Canada eyes reopening, France restrictions, DOT’s competition orders, new Avelo route, more

In this week’s developments, Americans could start flying into Canada for nonessential purposes as soon as August; France will start requiring vaccination cards for cafes, bars and other activities as COVID-19 concerns grow; the U.S. is expected to decide soon on reopening its borders to currently banned foreign travelers; President Joe Biden’s order on preserving competition and protecting consumers gives the Transportation Department a considerable to-do list; Supreme Court won’t hear a case asking it to overturn the federal government’s mask requirement for air travelers, even as reported unruly passenger incidents continue to grow; low-cost Avelo Airlines will introduce a new route out of Santa Rosa; Alaska plans winter flights from SFO to Montana; Frontier starts flying out of Burbank; United invests in 19-passenger electric-powered regional aircraft; CLEAR’s mobile app can now be used with Hawaii’s Safe Travels website for vaccine verification; a small Canadian airline eyes a big expansion, including to the U.S. West Coast; French Bee adds a new U.S. route; a new Icelandic carrier plans to begin U.S. service; Seattle acts to protect air travelers from invasive use of facial recognition; and two U.S. credit card giants will open new airport lounges.  

Americans who are vaccinated and want to fly into Canada for nonessential (i.e., leisure) purposes could finally get the chance as soon as next month. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office said this week that if the country continues on its current pace of COVID vaccinations, “Canada would be in a position to welcome fully vaccinated travelers from all countries by early September,” but that vaccinated U.S. citizens could be allowed in as soon as mid-August. Trudeau said discussions with the U.S. about reopening the border are ongoing. The statement said Canada’s government ministers are “working collaboratively on a proof of vaccination credential.” While Mexico has allowed U.S. citizens to keep flying into that country during the pandemic, Canada’s border closure applied to both road and air travel. Under current restrictions, foreign nationals who want to fly into Canada “for optional, nonessential or discretionary purposes will not be permitted,” according to Air Canada’s website. “Nonessential travel includes traveling for tourism, sightseeing, recreation, entertainment, social visits and religious functions.”

Although there’s been a lot of positive news lately about nations — especially in Europe — once again welcoming Americans and other visitors, that trend is subject to sudden reversals as new variations of the COVID virus continue to spread. For example, some European nations have started to impose new restrictions on British travelers due to a surge in delta variant infections there. And just this week, the government of France announced internal COVID-based restrictions designed to prevent a resurgence there. Starting in August, vaccination certificates will be required from anyone who wants to enter a café, bar or shopping center, and effective July 21, a certificate will be needed to get into a festival, concert, show or amusement park. Both vaccinated and unvaccinated Americans are now allowed into France, but the latter must show proof of a negative result on a PCR test taken no more than 72 hours before arrival.

While the European Union and some other countries are now welcoming American travelers, the E.U. has been hoping for reciprocity from the U.S., but that hasn’t happened yet. That could change soon, as pressure continues to mount on the Biden administration to lift the current ban on entry from the E.U., United Kingdom and some other countries. According to a Reuters report, both Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg are now siding with the airline and travel industries in urging Biden to lift the travel ban. Biden said this week that his administration is working on the issue in consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and expects to issue a response in the coming days. 

President Joe Biden released an executive order July 9 to improve competition in the U.S. economy, including airlines.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

As expected, President Biden’s wide-ranging July 9 executive order on improving competition in the U.S. economy mandates the Transportation Department to issue a proposed rulemaking (which it did on the same day) that would require airlines to refund passenger fees for checked bags when luggage is not delivered in a timely manner, and fees for in-flight Wi-Fi and other ancillary fees when those services are not provided. But it goes a lot further than that when it comes to the airline industry, according to an analysis by the legal newsletter Biden’s order also requires DOT to provide an update on how it is dealing with “the failure of airlines to provide timely refunds for flights cancelled” during the COVID pandemic; make changes to its definitions of “unfair and deceptive” practices by airlines to better protect consumers from bad behavior by airline marketers (“This initiative may entail a dismantling of Trump era regulations that were widely supported by the airline industry,” the newsletter notes); investigate ways to increase flight capacity and gate access at U.S. airports, reduce congestion and improve the management and distribution of takeoff and landing slots at busy airports; look for ways to give travelers better access to flight information “so that consumers can more easily find a broader set of available flights, including by new or lesser known airlines;” initiate a rulemaking that would require airlines to provide customers with complete information on ancillary fees at the time they buy a ticket; and improve coordination with the Justice Department “to ensure competition in air transportation and the ability of new entrants (airlines) to gain access” to the air travel market.

