt Gold Passport to the oft-derided World of Hyatt program. That said, Hyatt has unleashed a bold promotion to jump-start business. Beginning June 15 and continuing through September 15, the Bonus Journeys scheme will award triple points for all stays starting with the second stay. Then there's the kicker. To get its best customers to put heads on beds again, World of Hyatt elites will receive 2,500 points for their first stay during the promotion. Hyatt points are generally considered the most valuable and 2,500 points are halfway to a Category 1 award. One caveat: You must register for both promotions separately. Non-elites use this link. Elites use this one.
        British Airways Executive Club members can finally exhale. The airline, last among equals, has extended elite status for a year. It also added six months to the expiration date of upgrade vouchers and other credit card perks. And tier point qualification levels have been reduced by 25 percent.

Then vice president and current presidential candidate Joe Biden once famously called New York/LaGuardia a third-world airport. That stung local burghers and they embarked on a sometimes quixotic, massively expensive revamp of the close-in, but physically hamstrung, airport. The latest upgrade comes Saturday (June 13) with a new arrivals and departure hall for Terminal B, used by United, American and Southwest airlines and Air Canada. Bright, airy, festooned with art and complete with roof deck with skyline view, the facility connects via passenger bridge to Gates 40-59. But if you're actually flying, check with your carrier because many flights still operate from the decrepit old Central Terminal Building. The gates there are connected to the new hall via a temporary walkway. The details are here.
        Calgary International may get a rail connection to downtown Calgary and Banff National Park. The Canada Infrastructure Bank and Alberta's provincial government this week signed a memorandum of understanding for the project. The rail link would run 130 kilometers and connect the airport with downtown Calgary, Cochrane, Morley, Canmore and Banff. The airport-to-city run would operate every 20 minutes. Eight daily departures to Banff are envisioned. But don't, you know, hold your breath. This one could take a while.

If you're planning to fly Alaska Airlines or United Airlines, be ready for silly-questions redux. No, they won't be going back to asking, "Did you pack this bag yourself?" or "Has this bag been in your possession since you packed it?" The new wrinkle is stupid health questions. Both carriers say you'll be asked to "affirm" your health by agreeing that you aren't a Typhoid Mary carrying Coronavirus, haven't been sick, don't have muscle aches and haven't eaten dirt recently. (Okay, I made the last one up.) Just grin and bear it because airlines are gonna airline. Meanwhile, Air Canada says it will stop guaranteeing empty middle seats after June 30. "There's just no business case and the industry can't survive with it," claimed Air Canada chief executive Calin Rovinescu. He didn't detail the business case for an airline with no passengers because they are unwilling to be seated cheek-by-jowl in the time of Coronavirus. To its credit, Alaska Airlines will ask dumb questions, but promises to block its middle seats through at least July 31.

You know what they say: Every time a bell rings, another airline gets a bailout. Here are this week's bell ringers.
        Cathay Pacific, flag carrier of Hong Kong, is getting a rescue package worth about US$5 billion. In exchange, the Hong Kong government gets a stake worth about 6 percent of the carrier. That'll dilute the shares of Cathay's other stakeholders. Swire Pacific, the parent company, will now hold around 42 percent, Air China about 28 percent and Qatar Airways about 9 percent.
        Austrian Airlines, owned by Lufthansa's parent company, gets a bailout worth about US$500 million. In exchange, the government extracted a promise from Lufthansa to grow Austrian's Vienna hub in the same proportion as Lufthansa's Frankfurt and Munich hubs. The government also set rules requiring carriers to charge at least 40 euros a ticket, which is seen as an effort to protect Austrian from low-fare competitors. There'll also be new taxes: 12 euros on all flights and an additional tax of 30 euros for any flight shorter than 350 kilometers.
        Thai Airways will get an as-yet undetermined bailout as part of last month's bankruptcy filing. The airline will have as long as seven years to get its affairs in order. Of course, that's Pad Thai in the sky since Thai Airways almost never had its affairs in order.

Under cover of pandemic, the TSA is moving ahead with a plan to photograph every traveler going through airport checkpoints. The program, which has been years in the making, is fraught with the same security and hacking problems--not to mention civil rights issues--as previous TSA efforts to track and control passenger movement. The theory? The so-called document checkers in front of security checkpoints will use what the TSA euphemistically calls "facial verification" to match you to your photo ID. Because, apparently, looking at passengers won't do that. The idiocy never ends, but you can keep up with the latest lunacy here.
        U.S.-China flights are still in flux. As we discussed in previous weeks, China first tried to stop Delta Air Lines and United Airlines from resuming flights based on a flimsy calendar issue. The U.S. responded by banning Chinese carriers from flying to the United States. China then backed off, saying it would allow Delta and United to fly once a week, which is what it allows each of a half-dozen Chinese carriers. The U.S. Transportation Department has now responded in kind, saying it'll now permit a total of two flights a week combined from all China's airlines. Stay tuned.