Business Travel Briefing
For Nov. 19-Dec. 3, 2020
The briefing in brief: U.S. regulators unground the Boeing 737 MAX and the plane will fly before the end of the year. Delta will keep blocking middle seats through March. Southwest adds flights to Sarasota and Savannah. American drops international change fees and its charges for telephone bookings. Cathay Pacific "permanently" drops three U.S. destinations. And more, including the daily Coronavirus update.

When U.S. regulators followed their international counterparts 20 months ago and grounded the Boeing 737 MAX, I warned you that the "experts" were wrong to suggest the plane would be back in the skies in "weeks." I told you it would be the fall, which means I was smarter than the average bears, but still off by a full year. I bring up the ugly prognosticating partially as a matter of full disclosure and partially because it shows what a totally different world we're living in. The FAA this week ungrounded the MAX series and cleared it to fly again, but, really, who cares? At one point in the spring, two-thirds of the world's commercial aircraft were on the ground from lack of demand and U.S. carriers are only operating at about half their 2019 capacity. But if passengers are largely disinterested, U.S. carriers are more sanguine about the MAX. The plane is about 15 percent more fuel efficient than older aircraft and, even with lower energy prices, airlines are lusting after any savings in this depressed revenue environment. Which is a long-winded way of saying American Airlines says it plans to resume flying its MAX aircraft beginning on December 29. United will get them in the sky in the first quarter of next year. Alaska Airlines is targeting March. Southwest says it plans a second-quarter relaunch. One other note: Only U.S. bureaucrats approved the plane's return. Canadian, European and other nations' regulators have yet to sign off, so the plane will only fly on U.S. domestic routes.

With airline traffic running at about 35 percent of 2019 levels and load factors hovering around 50 percent, Delta Air Lines sees opportunity. It announced this week that it would continue to block middle seats through March 30, 2021. That gives it a leg--and a shoulder and a body--up on American, United, Southwest and JetBlue, all of whom have already abandoned seat blocking or will do so soon. In other words, while Delta reaps a huge windfall of positive publicity for not selling seats it can't peddle in a depressed market, its competitors adopt the unpopular "fill every seat" mantra. They won't sell any more seats than Delta, of course, but they're guaranteed to be despised by flyers. It must be like shooting fish in a very dumb airline barrel for Delta right now ...
        American Airlines has eliminated two more annoying fees. This week it dropped change fees for international tickets for all classes save Basic Economy. This aligns with American's earlier decision to eliminate change fees on domestic tickets. American also permanently dumped the "service fee" for booking a ticket via telephone.

Southwest Airlines struck out with its first pandemic plan--restore its pre-virus schedule faster than anyone else--when it started cutting flights this fall. Its latest tack? Finding new cities where it can plant its flag. In recent weeks, it has added service to ski destinations and even once-verboten big-city airports such as Chicago/O'Hare. Now comes two new sun destinations: Sarasota and Savannah. Each city will get nonstops to Nashville, Houston/Hobby, Chicago/Midway and Baltimore/Washington. Savannah will also get a daily run to Dallas/Love Field. Sarasota flights begin February 14 while Savannah runs begin on March 11. That's the same day Southwest will launch flights between Long Beach and Honolulu.
        Airport clubs continue to reopen as passengers trickle back. American Airlines has reopened the Admirals Club in Tampa, Raleigh/Durham and John Wayne/Orange County. Meanwhile, The Club network of lounges has reopened its second location in Orlando. The newly reopened lounge is in Terminal B near Gate 91. The branch in Terminal A already resumed service.

Cathay Pacific Airways had been studiously building its U.S. presence in the last decades, often launching routes at gateway airports not aligned with feeder traffic from Oneworld Alliance partner American Airlines. But now that Cathay's business has all but disappeared due to the Coronavirus and, before that, the political unrest in its Hong Kong home, reality is setting in. When and if normal times resume, flying to ten North American gateway cities simply won't fly. Cathay confirmed this week that it has dropped nonstops to Seattle-Tacoma, a route it launched in April, 2019. Also going: flights to Washington/Dulles, which Cathay launched in September, 2018. Cathay Pacific is also axing flights to Newark, a route it pioneered in 2013. Cathay described all three cancellations as "permanent," but who knows what that means in these insane times.
        Korean Air is buying Asiana Airlines, its South Korean competitor that has been financially shaky since long before the pandemic began. The complicated US$1.6 billion deal involves a cash injection into Hanjin Kal, Korean Air's parent company, by the Korea Development Bank. Hanjin will then buy in to a new share sale by Korean Air, which will use the funds to buy Asiana. Hyundai agreed to buy a 31 percent stake in Asiana in September, but that deal collapsed when the two sides disagreed on terms. The Korean Air deal seemed to be the last option for Asiana, founded in 1988. Asiana will be run separately from Korean Air, which should be interesting since Korean Air is part of the Skyteam Alliance and Asiana is in the Star Alliance.

JetBlue Airways has opened a Coronavirus testing facility in Terminal 5 at New York/Kennedy. The goal is to distribute tests to passengers on select flights arriving at JFK since New York State now requires a negative test for most arrivals. Results are expected within 48 hours, well within the state's required four-day quarantine. Without a negative test, visitors to New York must quarantine for 14 days. You can also pick up a test on flights departing JFK. Those can be used on your return flight.
        Pricey places The Worldwide Cost of Living Index says the three most expensive places to live in 2020 are Hong Kong, Paris and Zurich. Singapore, Tel Aviv and Osaka were next on the list. Buenos Aires was the only major city on its "least expensive" list. The annual survey is compiled by Economist magazine.
        The TSA says that a tenth employee, a checkpoint agent at Denver International, has died from Coronavirus. About 3,000 TSA employees have tested positive for the virus since February.

El Al and Etihad signed a memorandum of understanding this week that may lead to code-shares on flights between Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi, Etihad's home airport in the United Arab Emirates. (Etihad says it'll launch flights on the route on March 28. El Al hasn't yet announced a schedule.) I think the word you're looking for is "Speechless!"