The U.S. Supreme Court has indicated that it is not inclined to intervene in the Biden administration’s ongoing mask requirement for passengers on public transportation, including airlines. A bid for the court to reject the mandatory mask rule was filed by a fully vaccinated individual in Florida who said he couldn’t wear a mask because of his “generalized anxiety disorder.” His lawsuit alleged that the mask requirement is unconstitutional for a number of reasons and exceeded the federal government’s statutory authority. His claim worked its way up through a circuit court of appeals without success, and when he sought to bring it to the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Clarence Thomas denied the request without explanation.

That mask requirement, of course, is a major factor in the ongoing surge of bad behavior by U.S. airline passengers — one that seems to be only getting worse even though violators are subject to huge fines by the FAA, flight bans by the airlines, and arrest by local authorities when the plane lands. Last week, the FAA received another 150 reports of bad passenger behavior from the airlines, making it the worst week yet. That makes a total of more than 3,400 disruptive passenger reports so far this year — a number many times higher than any previous year — and the FAA said three-fourths of them involved individuals who refused to mask up on the aircraft. 

Low-cost California start-up airline Avelo has announced a new route, and it’s the first one that won’t fly out of the carrier’s current operations base at Hollywood Burbank Airport. The company has set a Sept. 16 launch date for new service between Sonoma County’s Charles M. Schulz Airport in Santa Rosa and Las Vegas, a market that currently has no nonstop flights. The new flights will operate on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, with one-way fares starting at $39. Avelo already flies between Santa Rosa and Hollywood Burbank. In other local route news, Alaska Airlines plans to offer daily flights this winter from San Francisco International to Bozeman, Montana — a route that it currently flies a few days a week. The summer schedule will end in September, but Alaska now plans to offer SFO-Bozeman winter flights from Dec. 16 through April 18. Bozeman is a gateway to Yellowstone National Park, which is open year-round. Elsewhere in California, Frontier Airlines this week added Hollywood Burbank Airport to its route map, kicking off daily service to Denver, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

An Alaska Airlines plane lands in Bozeman, Mont. 

An Alaska Airlines plane lands in Bozeman, Mont. 

Andrew Nelles/Associated Press

United Airlines is doubling down on its commitment to electric-powered aircraft. In February, the company said it would team up with regional partner Mesa Airlines to buy up to 200 electric-powered vertical takeoff and landing aircraft from a manufacturer called Archer. Those aircraft, which would only carry a few passengers at a time on trips of up to 60 miles, would be used to provide air taxi service in major urban areas, mainly to get to and from United’s hub airports. But now United and Mesa are investing in another electric aircraft start-up called Heart Aerospace to acquire a fleet of 19-passenger ES-19 electric-powered planes that can fly up to 250 miles. Since the aircraft is currently only on paper, United said the purchase deal depends on Heart Aerospace building a plane that can “meet United’s safety, business and operating requirements.” The deal envisions United and Mesa each getting 100 of the planes, starting as soon as 2026. “Once operational, the ES-19 could operate on more than 100 of United’s regional routes out of most of its hubs,” the airline said. “Some of these routes include Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD) to Purdue University Airport (LAF) and San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to Modesto City-County Airport (MOD).”  

CLEAR, the biometric-based trusted traveler program that lets members bypass security screening lines, said that vaccinated travelers can now use its free mobile app and its Health Pass feature to expedite entry to Hawaii. “Once enrolled, travelers simply take a photo of their CDC card and upload their vaccination information. Additionally, travelers can also securely link to their digital proof of vaccination through CLEAR’s network of hundreds of vaccine providers and national pharmacies, including Walmart, Atlantic Health System and the State of California,” the company said. After the Health Pass is created on the app, the traveler can go to the Hawaii Safe Travels website to apply for an exemption from the state’s quarantine by linking to their CLEAR Health Pass. “Upon arrival, travelers using CLEAR’s Health Pass for proof of vaccination and who receive a wristband can bypass screening and head directly to the exit with no further processing,” the company said.

