/Routes: Avelo starts flying, Europe’s big vaccinations challenge, United perks, FAA fines, TSA’s pot – SF Gate

Routes: Avelo starts flying, Europe’s big vaccinations challenge, United perks, FAA fines, TSA’s pot – SF Gate


In the latest air travel developments, a new California-based low-cost carrier operates its first flights; new California service from Southwest, United and Alaska; Europe’s plan to open up to vaccinated U.S. visitors by summer still faces some significant technical challenges; United offers new perks to get MileagePlus members back in the air; the FAA slaps more five-figure fines on unruly passengers; TSA warns air travelers about carrying marijuana products from one legal state to another; Delta begins a big upgrade of its in-flight Wi-Fi service; four foreign airlines plan their first U.S. flights; and Mineta San Jose adds hundreds of parking spots. 

The U.S. hasn’t seen the launch of a significant new domestic airline since 2007, when Virgin America started flying (it was merged into Alaska Airlines in 2018). But that changed last week when California-based Avelo Airlines started service with a flight from Hollywood Burbank Airport to Sonoma County’s Charles M. Schulz Airport in Santa Rosa, a route that it will operate once a day. The new low-cost carrier is led by Chairman and CEO Andrew Levy, a former CFO of United Airlines and a founder of low-cost Allegiant Airlines. Avelo, which is based at Burbank, is starting with a fleet of three 737-800s. After its inaugural Santa Rosa-Burbank flight, it quickly launched service from Burbank to Pasco, Wash., with three flights a week, and to Bozeman, Mont., with four weekly roundtrips. In May, Avelo will phase in additional routes from Burbank to Arcata-Eureka and Redding, Calif.; Bend-Redmond, Eugene, and Medford, Ore.; Grand Junction, Colo.; Phoenix-Mesa, Ariz.; and Ogden-Salt Lake City, Utah.

The airline has a website at www.aveloair.com, and has introductory one-way fares starting as low as $19. Avelo has a roster of add-on fees including $10 for the first checked bag, $35 for a carry-on stowed in the overhead bin and $10 for priority boarding. Most seats will feature a tight, 29-inch pitch (i.e. legroom; the standard at major U.S. airlines is 30-31 inches), but 60 of them will have 31-38 inches of pitch for an extra fee of at least $18. And pre-reserving a window or aisle seat will carry a fee starting at $5.  
 
In other California route news, Southwest Airlines last week started flying out of Fresno Yosemite Airport to Denver once a day and to Las Vegas three times a day. On May 6, United is due to kick off the only service between Orange County Airport in Santa Ana and Honolulu, with one daily 737-700 flight. Alaska Airlines has now set a June 17 start for daily service to San Luis Obispo from both Portland and San Diego, using 76-seat Embraer 175s. And United is adding a daily San Francisco International-Aspen, Colo., flight (and two a day between LAX-Aspen) to its summer schedule starting June 3.

Although the president of the European Commission said last week that the E.U. expects to open up this summer to U.S. travelers who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the details of how that program will be implemented still have to be worked out, and one big technical obstacle remains: how travelers will prove they got the shots. In an interview with the New York Times, EC President Ursula von der Leyen said that as long as Americans are inoculated with vaccines approved by the European Medicines Agency – and all those used in the U.S. are – “This will enable free movement and travel to the European Union.” However, she offered no details on how soon that might happen or what type of vaccination proof will be needed – presumably a digital file on a mobile app that can be easily and quickly scanned at the point of arrival.

To a degree, the E.U.’s hand is being forced after some European nations have already started to move ahead with opening up to vaccinated U.S. tourists, including Iceland and Greece. France’s president recently said he expects his government to start removing restrictions on travelers by May, and last week Spain also got on board, saying that it should reopen in June to international visitors who are vaccinated, who got a negative COVID test or who recently recovered from the disease. 


