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Mask rule extended; Plus, more FAA fines, AA at SJC, United fees, more

A weekly roundup of air travel and airport news

Jim GlabAug. 20, 2021

A flight attendant gives safety instructions to passengers prior to the departure.
A flight attendant gives safety instructions to passengers prior to the departure.Pool/Getty Images

In this week’s news, the federal government’s mandatory mask rule for airline passengers has been extended until mid-January, and so has American Airlines’ suspension of main cabin alcohol sales; FAA fines another 34 unruly passengers for acting up in-flight; some nations now require COVID-19 vaccinations to board flights, and there’s increasing talk about adopting a similar requirement in the U.S.; American brings back Mineta San Jose-Chicago flights; low-cost Avelo drops a Burbank route but adds four along the East Coast; United waives basic economy change fees again; Alaska Airlines adds a Mileage Plus partner; plus international route news from British Airways, Air France and Delta.

With the delta variant of COVID-19 continuing to spread through the country, the federal government is extending its mask mandate for all airline, train and bus passengers into next year. The rule had been due to expire in mid-September, but now travelers will have to keep wearing appropriate face coverings at least until Jan. 18. Consumer surveys have indicated that most travelers support the rule, and it also has the backing of airline employee unions. Still, the mask mandate has been cited as the biggest factor in a soaring number of “unruly passenger” incidents this year. Of almost 4,000 incidents reported by airlines to the Federal Aviation Administration, about three-fourths of them involved individuals who refused to comply with the mask rule. 

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA this week praised the extension of the mandate. “Masks are the most effective tool to stop the spread of COVID-19. While vaccination has been key to the increased air travel demand, the lagging vaccination rates and rise of the delta variant has caused cases to skyrocket again – threatening lives, continued virus mutation, and recovery from this pandemic,” the union said this week. It said the extension of the masking rule will “help tremendously” in keeping travelers and airline employees safe. “We all look forward to the day masks are no longer required but we’re not there yet,” AFA said.

Alaska Airlines flight from San Francisco to Palm Springs during the COVID-19 pandemic, June 2020.
Alaska Airlines flight from San Francisco to Palm Springs during the COVID-19 pandemic, June 2020.Chris McGinnis

But flight attendants are probably viewing the mask rule extension with some trepidation as well. An AFA survey released last month found that 85% of its members have had to deal with unruly passengers in recent months, including 20% who said they were involved in “physical incidents.” Besides mask objections, many in-flight incidents also involve drunk passengers, and American Airlines said in a memo to employees this week that it is extending its ban on alcohol sales in the main cabin through Jan. 18; it had been set to expire next month. The airline said it is also making progress on trying to stop the sale of “to go” airport booze at some of its major hubs.

With the continuing news about in-flight incidents and rebellious passengers, an editorial this week in the trade journal Aviation Week raised an interesting point. Reporting on a webinar about aviation regulation, it said that “a panel of aviation lawyers noted there was almost nothing similar happening outside the U.S., even though masks are required for flying just about anywhere.” Why is it that fliers on airlines in other countries aren’t raising a similar ruckus? The article quoted aviation lawyer Anita Mosner as saying, “The underlying problem is that we have politicized public health processes.” The editorial suggested even stronger enforcement against violators, including jail time; a tougher crackdown on airport sales of alcohol; and perhaps a new rule that would allow airlines to recover damages from fliers who cause in-flight problems, especially if the aircraft makes an unscheduled landing

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For its part, the Federal Aviation Administration this week announced its latest round of civil penalties against unruly passengers, and it’s a doozie. Normally these announcements include just a few passengers, but this time the FAA said it has cited 34 fliers for bad behavior and levied fines against them totaling $531,545. That brings the total of its penalties against misbehaving passengers this year to more than $1 million. The biggest fine this round — $45,000 – was assessed against an individual on a JetBlue flight from New York to Orlando “for allegedly throwing objects, including his carry-on luggage, at other passengers; refusing to stay seated; lying on the floor in the aisle, refusing to get up, and then grabbing a flight attendant by the ankles and putting his head up her skirt.” The plane made a special stop in Richmond and the passenger was escorted off in handcuffs. The smallest fine, for $7,500, was issued against a flier on a JetBlue Boston-Miami flight “for allegedly threatening to kill a passenger seated in front of him.” Visit the FAA’s website to read through all the other specifics of the horrible things that some of your fellow fliers are doing these days.

The Bay Area will get new regional routes from Alaska Airlines in September.
The Bay Area will get new regional routes from Alaska Airlines in September.Alaska Airlines

While mandatory face masks for air travelers are common worldwide, there’s a new trend in some nations to also require COVID vaccinations for passengers, including some countries that recently reopened to American travelers. Canada’s government said last week that in addition to requiring vaccinations for all federal employees, it will require proof of the shots for members of the traveling public by the end of October. “This includes all commercial air travelers, passengers on interprovincial trains, and passengers on large marine vessels with overnight accommodations, such as cruise ships,” the government said.

