Air travel chaos continues; debate over domestic vaccine mandate heats up


In the latest air travel news, large numbers of flight cancellations over the Christmas holidays are continuing into the new year due to airline staffing problems and weather; the CDC’s rule change for COVID quarantines helps airlines put sidelined staff back to work; arguments flare up about whether the U.S. should require domestic air travelers to be vaccinated; United starts free in-flight text messaging; JetBlue makes some changes to its TrueBlue loyalty program; United and Delta make more cuts to their regional route networks; international route news from Japan’s ZIPAIR, Singapore Airlines, Delta and United; Reno-based Aha! Launches Palm Springs flights; Avelo Airlines joins TSA PreCheck; and ExpresSpa Group opens a new full-service health center at New York JFK.

Air travel in the U.S. and around the world ended 2021 in a huge mess, and the operational chaos now shows signs of continuing into the new year. U.S. carriers canceled hundreds of flights every day this week, starting just before Christmas Eve, leaving thousands of passengers stranded during the busiest travel time of the year; re-accommodating them within the next few days was often impossible because flights were mostly fully booked. Flyers trying to rebook their cancelled flights by phone were often faced with hours-long waits to speak to someone. The schedule disruptions were partly due to winter storms, especially in the western U.S., but were mostly due to the COVID omicron variant decimating the airlines’ labor forces — not just employees who tested positive for the virus, but also those who were exposed to it and had to go into quarantine.

Even though passenger demand will ease up after New Year’s, there are troubling signs that the airlines won’t quickly pull out of this mess as heavy cancellations continue into January. Delta said it will cancel 200 to 300 daily flights on Saturday and Sunday (Jan. 1-2).  JetBlue is preemptively canceling more than 1,280 flights from now through mid-January — or almost 10% of its schedule — as the virus continues to present staffing problems. CNBC reported it saw an internal JetBlue memo that said: “The exponential growth in omicron cases over just a couple of days is at a level that no one could reasonably prepare for.” It noted that most of the airline’s crew members are in the northeast, where omicron cases aren’t expected to peak for another week or two. The Canadian carrier WestJet said it is canceling 15% of its January flights due to COVID-related staffing problems.

In Europe, the giant discount carrier Ryanair said it is slashing its overall January capacity by 33%, due not only to COVID but also to a big drop in passenger demand as various European governments issue tough new restrictions on entry in a bid to slow down the spread of the virus. The airline said its December traffic was about 10% less than expected due to tighter travel restrictions. And Lufthansa will cut its winter flight schedules by 10% because it is seeing a significant fall-off in reservations as COVID’s omicron variant continues to spread. (Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in recent weeks has continued to expand its Level 4 “do not travel” list based on spiking levels of COVID. The Level 4 warning list now includes virtually all of Europe, including the U.K., France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, Greece, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.)

FILE – In this Aug. 8, 2017, file photo, a Delta Air Lines jet waits on the tarmac at LaGuardia Airport in New York. Delta tops an annual study that ranks US airlines by on-time arrivals, complaint rates, and other statistical measurements. Researchers who crunch the numbers say that U.S. airlines are getting better as a whole. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

As for U.S. weather disruptions, Delta took one of the biggest hits due to winter storms in the western and north central states. The carrier this week issued weather-related travel waivers for customers booked on flights in and out of Seattle, Salt Lake City and Detroit, letting them rebook flights without penalty. Seattle was hit with a rare major snowstorm, and Alaska Airlines on Wednesday and Thursday said it was “proactively thinning Seattle departures by about 20% to allow for the additional time it takes to deice aircraft.” Alaska also urged customers planning “non-essential travel” before Jan. 2 to rebook their flights to a later date.

The airlines got a break in their COVID-related staffing woes this week when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a new rule shortening from 10 days to five the required self-isolation for individuals — regardless of vaccination status — who test positive for COVID but show no symptoms at the end of that quarantine period. Airlines were quick to embrace the rule change to get more sidelined employees back to work. “The updated guidance allows more flexibility for Delta to schedule crews and employees to support a busy holiday travel season and a sustained return to travel by customers,” Delta said. Major airlines, led by Delta and JetBlue, had lobbied for the change, and some employee groups were not happy about it. Sara Nelson, president of the Assn. of Flight Attendants-CWA International, said the CDC “gave a medical explanation about why the agency has decided to reduce the quarantine requirements from 10 to five days, but the fact that it aligns with the number of days pushed by corporate America is less than reassuring.”