The Biden Administration is on record as saying the U.S. Government will not create its own version of a so-called digital health passport for travelers, although it is willing to work with the private sector in developing technical standards for such a document. Major international airlines are desperate for more transatlantic flights to resume, especially with the summer peak travel season almost at hand, and the International Air Transport Assn. last week called von der Leyen’s comments “a step in the right direction.” But IATA said travel shouldn’t be limited to vaccinated individuals. “The presentation of negative COVID-19 test results should also facilitate travel. Central to this is acceptance by EU governments of rapid antigen tests that the Commission has approved for use and which fulfil the critical criteria of effective, convenient and affordable,” IATA said. 

The airline group added that the EC must now work with carriers to create “public health benchmarks and timelines that will enable unconditional travel for those vaccinated, not just from the U.S. but from all countries using vaccines that are approved by the European Medicines Association. Equally critical will be clear, simple and secure digital processes for vaccination certificates.” The organization is working on its own IATA Travel Pass, which is being tested in select international markets, “but we are still awaiting the development of globally recognized standards for digital vaccine certificates,” IATA said. 

The IATA Travel Pass is just one of several versions under development. (Japan Airlines last month started testing three of them on select routes – the IATA app, VeriFly, and Common Pass.) So far, apps have focused on working with health organizations to capture results of COVID tests, but now they’ll have to start obtaining and storing digital confirmation of vaccinations. That could be easy enough for individuals who will go to vaccination sites that link to one or more of the digital apps, but what about travelers who got their shots weeks or months ago? They might upload a photo of their vaccination card, but there is widespread concern that those paper certificates can too easily be forged. The U.S. has no central database of vaccinations; that’s handled mainly on the state level. Meanwhile, international airlines and the E.U. (as well as other foreign governments) have to decide which apps they’ll accept from travelers. 

The tech website CNET last week published a good summary of digital travel apps and the complications to be overcome. “A lack of standardization would be a burden for everyone,” CNET observed. “Some apps, for example, could request more information than others or could work in different ways. Another potential problem could be countries and airlines accepting only some apps, forcing you to upload your vaccination records multiple times. We’ll have to see how that plays out, but it could be one avenue for governments to step in and sort out the mess.”

United Airlines has come out with new incentives for Premier-level members of its MileagePlus program to start flying again — or flying more often. They’re available through July 27, and members can select one of three options: 1) A “Welcome Back” bonus of up to 25% of Premier Qualifying Points required to maintain their current status level (this is in addition to the 25% PQP deposit offered to members early this year); 2) An “Easy PQP” promotion providing 10% of the PQPs needed to keep their current status level, designed for members who don’t plan to travel before July 27; and 3) An offer of double miles – up to 10,000 total bonus miles – on transactions made through the airline’s MileagePlus X app, like shopping online, eating at participating restaurants, and buying eGift cards from hundreds of merchants. The offers are available to members who held Premier status on April 19, 2021. They have until May 13 to select a promotion through www.united.com/pickyourpath or via the MileagePlus X app. Members who don’t pick one will be automatically enrolled in the “Welcome Back” bonus offer. 

The Federal Aviation Administration is continuing its crackdown on bad in-flight behavior. Last week the agency announced three new cases of heavy civil penalties being imposed on unruly passengers. In each case, the miscreants had overindulged in alcohol they brought onboard themselves – which is itself a violation of FAA regulations. All three passengers allegedly yelled at and/or grabbed the arms of flight attendants and bothered other passengers. Two of the fines — $31,750 and $16,750 – were levied against travelers on separate JetBlue flights from Haiti to Boston. The third fine, for $14,500, was assessed on a SkyWest passenger traveling from Yuma to Dallas/Ft. Worth. In all three incidents, the flight crew asked for law enforcement officers to meet the aircraft when it landed and take the troublemakers off the plane.  

