Business Travel Briefing
For August 20-August 31, 2020
The briefing in brief: Delta will keep middle seats empty through the end of the year. U.S. and China agree to more flights. United wants you to fly to Florida. Omni wants to sell five hotels. Emirates and Qatar Air return to Houston. Air Canada overhauls Aeroplan. And much more, including the daily Coronavirus update.

Delta Air Lines promised to continue its empty-middle-seat policy and today (August 20) extended it through January 6, 2021. Under the terms of the new policy, solo travelers and parties of two will be guaranteed an empty middle seat in coach, international premium economy and Comfort+ rows. However, middle seats now can be booked if there's a party of three traveling together, which will allow the carrier to sell a few more seats than in recent months. On aircraft without middle seats, Delta says it will block an aisle of seats through October 31. Up front, domestic first class will be capped at 50 percent capacity, although regional jets configured 1x2 will top out at 67 percent. Another adjustment: International business class on widebody aircraft will not block seats after October 1. Delta claims that's because those cabins are "designed with more space and privacy built in." Overall, the new policy allows Delta to sell more seats, but it also pressures other carriers with no-middle-seat promises to match Delta's extension. Expect similar announcements in the days ahead. Meanwhile, American and United continue to go their own ways and sell their flights to capacity wherever possible. So book accordingly--assuming you're booking at all.

After months of squabbling and sniping over capacity, the United States and China this week agreed to increase the total number of flights between the two nations to a total of eight flights a week. That means carriers on each side get to divvy up eight weekly frequencies, double the current regimen. That led Delta Air Lines and United Airlines to announce this week that they'd each double their service to Shanghai. Beginning September 4, United says it'll fly four weekly flights between San Francisco and Shanghai via Seoul's Incheon Airport. Delta's new runs begin August 24 (Monday) and will consist of two weekly flights from its Seattle/Tacoma hub and two weekly flights to its Detroit/Metro hub. Those flights will also operate via Incheon.
        Copa Airlines of Panama resumes flights to the United States. Starting Friday (August 21), the carrier will restart routes to Panama City from Miami and New York/JFK. But all is not what it seems. U.S. citizens cannot enter Panama, so Copa's flights are only of value if you're connecting onward to eight other Latin American destinations that it currently serves.

Privately owned Omni Hotels, already a niche player with only about five dozen properties in the United States, Canada and Mexico, is going to get smaller. Its sole New York City location, the Omni Berkshire, has permanently closed. And now Omni has announced it is planning to offload at least five more properties. On the block are locations in Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and Houston, Texas, and the Omni in Jacksonville, Florida. The chain says it will open three new hotels in the months ahead although a dozen of its existing properties still have not reopened since the pandemic.
        Nationwide hotel occupancy reached 50.2 percent for the week ended August 15. According to lodging statisticians, U.S. occupancy fell into the low 20s in mid-April and hasn't been as high as 50 percent since mid-March.

Houston/Intercontinental is obviously a hub for the energy business, so it's no shock that the two leading Gulf carriers--Emirates Airline and Qatar Airways--are keen to serve the market. Emirates, which suspended service in March, resumes flights between IAH and its Dubai hub on Sunday (August 23). Qatar Air restarts its flights to Doha on September 2. Separately, however, Emirates has once again suspended flights to Fort Lauderdale, a focus city for its code-share partner JetBlue Airways. The flights were expected to resume on September 1, but Emirates now says it has no idea when or if the route will return.
        Rochester, New York, this week decided to rename its airport after Frederick Douglass. The 19th-century abolitionist and writer lived in the city and is buried there. Originally known as Britton Field and most recently Greater Rochester International, the airport will get new signage, an historical exhibition and a privately financed bronze statue of Douglass.

Florida is literally the global epicenter of the Coronavirus pandemic, so United Airlines thinks you can't wait to fly off to the Sunshine State later this year. The airline says it will add 28 roundtrips to Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Orlando and Tampa. But here's the angle: All the flights are from non-United hubs such as Boston, New York/LaGuardia, Indianapolis and Milwaukee. The flights are seasonal only, mostly operating between November and January. "I don't believe United will run this stuff," a competitor told me via E-mail this week. "It seems like a stunt, a desperate attempt to utilize some aircraft." Stay tuned. Right now there isn't much appetite for Florida flying. In fact, Orlando is specifically weak with hotel occupancy under 30 percent last week at a time when lodgings usually would be a hard get.

Air Canada has dramatically overhauled the Aeroplan frequent flyer program. There are some nice quirks--family points pooling; fuel surcharges are eliminated; and distance-based award charts remain--but there are also some downsides: earnings are low for flying and free stopovers on awards are eliminated. There's also a small fee for partner award redemption. Generally speaking, however, the program does seem to be a better deal for most players. The new Aeroplan begins on November 8. More details are here.
        Breeze, the proposed start-up carrier fronted by JetBlue Airways founder David Neeleman, has backtracked on its plan to buy the operating certificate of defunct Compass Airlines. Breeze continues to insist, however, that it will launch next year.
        Brightline, the private train that connects Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, has scrapped plans to rebrand as Virgin Trains. The company, which also halted an IPO last year, continues to insist its network will reach Orlando. Of course, it's all academic at the moment considering trains aren't operating due to the pandemic.
        Gogo, the in-flight Internet service that flyers love to hate, says it wants to unload its commercial business. The company has never been profitable and sales have obviously plummeted since air travel has shriveled since the pandemic began.