With the COVID omicron variant steamrolling through the population — vaccinated and unvaccinated alike — the federal government is facing renewed calls to order that all domestic airline passengers show proof of vaccination before being allowed to board. And President Joe Biden this week indicated that he might be open to issuing such an order if his medical advisors recommend it, although there was some confusion about his intentions.

According to an article in The Hill, Biden was asked by a reporter outside his Delaware home on Tuesday when he would make a decision about a vaccine order for domestic air travel, and Biden replied: “when I get a recommendation from the medical team.” Biden’s comment came just a day after Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief White House medical advisor, said on MSNBC that a vaccine mandate for domestic air travel is “something that seriously should be considered” — not so much as a way to prevent transmission aboard aircraft, which are generally considered safe, but as “another incentive to get more people vaccinated.” 

And here’s the confusion: A week earlier, Biden told ABC that such a mandate has “been considered,” but based on “the recommendations I’ve gotten, it’s not necessary.” Then Dr. Fauci appeared on CNN later on the same day after he seemed to recommend such a mandate and tried to dampen expectations. In that interview, Fauci said: “Right now, I don’t think people should expect that we’re going to have a requirement in domestic flights for people to be vaccinated…It’s on the table, and we consider it. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. I doubt if we’re going to see something like that in the reasonably foreseeable future.”

Before Christmas, several members of Congress — led by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D.-Calif.) — sent a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urging the Biden administration to impose a vaccine mandate on domestic flights. “Travel at our nation’s airports has essentially returned to pre-pandemic levels but the risk from COVID-19, including its new variant Omicron, continues to present a major public health threat,” the letter said. “Requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test for domestic flights would improve public health and address concerns that passengers have about flying.”

Passengers check in at the American Airlines counters at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on April 24, 2021. 

Passengers check in at the American Airlines counters at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on April 24, 2021. 

Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images

An article in the Los Angeles Times noted that airlines are opposed to a domestic mandate in part because verification of vaccination status at the airport might slow down the boarding process and/or TSA check-in. It noted that the airlines’ trade group, Airlines for America, said it was informed by the White House “that there is no imminent policy proposal” for such a mandate. But the article also cited a study that found 14% of domestic air travelers are not vaccinated and it said the loss of those passengers would present a financial hardship for the airlines. 

In The Washington Post, op-ed columnist James Hohmann charged that the airlines “have for months successfully thwarted a push by public health experts to require passengers to show proof of vaccination…This is maybe the most important lever that President Biden could pull — and so far has refused to pull — that might increase the country’s vaccination rate.” Hohman said Biden “should stop pretending his resistance to a vax-to-fly rule is about public health — and not politics. The truth is that requiring vaccines to fly, even with a testing opt-out, would provoke a backlash…Fox News would have a field day.”

One voice opposing a domestic air travel vaccine mandate came from blogger Gary Leff, who argued that the virus is already spreading in the country, so “limiting travel to those who are vaccinated won’t prevent spread.” He also said that air travel “isn’t a less safe environment than other indoor congregant activities that have no such legal restriction,” and he suggested a mandate might draw legal challenges because the Supreme Court “has consistently held that there’s a fundamental right to interstate travel.”

United is the latest airline to roll out free in-flight text messaging for its customers. The new perk is currently available on the bulk of United’s mainline fleet. The services available include Apple iMessage, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger, provided as an option when a customer connects to the in-fight wi-fi network. It’s not yet available on every aircraft; some 757-200s and 767-300s won’t have it until March, and a handful of 787-9s will get it in June. The free messaging is available on CRJ-550 and -700 regional aircraft and should be on all E170s and 175s in January, but not on CRJ200s or E145s, which do not support in-flight wi-fi. Free text messaging is already offered by Delta, Southwest, Alaska and JetBlue. 