As more and more states move to legalize cannabis sales, some users might assume that flying from one legal state to another with cannabis in your carry-on is perfectly fine. But the Transportation Security Administration has issued a warning against the practice via its Instagram account. According to the agency’s pun-heavy advisory: “Let us be blunt with you… Even though legalization is growing like a weed state-by-state, passengers must still follow federal laws when traveling. Marijuana and certain cannabis infused products, including some CBD oils, still remain illegal federally.” That means no pot or pot-based products in your carry-on or your checked luggage even when it’s legal at both your origin and destination. The only exceptions: products with no more than 0.3% THC on a dry weight basis, or that are approved by the FDA. TSA said that while its airport officers don’t search for marijuana products, if they happen to find any, they are required to report it to law enforcement.  
 
On May 1, Delta will put a new Airbus A321ceo into service – the first plane to feature a major upgrade of Wi-Fi service coming to the airline’s fleet in the months ahead. Delta said it will continue to expand the Wi-Fi tech upgrade this year to 300 more planes, including A321ceos as well as 737-900s and 757-200s. By the end of 2022, the company said it expects to offer “best-in-class high-speed Wi-Fi” on almost all of its domestic fleet. Delta said it is working with Viasat to equip the aircraft with high-speed Ka-band satellite connectivity that will provide “a streaming quality connection to everyone onboard.” It is also introducing a new portal platform this summer for Wi-Fi users on Viasat-equipped aircraft, and in June will adopt a standard fee of $8 per device per flight for Wi-Fi service. With the new portal platform, Delta said, text messaging will still be free. 

It looks like some foreign carriers will be adding their first U.S. routes in the months ahead, including one coming to San Francisco International. Bamboo Airlines, a Vietnamese carrier that started flying two years ago, said it hopes to begin long-haul flights to SFO in September with a 787-9. If that happens, it would be the only non-stop service between Vietnam and the U.S. The airline has U.S. approval to fly to the U.S. from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

Meanwhile, the Italian airline Neos recently received U.S. approval to start flying to the U.S., and it is planning to begin service in late June between New York JFK and Milan Malpensa twice a week with a 787. Neos is 20 years old; until now it has operated intra-European flights and service to Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, but decided to expand its international reach and recently acquired two 787-9s from Norwegian, giving it a total of six. Starlux, a Taiwanese carrier that started flying in 2020, also won Dept. of Transportation approval to serve the U.S., and it is hoping to launch flights later this year from Taiwan to Los Angeles International, using one of several Airbus A350s that it has on order. And Vistara, a joint venture of India’s Tata Sons conglomerate and Singapore Airlines, has filed for U.S. approval to fly here from India beginning in September, although it hasn’t named any specific city-pairs yet.

In airport news, an indication of how quickly passenger numbers are rebounding comes from Mineta San Jose, which just added more than 300 parking spaces by “reconfiguring its facilities,” the airport said. “Changes to SJC’s parking configurations mean more spaces closer to the terminals, and a lower pricing option available in lots near both terminals. Starting May 1, parking rates in Lot 2 and Lot 4 are $18 per day, and the price for Lot 3 and Lot 5 is $24 per day,” the airport noted. SJC has a parking website at flysanjose.com/parking where travelers can find the location of lots and their rates as well as real-time data on which parking areas have the greatest availability of open spots.

Also this week: the federal government’s face mask mandate for air travelers, which was slated to expire on May 11, has been extended through September 13, the agency said on Friday. TSA works closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the issue, and even though the CDC recently said that fully vaccinated individuals can safely travel on domestic flights, its general COVID guidelines still call for face masks, social distancing and hand washing. “The extension of the face mask requirement (for air travel) is consistent with this most recent CDC guidance,” TSA said. Exemptions from the face mask requirement will remain in place for children under age 2 and for persons with certain disabilities. “The existing civil penalty fine structure will also remain in place, which starts at $250 and rises to $1,500 for repeat offenders who violate this face mask requirement,” TSA said. Individual airlines have had their own masking rules in place since last year, but the Biden Administration made face coverings mandatory for all airline travelers in February. With the initial expiration date for that rule quickly approaching, the government has been under increasing pressure from airlines and their employee unions – especially flight attendants – to extend the mandate.

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