Business Travel Briefing
For April 1-April 15, 2021
The briefing in brief: March was the best month ever for travel in post-pandemic times. Delta abandons its pandemic policy of blocking middle seats. American and Alaska airlines roll out reciprocal upgrades. Korean Air will kill the Asiana brand--eventually. CNN Airport Network monitors won't go to waste. And more, including the daily Coronavirus update.

The happiness that the travel industry was feeling last week gave way this week to absolute giddiness about the future. No one is predicting a massive immediate return of business travel or much international flying, but domestic traffic has roared back. To torture an old simile, March came in like a lion and went out like an even bigger lion. According to the TSA, about 38 million flyers passed through airports in March. That's 52.5% of the volume airlines registered in March, 2019. And while an industry serving about half its former customers may not sound fabulous, it's by far the best performance since pandemic lows in mid-April last year. In fact, traffic nearly doubled from February (24.4 million). Airlines say future bookings are booming, too. American Airlines said this week that it has reached 90% of 2019's level. United Airlines says domestic leisure bookings have almost returned to normal. And both United and Alaska airlines say cash flow was positive in March for the first time since the pandemic began. The hotel industry is cheerier, too. Average nationwide hotel occupancy was 57.9% for the week ended March 27, according to industry statisticians STR. While having more than four of ten rooms empty may not sound terrific, STR says last week's occupancy represented 83% of volume compared to a similar year in 2019.

You didn't think all that happy travel news came free, did you? As traffic begins to resemble some version of "normal," airlines are deciding to act more like, well, airlines. Most notable move this week: Delta Air Lines decided its seat-blocking days are over. Although it will continue to block some coach and premium class seats to increase social distancing through the announced date (April 30), May 1 heralds a return to the pack-'em-in, sell-those-middle-seats policies that existed before the pandemic. Delta reaped an incalculable amount of positive publicity as it blocked middle seats in coach long after its competitors. But now profit (presumably) calls. (Alaska Airlines still blocks seats in its premium economy class until May 31.) Meanwhile, United Airlines this week decided that it no longer cares if you want to avoid the Boeing 737 Max Series aircraft. Effective April 7, United will no longer allow complimentary flight changes if you discover you're booked on a Max and would prefer not to fly it.
        American Airlines this week deactivated its network of at-the-gate kiosks. The aging devices no longer comply with payment industry (PCI) standards and most could no longer be updated. American also claims the kiosks weren't being used. If you were using them, the kiosks' limited functions can be handled in the AA app.

Alaska Airlines officially joined the Oneworld Alliance yesterday (March 31) and Alaska and American Airlines, its domestic Oneworld partner, used the opportunity to roll out details of their reciprocal upgrades policies. Effective Monday (April 5), American AAdvantage elites flying Alaska Air will have access to upgrades to premium economy based on status. Executive Platinum and Concierge Key members can upgrade at the time of booking. Platinum Pro and Platinum members can upgrade within 72 hours of travel. Gold elites can upgrade within 48 hours. First class upgrades can be confirmed as early as 120 hours before departure for Executive Platinum members. (There are wrinkles, of course--especially when it comes to lower priced fare buckets and basic economy, so check here for complete details.) Similarly, Alaska Mileage Plan elites can upgrade when flying on American. MVP Gold and Gold 75K members can upgrade to extra-legroom seats at booking. MVP elites can do it 24 hours before departure.

Korean Air confirmed that it will eventually retire the Asiana Airlines brand. Korean Air picked up its financially stressed hometown rival for US$2.2 billion back in November. The pandemic and other issues have delayed the deal's closure until next year and Korean says complete integration of Asiana into the parent carrier won't happen until 2024. Asiana's three low-fare offspring--Jin Air, Air Busan and Air Seoul--will also disappear in 2024. "There will be one brand, Korean Air, after integration," Korean Air president Woo Kee-Hong explained bluntly. Once a division of the large Kumho Group conglomerate, Asiana began flying in 1988. At least at the moment, Asiana remains in the Star Alliance. Korean Air, of course, is part of SkyTeam and has a joint-venture operation with Delta Air Lines.
        Emirates Airline says it will resume flights between New York/Kennedy and Milan/Malpensa. The "fifth freedom" route--service between two countries operated by an airline of a third nation--starts on June 1. Emirates will use a Boeing 777-300ER configured with eight first class pods, 42 business class seatbeds and 304 coach seats.

The Biden Administration this week introduced a $2 trillion "infrastructure" bill and about $621 billion is earmarked for transportation projects. It includes $115 billion for the repair of highways, bridges and roads; $85 billion for public transportation; $80 billion for passenger and freight rail; and $174 billion to promote electric vehicles and charging stations. Chances of the bill's passage are unclear. Republicans seem united in opposition.
        ReachTV will take over CNN's network of video monitors placed in about 60 airports around the country. ReachTV offers a mash-up of mostly entertainment programs. CNN closed its Airport Network news operation last month after 30 years of broadcasting.
        Frontier Airlines this week had a modestly successful public float and sold 30 million shares at $19 each, which was at the low range of the IPO's expected price. Frontier opened today (April 1) using stock symbol ULCC and closed at $18.85 in light trading.