New CDC guidelines, Southwest preclearance, fare rule changes, frequent flyer news, more

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In this week’s roundup, the CDC eases up on its warnings against air travel for fully vaccinated individuals; Southwest Airlines now offers pre-departure verification of Hawaii’s travel requirements; major carriers extend expiration dates for use of travel credits and for basic economy change fee waivers; Delta offers new enticements for SkyMiles members; Alaska and American introduce reciprocal upgrade privileges for elite-level frequent flyers; new study rates the best airline loyalty programs; JetBlue gains access to London Heathrow; and route news from Spirit, American, Emirates and Korean.

As the number of Americans vaccinated against COVID continues to rise, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday finally issued an update to its advice about traveling – something that airlines have been eagerly anticipating for weeks. In its update, CDC eased up on its recommendation that everyone just stay home – but only for those who are fully vaccinated, i.e., have completed the required number of shots and have waited two weeks after the last one.

For domestic trips, CDC said fully vaccinated individuals can now “travel safely within the United States,” do not need to take a COVID test before or after travel unless their destination requires it, and do not need to self-quarantine. The same revised guidance applies to those who have recovered from COVID-19 in the past three months. Vaccinated individuals who travel should still wear a mask during air travel and in airports, maintain social distancing, and wash hands often or use hand sanitizer, the CDC said.

On international trips, fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to get tested before they leave the U.S. “unless your destination requires it,” the CDC said, nor do they need to self-quarantine after arriving back in the U.S. But the CDC said international travelers should still get tested three to five days after travel – and the U.S. still requires all passengers coming into the U.S., including those who are fully vaccinated, to get a negative COVID test result no more than three days before they board their flight. They should also get a viral test three to five days after travel, the CDC said.

As for unvaccinated individuals, the CDC’s earlier guidelines still apply – i.e., don’t fly anywhere unless it’s essential. In a press briefing earlier last week, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said coronavirus case numbers, which had been on a long decline, have increased by about 10% across the country in recent days – a trend that she said is giving her “a recurring feeling…of impending doom.” Dr. Walensky said a similar recent uptick in cases preceded new surges of the pandemic in Germany, France and Italy, and she worries the U.S. could be next. “What we’re seeing now is more travel than we saw throughout the pandemic, including the Christmas and New Year’s holidays,” she said. “I think people have taken advantage of what they perceived as a relative paucity of cases, a relative lull in where we were, to take advantage of their time of spring break, of holiday travel.” She said that increases in travel over previous holiday periods were all followed by an increase in COVID cases. Unvaccinated travelers should have a pre-travel test, quarantine for seven days, have a post-travel test, and then monitor for symptoms between 7 and 14 days, the agency recommends.

Southwest Airlines is finally catching up with its competitors in offering passengers to Hawaii a pre-departure process for verifying their COVID testing status and other data required by the island state. By pre-clearing these requirements at the departure airport, passengers can avoid standing in line after arrival in Hawaii for the same purpose. “Customers who have uploaded an approved negative COVID-19 test result, required travel information, and completed a health questionnaire before departing the mainland may be eligible to bypass airport screening when arriving in Honolulu (Oahu) and Kahului (Maui),” Southwest said. Those are the components of the state’s Hawaii Safe Travels program, which allows compliant visitors to avoid a 10-day quarantine after arrival.


The airline said its customer service agents will be available starting 90 minutes before departure to verify that passengers have completed all the required steps; the pre-clear program is available at all of Southwest’s airports with Hawaii flights, including San Jose, Oakland, Sacramento, San Diego and Long Beach. The carrier currently operates 14 flights a day to the islands from those five airports and plans to revive flights from Oakland and San Jose to Lihue, Kauai on June 6. The airline has a web page at Southwest.com/coronavirus/Hawaii with details on the state’s requirements and pre-departure COVID testing options.

Delta has continued to keep middle seats empty long after its rivals gave up on that small social-distancing promise, citing customer surveys that showed a strong preference for the practice. But even Delta couldn’t keep flying all those empty seats forever, so the airline said last week that it will discontinue the practice effective May 1. “Consumer behavior and vaccination rates have been the baseline for Delta’s decision to remove or extend the block throughout the pandemic,” Delta said, noting that it now feels confident in ending the empty-middle-seat policy because almost 65% of customers who flew on Delta in 2019 now expect to have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by May 1.

As millions of consumers canceled their flight bookings last year in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, major U.S. airlines created some controversy by asking their customers to accept a credit good for future travel instead of an outright refund. Those credits were mostly due to expire at the end of March 2021, putting customers in a use-it-or-lose-it position. However, that deadline has crumbled as carriers are granting extensions into next year. Southwest decided last year it would extend to Sept. 7, 2022 any travel credits that were due to expire between March 1- Sept. 7 of this year. United and American are now giving customers until March 31 of 2022 to book a flight using credit from a canceled trip. And Delta, which last year extended through the end of 2022 the value of tickets bought before April 17, 2020, is now offering the same extension to all tickets purchased in 2021 or due to expire in 2021.

