Business Travel Briefing
For January 3-14, 2021
The briefing in brief: 2020's travel numbers were brutally bad. Emirates becomes the first major Middle East carrier with a premium economy cabin. Delta and WestJet abandon the proposed alliance. A new "Velcro" hotel in San Francisco. Delta suffers another operational meltdown over Christmas. A widowed swan mourns on Germany's rails. And much more, including the daily Coronavirus update.

Happy New Year! Couldn't be worse than 2020. At least we hope because 2021 already is breaking records for new Coronavirus deaths and cases in the United States and are both rising alarmingly in Canada, too. But let's hope. From the travel standpoint, things really couldn't get much worse. Only about 201.5 million people passed through TSA checkpoints between March 1 and the end of 2020. It's just 27.8 percent of the volume recorded during the same 10 months of 2019. That includes a surprising post-Christmas surge when all five days from December 26 to December 30 recorded more than a million flyers. Daily volume like that hadn't happened since mid-March. Yet for all the mainstream media clucking about holiday crowds, December's total traffic of about 26.4 million wasn't substantively greater than November's 25.5 million flyers. Needless to say, the financial cost to the airlines has been brutal. Based on last year's average "all-in" domestic roundtrip fare of $367, those 524 million flights not taken last year meant more than $96 billion in lost revenue. Which probably explains why airlines were clobbered on financial markets. Except for fringe carrier Allegiant, year-on-year share prices plunged between 14% (Southwest) and 51% (United). That's against rises of 7%-43% for market indices such as the Dow, S&P and Nasdaq. Chain-hotel shares fared better comparatively, but the underlying lodging market largely collapsed. The U.S. industry closed the year at 32.5% occupancy nationwide for Christmas week. Since the pandemic low points in April, U.S. weekly hotel occupancy hit 50% only once. (January 4 update: The TSA said this morning that approximately 324 million passed through airport checkpoints between January 1 and December 31, 2020. That is only about 39% of 2019's volume of 824 million.)

A lot of things are going to look different on the road in 2021, so throw this into that category: Emirates Airline is now officially the first major Middle Eastern carrier with a premium economy class. According to Emirates, the cabin offers 56 leather-covered seats measuring 19.5 inches across in a 2-4-2 configuration. They are equipped with head, foot and calf rests, 13.3-inch monitors and in-arm tray tables. There are also USB and power ports. The all-important seat pitch? "Up to 40 inches" with eight inches of recline, says Emirates, which declined to disclose the minimum amount of legroom at each chair. In fairness, the promotional video does seem to show a fairly commodious ride. That said, don't expect to get a ride anytime soon. Emirates has outfitted just one Airbus A380--it launches on the Dubai-London/Heathrow route tomorrow (January 4)--and only five others will be delivered over the next two years. There will also be some premium economy cabins on Boeing 777 aircraft Emirates will receive starting in 2023.
        Delta Air Lines and WestJet abandoned plans to operate a transatlantic joint venture. The carriers walked away late last month after the U.S. Transportation Department demanded airport-slot concessions, primarily at New York's LaGuardia Airport.
        Aer Lingus, a subsidiary of the same company that owns British Airways and Iberia, has been approved to join the joint-venture transatlantic deal that already links BA and Iberia with American Airlines.

As I'll be saying a lot in 2021, things will be different on the road. But one change that won't, uh, change? The growth of "Velcro" hotels, properties that change brands so frequently that their signs may as well be secured with the hook-and-loop tape. And now we have a new contender in San Francisco. Anyone remember the Hotel Meridien that opened in 1984 in the Yerba Buena district? The 681-room hotel achieved some notoriety because it was the first private property built in the city's attempts to redevelop the neighborhood. But the hotel at 3rd Street between Market and Mission ran only four years under that name. In 1988, it was rebranded as the ANA Hotel San Francisco. A decade later, it was rebranded again, this time as the Argent Hotel. In 2007, it became the Westin Market Street hotel after an extensive renovation. It changed again in 2015, resuming independent status and calling itself the Park Central. Guess what? A new brand name is on the way. After another renovation, it will become the Hyatt Regency SoMa next year. It's already bookable through and will be the third Hyatt Regency in San Francisco.
        The Bottleworks Hotel opened late last month in Indianapolis. The 139-room independent property is carved out of a Depression-era Coca-Cola bottling plant with a distinctive white terra cotta exterior. Lots of whimsical design features are callbacks to its days as a beverage plant. The property is envisioned as a centerpiece of the aptly named Bottleworks District, a $300 million mixed-use project scheduled to open this year.

For an airline that touts its operational superiority, Delta Air Lines sure has a lot of meltdowns. It cancelled around 400 flights during the Christmas season due to what the carrier claims were staffing problems. It cancelled about 600 flights over Thanksgiving Week, too, using the same excuse.
        American Airlines resumed flying some Boeing 737 MAX aircraft on December 29. United Airlines says it will restart MAX flights beginning February 11, predominantly to and from its Denver and Washington/Dulles hubs. Alaska Airlines says its MAX aircraft return March 1 and Southwest Airlines expects its flights to resume late in March.
        Pan Am 103, bombed over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, was back in the news over the holidays. On the 32nd anniversary of the attack that killed 259 flyers and 11 people on the ground, the U.S. Justice Department announced new charges against Libyan intelligence officers involved with the incident. The new charges were one of the last acts of William Barr, who was Attorney General under President George H.W. Bush in 1991 when the initial indictments were returned. Barr made the announcement on December 21, two days before departing as Attorney General in the Trump Administration.

Swans, they say, mate for life. And that fact brought a rare moment of humanity to travel in the time of Coronavirus. On December 23, a pair of swans wandered onto the tracks of the high-speed line between Kassel and Göttingen in central Germany. One was killed. The other? It sat near the body, mourning its companion, and delayed about two dozen trains. Firefighters with special equipment finally arrived and relocated the survivor swan., an English-language German Web site, covered the story and offered a compelling photograph.