Business Travel Briefing
For July 1-July 15, 2021
The briefing in brief: The summer political torpor almost guarantees the in-flight mask mandate will survive the summer. Alaska Airlines bails on JFK-LAX, the primary transcon route. United Airlines orders 270 planes and at least one unicorn. Swissair finally adds a premium economy cabin. Southwest Airlines had a weekend meltdown and no one really knows why. (Blame the unicorn.) And more, including the daily Coronavirus update.

It certainly looks like the U.S. in-flight mask mandate will survive until its current expiration date of September 13. The reason is simple: Politicians are less focused than the bureaucrats they task with enforcing regulations. Two GOP Senators last month introduced a bill that would have revoked the TSA's authority to enforce a mask rule. That bill was shot down in committee. A group of GOP Senators introduced a resolution last Friday calling on the TSA to end the mask mandate. That, too, went nowhere. Over the weekend, a bipartisan group of Senators wrote to the both TSA and the CDC and asked when the agencies would update in-flight guidance for travelers. One member of the group, Louisiana's Bill Cassidy, suggested that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell supported the bipartisan effort and would tie it to the recently negotiated infrastructure package. If McConnell has, no one noticed. That essentially leaves the politicians out of time, since the Senate has two longish recesses scheduled before September 13. A high-ranking TSA official told me she was "agnostic" on the mask mandate, but expected Washington's summer torpor will "virtually guarantee" the rule survives. "I'm comfortable saying it won't be extended beyond September 13, but I see nothing that would lead it to be lifted earlier," she explained. American Airlines must agree with that analysis. After delaying the return of in-flight alcohol sales, chief executive Doug Parker last week told flight attendants that booze sales would resume beginning September 13. "There's no coincidence that's the same date as the mask requirement ending," he said.

One reason Alaska Airlines gave for its 2016 purchase of Virgin America was access to key transcontinental routes, including New York/Kennedy to Los Angeles, traditionally the nation's busiest and most prestigious route. It then gambled generous upgrades to a traditional premium cabin would trump its competitors' lie-flat beds on the route. Alaska apparently guessed wrong. It confirmed this week that it's dropping JFK-LAX and reassigning most of the precious JFK slots to other runs. When LAX ends on October 6, Alaska from JFK will offer four daily nonstops to Seattle-Tacoma; four to San Francisco; two to Portland, Oregon; and two to San Diego. It'll also continue to fly to those four cities from Newark and maintain four daily Newark-LAX roundtrips.

To the cheers of av geeks and too much fawning mass-media coverage, United Airlines this week announced an order for 270 new aircraft. Two hundred are various iterations of the Boeing 737 Max and 70 are Airbus A321neos. The airline definitely needs new planes--at an average age of 16 years, United has the oldest fleet in the nation--but there's no reason to believe the carrier will ever get all 270. After all, aircraft take forever to deliver and United is still installing "new" Polaris business class seats more than five years after it announced that initiative. There's also no reason to believe the airline's claim that the new aircraft will mean the functional end of United's fleet of flyer-unfriendly 50-seat regional jets. United has promised that in the past only to haul out the flying tin cans for longer routes whenever it suited its purpose. United also pointedly refused to reveal legroom dimensions for the aircraft, which the airline claims will have more premium seats (domestic first and Economy Plus) than its competitors. So can we learn anything from all the fluff and the promises? Perhaps one thing: All the new planes will have seatback monitors and United says that it will retrofit existing planes with screens, too. That'll put United in league with Delta, which has remained committed to the heavy and quickly obsolescent in-seat monitors. In contrast, American Airlines is convinced travelers are content to view in-flight entertainment through their own devices, saving American money. There is one actual breakthrough being promised by United: Bluetooth connections at each seat, allowing flyers to eschew wired headphones in-flight.

Decades after competitors adopted premium economy, Swiss International Air Lines says it will add the product to its in-flight mix. The cabin will be installed in all 12 of Swiss' Boeing 777-300ER aircraft--Swiss is, after all, a shadow of Swissair's size--starting in the fourth quarter. Unlike the version flown on Lufthansa, the airline's parent, Swiss' premium economy chairs recline into a fixed shell rather than into the personal space of the traveler in the next row. Seat pitch is nearly 39 inches and the chairs are as much as 19 inches wide. Each seat will have a 15.6-inch monitor and a USB-A socket. Premium economy fares will include two free checked bags.
        Goodbye, Thello Italian state railroad Trenitalia has retired Thello, the aging rail service that connected several French cities and Northern Italy. The last runs operated today (July 1). Trenitalia isn't pulling out of France, however. French regulators this week approved the company's best equipment, the Frecciarossa 1000 trainsets, to operate between Paris and Milan with several intermediate stops. The modern trains will compete with France's TGV service. It isn't known when Trenitalia can begin operations with the new equipment.

The airlines are still operating a fraction of their 2019 schedules and passenger traffic is still 70-75% of 2019 volume, but that hasn't stopped the carriers from melting down regularly. This week's installment comes from Southwest Airlines. It delayed more than 40% of its flights last weekend (Thursday to Saturday) and cancelled as many as 10% of the daily schedules. Depending on which Southwest flack you asked, the problem was summer storms, a shortage of flight attendants or the moon being in the seventh house while Jupiter aligned with Mars. Bottom line: Fasten your seat belts, it's gonna be a bumpy ride this summer.