A plane flies into Lihue Airport on Kauai.

A plane flies into Lihue Airport on Kauai.

Matthew Micah Wright/Getty Images

West Coast residents might have a new way to get to Canada starting next year as a small regional airline in Toronto has big expansion plans. Porter Airlines has hardly been a major player in its 15-year history, operating a fleet of Dash 8-400 turboprops from Toronto’s close-to-downtown Billy Bishop Airport to a small number of Canadian cities and five U.S. airports on the East Coast. But now Porter says it plans to buy a fleet of up to 80 Embraer E195 regional jets with deliveries starting late next year and will start operating out of Toronto’s Pearson Airport, using the new planes’ greater range to open up a number of new domestic and transborder routes. It hasn’t yet said which transborder routes, but its map of potential U.S. destinations includes San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle, as well as Las Vegas, Phoenix and Denver. “We are planning to fly our new jets from Ottawa, Montreal, Halifax and Toronto Pearson International Airport, giving you more travel options with us,” Porter said. The carrier added that it will continue to fly Dash 8-400 turboprops out of Toronto’s Billy Bishop Airport as well.

In other international developments, the Paris-based carrier French Bee has not yet resumed its San Francisco-Tahiti service as expected even though Americans can once again travel to French Polynesia. A spokesperson tells us that the carrier will continue to operate its Paris-Tahiti route via a stop in Vancouver instead of San Francisco for now, “until the borders reopen to the E.U. in the U.S.” But that hasn’t stopped French Bee from opening up a new route this week between Paris Orly and Newark, with flights three days a week (increasing to four in August). And remember the defunct Icelandic airline WOW, which offered cheap flights between the U.S. and Reykjavik, with connecting service to several cities in Europe? It looks like a new airline in Iceland — called PLAY — has its eye on the same strategy. PLAY last month started operations with flights from Reykjavik to London and Berlin, and CEO Birgir Jonsson said this week in an interview with that the carrier plans to begin North American service in the spring of 2022, initially to East Coast cities like New York, Boston and Washington, with continuing service to cities in Europe via a Reykjavik connection.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in March.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in March.

Seattle-Tacoma Airport

As airlines and airports rapidly adopt facial recognition and other biometric technologies to facilitate border crossings, aircraft boarding and other travel functions, the Port of Seattle is taking steps to make sure that technology isn’t abused by law enforcement authorities. The Port said that its governing commission voted this week to ban the use of facial recognition and other biometric techniques “for law enforcement, security, and mass surveillance purposes by the Port and any private-sector entities operating at its facilities,” which include Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. That makes Seattle the “first port authority in the nation to formally limit the use of biometric technology,” the Port Authority said. While biometrics can still be used for legitimate passenger processing purposes, “To the extent allowable under state and federal law, the Port will require that any such use of the technology must be fully voluntary and meet strict standards for privacy, equity and transparency,” the commission said.

Following the lead of American Express, credit card giant Capitol One is planning to get into the airport lounge business. The company said it expects its first lounge to open later this year at Dallas/Fort Worth International in Terminal D, followed by locations at Washington Dulles (post-security in the Main Terminal) and Denver International (Concourse A, mezzanine level) in 2022. In addition to the usual premium lounge amenities — high-speed Wi-Fi, grab-and-go food, dining stations, a full bar, coffee bar and work zones — the Capitol One Lounges will also have relaxation rooms, luggage lockers, cycling and yoga rooms, shower suites, a kids’ area, parents’ rooms for nursing and diaper changes, and multi-faith rooms “for prayer, meditation or silent reflection.” As for accessing the lounges, “Capital One customers will be eligible for special cardholder pricing, depending on their card,” the company said. Meanwhile, Chase is also expected to start opening airport lounges next year. While it hasn’t yet announced details, the website said it learned that they will be branded as the Chase Sapphire Lounge by The Club, and the first one will be at Boston Logan. It said the lounges will be open to Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholders and members of the Priority Pass airport lounge program. 

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