Mosaic-level elite members of JetBlue’s TrueBlue loyalty program are getting some additional benefits in the new year, including the creation of a new tier called Mosaic+. That new level requires members to earn 45,000 Mosaic qualifying points or spend $150,000 on a JetBlue Plus Card or JetBlue Business Card. In addition to the usual Mosaic perks, Mosaic+ benefits include four upgrades from the main cabin to Mint seating (except on London flights) depending on availability 24 hours before departure; the upgrades can also be used for a travel companion. Mosaic+ qualifiers will also be invited to enroll as a FoundersCard Elite member, which will bring “500+ premium travel, business, and lifestyle benefits, including exclusive member pricing and privileges, loyalty status upgrades, and more,” JetBlue said. Starting Jan. 5, all Mosaic members will be able to purchase an extra-legroom Even More Space seat with points. “In 2022, it will never exceed 200 points — and Mosaics will be given a 200-point rebate after flying,” the airline said.

FILE - An American Airlines flight from New York to California was diverted to Denver after a passenger assaulted a flight attendant, authorities said.

FILE – An American Airlines flight from New York to California was diverted to Denver after a passenger assaulted a flight attendant, authorities said.

Boarding1Now/Getty Images

Major carriers are continuing to trim routes and destinations from their regional networks. United CEO Scott Kirby said last month that his carrier’s United Express operation, which uses six different regional airlines, has had to ground almost 100 aircraft due to a pilot shortage — mainly smaller planes like the CRJ-200 and Embraer 145. In its latest cutbacks, United is dropping United Express flights from its Washington Dulles hub to Akron/Canton, Ohio; Asheville, Greensboro, and Wilmington, N.C.; Bangor, Me.; Erie, Pa.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Greenville/Spartanburg, S.C.; and Milwaukee, Wis. United is also shifting five regional routes from Dulles to its Newark hub, including Harrisburg, Philadelphia, State College and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Pa.; and Ithaca, N.Y. Delta is also cutting more routes to mostly secondary airports. From its Salt Lake City hub, Delta is ending service to Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio; Des Moines, Iowa; Madison, Wis.; and Pittsburgh, Pa. From Minneapolis-St. Paul, Delta is ending service to Lansing and Freeland, Mich., and to Tulsa, Okla. Also getting the axe are Delta flights from Atlanta to Rochester, Minn., and from Boston to Bermuda.

In international route news, Japan Airlines’ low-cost subsidiary ZIPAIR Tokyo has started flying from Tokyo Narita to Los Angeles. The carrier is using a 787-8 to fly the route three days a week, which will increase to six a week starting Jan. 14. Singapore Airlines recently started a Los Angeles-Taipei-Singapore route operating three days a week, but now it will suspend that service after Feb. 16, although it still operates non-stop LAX-Singapore service. Delta has introduced new service from Los Angeles International to Panama City, Panama; the 757 flight operates just once a week. Delta has also launched weekly service to Panama City from Orlando along with three weekly flights from New York JFK. Meanwhile, Delta announced it will add another European spoke to its JFK hub this summer, with a daily flight to Stockholm beginning June 1. United Airlines has also made some additions to its transatlantic plans for 2022. It will increase frequencies between Washington Dulles and Accra, Ghana from three flights a week to daily service effective May 6; and resume daily service from Newark to Edinburgh, Scotland on May 5, followed by the resumption of seasonal summer service to Edinburgh from Chicago O’Hare and Washington Dulles on May 7; United will also bring back daily flights from Newark to Stockholm on May 14.

On the domestic side, Reno-based Aha!, the new incarnation of regional carrier Expressjet Airlines, will begin service between Reno and Palm Spring on Jan, 3, operating three flights a week. Meanwhile, the Burbank-based low-fare carrier Avelo has been accepted into the Transportation Security Administration’s PreCheck program, so Avelo passengers who belong to PreCheck can now take advantage of expedited security screening.

In airport news, XpresSpa Group has opened a new health-and-wellness concept facility in New York JFK’s Terminal 4. After building up a network of spas in various U.S. airports, the company expanded during the coronavirus era by adding COVID testing services at several locations. And now it has cut the ribbon on a full-service outlet at JFK called Treat, which it describes as “a fully operational upscale health and wellness center with access to on-site care with medical professionals, through technology and personalized services such as COVID-19 rapid PCR tests, IV drip infusion therapy, flu shots, and on-site virtual sessions like yoga and fitness.”