Business Travel Briefing
For December 10-24, 2020
The briefing in brief: Airlines keep dropping fees we stopped paying. Alaska Airlines elites get Oneworld status, too. Hawaiian Airlines will fly nonstop to Texas and Florida. United dumps live, in-airport agents for virtual kiosks. Qatar Airways is headed to Seattle. United drops its shiny, new Chicago-Tel Aviv service. Southwest Airlines builds out schedules at Long Beach and Houston/Intercontinental. Amtrak opens Moynihan Train Hall in New York next month. And more, including the daily Coronavirus update.

With flying at a virtual standstill--only about 560,000 people flew on Wednesday (December 9), around 28 percent of 2019 volume--airlines are busy cancelling annoying fees we're not paying. After all, if we are not flying much, we are not paying many of their annoying fees, either. This week, to be specific, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines dropped their change fees on international flights. The charges, which could be as high as $500 back in the days when we flew internationally, are being ended for all ticket classes save the hell-in-the-skies Basic Economy category. This brings Delta and United in line with American Airlines, which dropped the fees last month. The moves are called "permanent" by the carriers, but we know permanent really means "as long as we feel like it." The fees were once a gold mine, of course--ticket changes accounted for nearly $3 billion in airline revenue in 2019--and may return if and when we return to the skies in great numbers. But for the moment, while you're not flying internationally, the airlines want you to know they won't charge you for changes to tickets you're not buying.

Alaska Airlines is scheduled to join the Oneworld Alliance in March and that means a closer alignment of its frequent flyer program, Mileage Plan, with AAdvantage, the frequent flyer plan of Oneworld anchor American Airlines. It also means status matching with Oneworld's own elite system. According to information released by Alaska Airlines this week, Mileage Plan MVP Gold 75K members will have Oneworld Emerald status. MVP Gold players will receive Oneworld Sapphire status. MVP members will be at the Oneworld Ruby level. A rundown of what Oneworld elite status offers on partner carriers is here. Meanwhile, American Airlines says that AAdvantage Platinum Pros will receive Oneworld Emerald Status starting next year.

Hawaiian Airlines is adding a slew of nonstops next year. Most interesting for mainland flyers: Two weekly nonstops between Austin and Honolulu. Most intriguing for Hawaii-based travelers: two weekly nonstops between Honolulu and Orlando. The carrier is also attempting to claim a bigger stake in the lucrative California-Hawaii market. Hawaiian says it will add five weekly nonstops between Honolulu and Ontario (ONT) in California's gigantic Inland Empire and launch daily flights between Long Beach and Kahului, Maui. The Ontario runs, which launch March 16, will be operated with narrowbody Airbus A321neos outfitted with 16 first class seats, 44 premium economy chairs and 129 coach seats. The other new routes, which launch in March and April, will be served with widebody Airbus A330s. Those have 18 lie-flat beds in first configured 2x2x2, 68 premium economy seats and 192 coach seats.
        Southwest Airlines revealed details of new flights at Houston/Intercontinental, an airport it returns to on April 12 after a nearly 50-year absence. There'll be two daily flights to Chicago/Midway, six to Dallas/Love Field, three each to Denver and Nashville and four to New Orleans. Meanwhile, it will also fill out schedules at Long Beach, the slot-controlled airport where Southwest won the slots abandoned earlier this year by JetBlue Airways. On March 11, Southwest will add new runs to Midway, Houston/Hobby, St. Louis and Love Field.

One of the least savory business moves during the pandemic has been cutting service and claiming it's for your safety when, in fact, it's barely (and often badly) disguised cost-cutting. And the moment barely and badly disguised cost-cutting is mentioned, you know the next sentence is about United Airlines, right? Of course. The latest from United is a virtual Agent on Demand system that will replace live and in-airport customer-service agents. As you may have noticed at United's hubs at Chicago/O'Hare, Houston/Intercontinental and Denver, the kiosks are unmanned. You use a mobile phone or video link to contact an agent located somewhere--anywhere but at the airport. Then you're supposed to ask "any question [you] would typically direct to a gate agent, including questions on seat assignments, upgrades, standby list, flight status, rebooking and more." The Agent on Demand system--or, call-center functionaries, in plain English--is due to roll out in the coming months at all of United's hubs. How many live airport employees will be phased out isn't known. I tried to find out from United, but they directed me to an Agent on Demand. (Actually, I made up the last part. They refused to answer my question.)

It's taken three years--and two separate, hype-filled announcements--but Qatar Airways next week launches nonstops between San Francisco and its Doha hub. So take this new bit from Qatar Air with the appropriate grains of salt: It will launch four weekly flights between Seattle-Tacoma and Doha beginning on March 15. The route will be served by Airbus A350-900s configured with 36 seatbeds in a 1x2x1 layout in business class and 247 coach seats. The Oneworld Alliance carrier will also forge a code-share and frequent flyer partnership with Seattle-based Alaska Airlines, which is joining Oneworld in March.
        United Airlines will once again "suspend" at least four international routes, including flights to London/Heathrow and Zurich from its Washington/Dulles hub. Also temporarily chopped: United's shiny new flights between Chicago/O'Hare and Tel Aviv, which launched in September. It'll stop flying on January 2. A week earlier, United will drop its O'Hare-Brussels flights.

The Brazilian airline Gol became the first airline to return the Boeing 737 MAX to commercial service. The first flight operated yesterday (December 9). American Airlines expects to be the first U.S. carrier to fly the MAX again, probably before the end of the year.
        Amtrak says the Moynihan Train Hall will open next month in New York City. A major remake of the former Farley Post Office Building across from Penn Station, the new facility will allow Amtrak riders--and commuters who use NJ Transit--to escape the so-called "pit" underneath Madison Square Garden. (That's the building that replaced the original Pennsylvania Station in the 1960s.) The $1.6 billion Moynihan project was able to move faster due to the massive decline in Amtrak ridership caused by the pandemic.