Although major airlines have largely eliminated fees for changing or canceling flights for the indefinite future, that general policy didn’t apply to basic economy fares – the cheapest ones available. Carriers had set an April 1 termination for their waivers of basic economy change fees, but that deadline got some revisions last week. Delta, United, Alaska and Hawaiian Airlines have now extended their change fee waiver for basic economy to tickets purchased through the end of April. At this writing, JetBlue just did the same for its Basic Blue tickets bought through May 31, but American had not revised its policy, making its basic economy tickets now non-changeable and non-refundable.

In other news last week, Delta unveiled new benefits for members of its SkyMiles loyalty program – especially frequent flyers who aspire to Medallion elite status. The airline said that for the rest of this year, members can earn up to 75% more credit toward Medallion status on almost every flight, including award travel (whether bought with miles or Miles + Cash). In general, the airline said, “All SkyMiles members will earn at least 50% more on Delta tickets,” plus another 25% on all premium fare tickets and on upgrades bought after the ticket purchase, whether with cash or miles. All bonuses will be automatically credited to the member’s account.

In other frequent flyer news, effective April 5, elite-level members of Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan program and American’s AAdvantage will be able to take advantage of reciprocal upgrade privileges. Alaska’s MVP, MVP Gold and MVP Gold 75K members will be able to upgrade to extra-legroom Main Cabin Extra seats on AA flights, while MVP Gold and MVP Gold 75K members will also be eligible for upgrades to first class. AAdvantage Gold, Platinum, Platinum Pro and Executive Platinum members will be able to upgrade to Alaska’s Premium Class seats, and Executive Platinums are also eligible for first class upgrades on Alaska flights.

Speaking of airline loyalty programs, a company called Wallethub has issued its latest annual study of them and concluded that the best one in the country for 2021 is United’s MileagePlus. Delta’s SkyMiles, which had occupied the top spot in the study for the past five years, fell to third place, with Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan in second place. The company evaluated the frequent flyer plans of the nation’s 10 largest carriers, using 21 different metrics “ranging from the value of a rewards point or mile to blackout-date policies.” Although Delta ranked third overall this year, it was number one in having “the most additional features” for program members, Wallethub.com said.

And the study showed how airlines have been trying to hang onto their best customers during the pandemic by offering new loyalty plan incentives: “Five of the 10 largest airlines are offering more rewards value in 2021 than in 2020, sweetening the pot by an average of 30%,” the study found. Wallethub.com also offers an online calculator that individuals can use to determine the best loyalty program for them based on how much they spend annually on airline travel.

Spirit Airlines has unveiled plans for a service expansion at Los Angeles International with new domestic and international routes. The airline said it will begin new daily flights from LAX to Los Cabos starting May 5 and to Puerto Vallarta beginning July 1. In addition to its recently announced Saturday-only flights from LAX to New York LaGuardia starting June 12, Spirit said it will introduce daily service from LAX to St. Louis and Louisville May 27, to Columbus June 9 and to Milwaukee June 24. The flights from LAX to Milwaukee, Columbus and Louisville will be the only non-stops in those markets, Spirit said.

Until last week, JetBlue’s planned new transatlantic service to London from New York JFK and Boston looked like it would have to fly into Gatwick Airport or the more remote Stansted Airport, but last week JetBlue learned it could have access to London Heathrow. U.K. airport officials said JetBlue could use 270 landing and takeoff slots at LHR from Aug. 2 through the end of the summer season in October, starting with 14 a week, but JetBlue said it is still deciding which of the three London airports it will use and what its London schedule will look like. JetBlue recently unveiled a redesign for the Airbus A321LRs it will use across the Atlantic, including an improved Mint premium cabin with more generous lie-flat seats and even a couple of privacy suites. JetBlue has promised that it will attract business travelers to the busy London routes by offering much lower fares than its competitors for the premium front cabin.

In other international route developments, American Airlines last week launched new service between Seattle and London Heathrow as part of its growing partnership with Seattle-based Alaska Airlines. The new route took off just as Alaska become a full member of American’s global Oneworld alliance. American will share the SEA-LHR route with its transatlantic joint venture partner British Airways. Dubai-based Emirates said it will resume its Dubai-Milan-New York JFK route on June 1; that route has so-called Fifth Freedom rights, which means travelers can take only the JFK-Milan segment if they want. And Korean Air said its upcoming merger with rival Asiana will be delayed by legal and other complications, pushing it back from 2022 to 2024.

Jim Glab is a freelance travel writer.  



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