Business Travel Briefing
For Sept. 24 to October 8, 2020
The briefing in brief: United will offer fast Coronavirus tests on San Francisco-Honolulu route. Delta SkyMiles drops some fees and penalties. El Al relaunches October 1 under ownership of a 20-something investor. JetBlue launching transcon routes from Hartford. Alaska Air adds five California routes and expands blocked middle seats through November 30. Amtrak offers free companion seats on its Northeast Corridor trains. And more, including the daily Coronavirus update.

My mantra for months has been, "No testing, no travel." As several of my columns have explained, that's shorthand for an all-too-obvious reality: It'll take cheap, widespread, on-demand testing before people are comfortable flying again and destinations are comfortable accepting visitors again. Although a few international airports, airlines and destinations have started programs, there's been exactly zero domestic progress. Until now. United Airlines today announced that it, the state of Hawaii and third-party providers have agreed upon a plan. It'll start on only one route (San Francisco-Honolulu) and it won't be cheap (up to $250 for a 15-minute test), but it is a start. As you probably know, Hawaii will end its 14-day mandatory quarantine for arrivals on October 15. The caveat is that you must have an approved negative Coronavirus test within three days before arrival. And that's where United sees its opportunity. Beginning October 15, United will offer Hawaii-approved tests to passengers on its SFO-HNL route. A mail-in PCR test will cost $80 and the 15-minute, at-airport rapid version will cost $250. The airline says it hopes to expand the scheme to other Hawaii routes from San Francisco. More details are here. (A Friday, September 25, update: Hawaiian Airlines has hastily responsed to the United move, promising drive-up testing at its Los Angeles and San Francisco gateways starting on October 15. Details are vague, as befits the hasty move. What Hawaiian announced is here.)

Even Delta Air Lines has to bow to the crushing effects of the Coronavirus. Its notoriously rapacious SkyMiles program has dropped its most hateful features: the 72-hour rule and $150 fee for award redeposits. Effective immediately, you no longer have to cancel 72 hours in advance to avoid losing your miles on domestic awards. Also gone: The $150 redeposit fee and the $150 fee for award changes. But--You knew a "but" was coming, right?--the changes don't apply universally. If you booked a Basic Economy ticket--and that's the default SkyMiles coach award these days--the fees and penalties still apply. And the end of the $150 fees applies only to non-Basic Economy awards in the United States, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The charges still apply to international tickets. At the same time, Delta also extended the validity date for a variety of products, including Sky Club membership and Delta/Amex card perks.
        American AAdvantage has confirmed that it eliminated physical membership packets when you achieve elite levels. That means no special membership cards, complimentary luggage tags or employee-recognition certificates.

The long and bizarre history of El Al begins another chapter next month. After shutting down in March and then getting into a squabble with staff over several abortive restarts the carrier is due to relaunch on October 1. The first route is to Athens, followed by London/Heathrow. U.S. flights begin October 12 with six weekly flights to New York/JFK. Paris/CDG service resumes the same day. Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners will be used on all flights except Athens, which gets a Boeing 737-900. The next twist is ownership. The airline is now under the control of 20-something Eli Rozenberg. His US$107 million investment was good for a 43 percent stake in the perennially stressed airline. But nothing happens at El Al without tsuris. Rozenberg was born in the United States, emigrated to Israel several years ago and is now an Israeli citizen. However, his father is Kenny Rozenberg, chief executive of a New York-based chain of nursing homes. And therein lies the rub. El Al's lawyers claim the younger Rozenberg--he's 26 or 27, depending on the source you believe--is a stalking horse for his father, who is not an Israeli citizen. That would violate the airline's ownership rules. Stay tuned.

Like every other carrier, Alaska Airlines is casting around for places it can fly with some chance of success. It's just staying closer to home--or, at least its adopted home of California--than other airlines. Hence Alaska Air's announcement this week that it will add a total of five routes from Los Angeles and Palm Springs. Only two (LAX-Reno and Palm Springs-San Jose) are full-time runs. The other three--LAX-Cancun and Palm Springs to Boise and Reno--are seasonal. All five routes begin on December 17. The seasonal runs end April 12. Except for a Boeing 737 on LAX-Cancun, the routes will be operated with E175 regional aircraft.
        Delta Air Lines is less targeted in its new and revived domestic routes. From LAX, it is reviving flights to Reno and Fresno, routes it hasn't flown since the 1990s. The Fresno run starts November 20 and the Reno route begins December 19. E175s operated by SkyWest will work both routes. It is also bulking up Western flying from its Atlanta/Hartsfield hub with routes to Boise and Spokane. It'll use Boeing 737-800s on those routes, which also launch November 20. Delta hasn't flown Atlanta-Boise in at least a decade. The airline is also reviving flights from Miami to its Salt Lake City hub, a run dropped three years ago. Boeing 737-800s will be used on that route, too, which will return December 17.

JetBlue Airways hasn't been shy about admitting that long-term planning doesn't make sense just now. Targets of opportunity are the thing. This week's target: Hartford, Connecticut, which has traditionally suffered because it is equidistant to both Boston and Manhattan. JetBlue had about a dozen daily flights from Hartford before the pandemic. Now it plans pre-New Year launches of four routes: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Cancun. The transcons won't have JetBlue's much-liked Mint business class service up front, however. The Cancun route begins November 19 and the others launch December 18. JetBlue hasn't said what aircraft will be used on the route, but they will be planes the airline is hauling out of Coronavirus storage.
        Berlin/Tegel will end commercial service on November 8 and the last flight will be an Air France run to Paris/CDG. Tegel's service transfers to Berlin/Brandenburg, the "new" airport that opens October 31, eight years after its debut was halted by construction errors two weeks before its 2012 opening. In keeping with the cursed nature of Brandenburg, the operators say the facility is sure to go bankrupt by opening day if it doesn't get a 300-million-euro cash injection.

Alaska Airlines says it extended its policy of blocking middle seats in coach on flights through November 30. It has also extended its policy of allowing changes on all tickets through December 31.
        Amtrak has revived its Companion Travel sale for Acela and Northeast Corridor trains. If you book by September 30, you can travel through December 12 at two-for-one fares. There are blackout days (Fridays, Sundays and three dates around Thanksgiving) and seats are limited. Details are here.