Business Travel Briefing
For September 17 to 30, 2020
The briefing in brief: Salt Lake City opens first concourse of its new terminal. Hong Kong and Cathay Pacific are disappearing before our eyes. More U.S. airport clubs are reopening. Global Entry resumes operation. American Airlines reduces flight attendant staffing on many planes. All the President's Hotel Expenses. And much more, including the daily Coronavirus update.

Salt Lake City opened the first phase of a new $4.1 billion airport this week and there's a lot of whistling past the metaphoric graveyard on continued construction. As airport officials point out, SLC handled 26 million passengers last year at a facility built to accommodate 10 million. The problem, of course, is that last year was last year and today and tomorrow look dreary. In August, for instance, nationwide airline traffic was only 28 percent of 2019 volume. Delta Air Lines, the fortress hub carrier at SLC, gets exclusive use of Concourse A, the 25-gate facility opened Tuesday (September 15). Concourse B, which will have 20 more gates, is due October 27 and will accommodate SLC's other carriers. Among the food and beverage operations opened this week are two Starbucks, outposts of California Pizza Kitchen and Shake Shack, and the airport version of Market Street Grill, a local steak-and-seafood restaurant. Delta has opened a 28,000-square-foot Sky Club with an indoor fireplace and an open-air observation deck. At least at the moment, Salt Lake City officials are committed to continue building at SLC and by 2024 are promising another new terminal and a new parking garage. For more details about the new facility, located on site of the existing SLC, surf here.

Hong Kong's agony simply won't end. It seems to be disappearing right before our eyes. Hong Kong International Airport handled just 84,000 passengers in August. That's down an astonishing 98.6 percent compared to August, 2019. Even if you include the comparatively healthy travel months of January and February, the year-to-date passenger total is just 8.5 million, down 83.2 percent from the first eight months of 2019. Also disappearing: Cathay Pacific, the beleaguered city-state's flag carrier. Cathay and its Cathay Dragon regional subsidiary carried just 35,773 passengers in August, a 98 percent decline. The load factor on the few flights still operating is just 19.9 percent. For the first eight months of the year, Cathay's total passenger count was down 81.7 percent compared to 2019. The airline says it is running only 10 percent of its 2019 schedule in September and October and is now parking about 40 percent of its fleet long-term at overseas locations.
        British duty-free shopping is being slashed starting January 1. At airports and train stations, only liquor and tobacco will actually be tax-free for outbound passengers. All other goods (electronics, clothing, whatever) will no longer be exempt from standard taxes and duties. Moreover, the regimen that allows overseas visitors to apply for VAT refunds on U.K. shopping purchases will be eliminated.

From the glass half-full department: Airlines and third-party operators are slowly reopening branches of their airport clubs. American Express says the first two Centurion Lounges, in Seattle and Philadelphia, will reopen their doors on October 5. American Airlines says seven more Admirals Club outlets will reopen next month. The locations are Austin; Boston/Logan; Denver; Houston/Intercontinental; Nashville; Orlando and San Francisco. And Minute Suites this week reopened its operation in the Terminal A-B link in Philadelphia.
        Washington/Dulles flyers get two new routes from United Airlines, the hub carrier. After a nearly 20-year absence, United will resume service to Akron/Canton. There'll be three daily CRJ200 flights beginning November 1. And five weekly flights to Key West using E170 regional jets begin on November 6.
        Palm Springs flyers get two new routes from Boutique Air, an independent regional carrier. Effective October 1, there'll be daily nonstops to both Phoenix and LAX using 12-seat Pilatus PC-12 aircraft.
        San Antonio backed off its attempt to keep a Chick-fil-A franchise from opening at the airport. But the huge chicken chain says it now has no intention of opening at the airport. It's the latest twist in a multi-sided, 18-month battle over political and social issues.

Global Entry processing offices have reopened after a months-long pandemic closure, according to Customs and Border Protection, the agency in charge of the bypass plan. Some Global Entry offices are even showing slots available for interviews. But you have to be persistent and check your account regularly because the slots seem to come and go without rhyme or reason. And it will be months before the backlog is cleared, especially for New York and Southern California flyers. (The main offices in Los Angeles were closed for months before the pandemic when CBP officers were moved to the Southern Border and the Trump Administration barred New Yorkers from applying or renewing in an ill-conceived political move.) If you're waiting on a renewal, be extra-vigilant in checking your account. Despite being told that an in-person interview is required, many flyers will automatically receive the renewal without an interview. That's the "good" news. The bad news? CBP is proposing to increase the price of an application or renewal to $120.

Expect even less service--or, at minimum, more frazzled service--on American Airlines flights. Beginning October 1, the airline converts even more of its aircraft to FAA-mandated minimum cabin staffing. Flights on the airline's Boeing 777-300ER aircraft will now carry just 11 flight attendants, down from the previous 13. Boeing 777-200 flights will have nine FAs, down from 10. Boeing 787-9 aircraft now carry just nine flight attendants and several will be required to work in both coach and premium cabins. And American's flagship Airbus A321T aircraft, which service transcontinental routes, will operate with five flight attendants instead of six. Flight attendants on the three-class A321T operation also will serve multiple cabins.
        Southwest Airlines says it will again extend its policy of under-booking flights to guarantee empty middle seats for all flyers. The policy is now in effect until November 30.
        Small change from change fees Frequent flyers were surprised earlier this month when five airlines rushed to eliminate many change fees. But nothing "good" comes without underlying subtext in the airline industry. Buried in a Transportation Department report this week on airline earnings (or lack of them) was this tidbit: Carriers generated just $80.8 million in change fees in the second quarter, when airlines were waiving the charge at the spring height of the pandemic. That compares to $739.9 million in last year's second quarter.

The systematic looting of the U.S. Treasury by a Trump Administration intent on funneling public funds to Trump's hotels and resorts continues apace. The current estimate: $1.1 million spent by the Secret Service for rooms and expenses at Trump-branded locations. The Washington Post has the latest details.