Proof-of-vaccination requirements are also coming for airline passengers in some European countries. Italy this month started requiring vaccination passports from anyone entering indoor public venues like restaurants, museums, casinos, conferences and meetings, and now it will extend that requirement effective Sept. 1 for anyone traveling on public transportation, including airlines, trains, and ferries. In France, the government now requires a health pass for “long-distance travel by plane, train or coach” and for indoor venues. 

A passenger arrives for an American Airlines flight at O'Hare International Airport on Feb. 5, 2021. 
A passenger arrives for an American Airlines flight at O’Hare International Airport on Feb. 5, 2021. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Could the U.S. change its current policy and start to require proof of vaccination for domestic airline travelers? Such proof is already required to board flights to some international destinations that have a vaccine mandate for travelers, and the U.S. has lately been in discussions with airlines about creating proof-of-vaccine protocols for inbound international travelers. (Currently, Europeans and some other foreign nationals are still banned from traveling here, and all inbound international travelers are required to show a negative COVID test result before boarding.) What’s more, the idea has broad public support. A recent poll found that 64% of Americans support the idea of a vaccination requirement for all airline travel. An editorial on Mashable.com noted that several studies have found that fear of not being allowed to travel is a huge motivator for Americans to get the vaccine. “Jetting around the country is not a right. It’s a privilege. If you’re signing up to fly in a tin can, sharing a confined space with dozens of other people, then asking you to get jabbed isn’t a bridge too far,” Mashable’s Tim Marcin wrote.

So far, the Biden administration has resisted the idea of mandatory vaccination passports for domestic travel. Given the highly politicized nature of the subject, and the ongoing disruption of so many domestic flights due to the masking rule, it’s unlikely that the administration would slap a vaccination requirement on top of its mask mandate. That could leave the airlines to make the decision on requiring vaccines, but which of them would dare to take the first step? The cruise industry has been adding vaccine requirements for passengers as it resumes operations from U.S. ports, but it has met some legal resistance, mostly from the governor of Florida, who sued to bar cruise lines from imposing vaccine mandates on ships sailing from Florida ports.

In domestic route news, American Airlines this week revived its suspended route between Mineta San Jose Airport and its Chicago O’Hare hub. The flight operates four days a week (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday) and departs SJC at 1:07 p.m., arriving at O’Hare at 7:40 p.m. California-based Avelo Airlines, which operates out of Hollywood Burbank Airport, has discontinued flights between Burbank and Phoenix Mesa Airport. But this week, Avelo also announced route plans for its upcoming East Coast service, which will use Tweed-New Haven Airport in Connecticut as its base. Avelo plans a Nov. 3 launch for service from New Haven to four destinations in Florida: Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Orlando and Tampa. There is currently no nonstop service on any of those routes. 

In other airline newsUnited has matched Delta in bringing back a waiver of change fees for passengers traveling on basic economy fares. The waiver applies through the end of December, and it’s good for all basic economy tickets purchased after April 30 of this year, when change fees were reimposed for that fare class. Basic economy fliers can also fly standby without a fee for a different flight on the same day of travel, the carrier noted. United has also unveiled an expansion of the Travel Ready Center in its mobile app and website so that users can now locate and book COVID-19 testing appointments at more than 3,000 Walmart and Albertsons locations nationwide.

Alaska Airlines has partnered with regional carrier RavnAir.
Alaska Airlines has partnered with regional carrier RavnAir.RavnAir

Alaska Airlines has a new partner in its frequent flier program: Members who take flights on the intrastate carrier Ravn Alaska can now earn miles in Mileage Plus. “Travelers who prefer to use their Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan will begin accruing immediately. However, they will not see the miles in their Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan account until later this year,” Ravn said, noting that mileage redemptions on Alaska Airlines will begin in 2022.

On the international side, airline service to Europe continues to revive now that most destinations there have reopened to American visitors who meet COVID restrictions. British Airways on Aug. 31 will resume service from Phoenix Sky Harbor to London Heathrow with three flights a week. And Air France has set a Nov. 1 launch for Seattle-Paris CDG service, operating three flights a week; that route is also served by Air France partner Delta. Speaking of Delta, that carrier announced this week a new interline ticketing option for Amsterdam-bound passengers to continue traveling by rail to Brussels or Antwerp, Belgium, on high-speed Thalys trains via a seamless transfer at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport rail station. Intermodal air-rail ticketing has been available for years from Air France and Lufthansa at their major hub airports.

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