COVID variant stalls travel revival + new Alaska SFO-Mexico routes, Emirates, Delta, JetBlue

Otto I. Eovaldi

In this week’s news, there are some troubling indicators for air travel volume in the weeks ahead as the highly transmissible COVID delta variant continues to spread through the U.S. and the world; the European Union will continue allowing Americans to visit, although that could change on short notice; the U.S. CDC adds France and some other nations to its “do not travel” list; Hawaii reimposes limits on restaurant capacity and group sizes; France’s Caribbean islands tell all visitors to leave; New Zealand extends its border closure into 2022; Alaska Airlines adds three SFO routes to Mexican resorts for the winter and will begin Reno-Palm Springs service; Air Canada and Allegiant add California routes; JetBlue finally kicks off JFK-London flights; Delta resumes some London routes; Emirates boosts its San Francisco schedule; Singapore Airlines will begin LAX-Taipei-Singapore service; more airlines tell employees to get vaccinated; a new Alaskan airline eyes transpacific flights from SFO and LAX next year; new carriers in South Korea and Europe plan U.S. flights; and Alaska Airlines sets a date for opening its new SFO lounge.

It looks like the big resurgence of airline travel this year may have peaked out as the spread of COVID 19’s delta variant in the U.S. appears to be scaring off some travelers. During late July and early August, the number of passengers screened at TSA checkpoints approached or exceeded 2 million a day, but now there are indications that those numbers will go down.  Southwest Airlines said in an SEC filing this week that it is seeing “an increase in close-in trip cancellations” during August, as well as a “deceleration” in close-in reservations. The airline attributed the changes to the surge in the delta variant.  Meanwhile, credit card data analyzed by JP Morgan Chase showed that spending on airline tickets during late July fell by 20% from its peak earlier in the month, although that could partly reflect the typical decline in air travel during the fall months. 

And a new consumer survey of 1,000 adults conducted on Aug. 4 by tourism marketing consultants at Longwood International uncovered a growing resistance to travel. Under the headline “Delta variant setting off alarm bells for travel industry,” the firm said its new poll found that one-third of travelers have postponed trips “specifically because of the delta variant,” up from 25% who said so in a survey two weeks earlier. And the percentage who said coronavirus will “greatly impact their travel decisions in the next six months” increased to 34% from 21% in a poll a month ago. “News of rising numbers of infections, hospitalizations and deaths clearly is changing the perception of trip safety for some travelers,” said Amir Eylon, CEO of Longwoods International. “And reports of so-called ‘breakthrough infections’ among the vaccinated and increasing coronavirus cases among children may also be weighing on travel and travel planning.” 

Americans planning to travel to Europe dodged a bullet this week as the European Union decided to leave the U.S. on its “safe countries” list – for now, at least. There were some concerns that the recent surge in U.S. COVID cases could have threatened that status and led the EU to again close its doors to American visitors. The website, which tracks coronavirus-related travel restrictions, cited an unnamed EU official as saying the bloc would continue to allow U.S. travelers although “the list will be reviewed again in two weeks or even earlier if the coronavirus situation changes.” The EU’s rules say that to remain on its “safe list” for travel, a foreign nation should have no more than 75 new COVID cases per 100,000 residents over the previous 14 days, and the U.S. had three times that many as of Aug. 1, according to the Washington Post. “The current number is closer to 400, or more than five times the E.U. threshold,” the Post reported. 

Meanwhile, the Biden Administration continues to maintain its ban on visitors from the E.U., the U.K. and some other countries – a stance that gives the Europeans more ammunition to reimpose a ban on Americans. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week added more nations to its list of “Level 4” COVID risks, which means the CDC is advising Americans not to travel there. The biggest tourist destination among the new Level 4 countries is France; others now at Level 4 include French Polynesia (i.e., Tahiti and neighboring islands), Israel, Iceland, Thailand, and Aruba. Last month, the CDC put the U.K. on its Level 4 list. The U.S. still requires a negative COVID test result from anyone flying here from a foreign country. 

The sun sets off of Waikiki Beach on the Hawaiian island of Oahu on Saturday, June 26, 2021 in Honolulu, HI. 

The sun sets off of Waikiki Beach on the Hawaiian island of Oahu on Saturday, June 26, 2021 in Honolulu, HI. 

Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag

Another example of COVID’s delta variant affecting tourism comes from Hawaii, which is reducing size limits on social gatherings and imposing new indoor capacity restrictions on restaurants and bars. Citing a sharp rise in COVID cases, Governor David Ige said this week that dining establishments and bars will have to limit the number of indoor patrons to 50% of capacity, and the maximum permissible size of social gatherings will be reduced from 25 to 10 for indoors events and from 75 to 25 for outdoor venues. Hawaii’s COVID case rate has jumped by 160% over the past two weeks. Hawaii has not changed its rules for entry to the state. 

In the Caribbean, coronavirus infections on the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe are now so bad that local officials have imposed a three-week lockdown and asked all tourists to leave the territory as soon as possible. Hotel accommodations are limited to residents and essential workers, and all retail establishments except for grocery stores and drugstores were ordered to close. And across the Pacific, the island nation of New Zealand – which has been virtually shut off from the world for a year and a half – now says it expects to keep its borders closed to visitors into next year, when it expects to begin a phased reopening.

In California route news, Alaska Airlines is giving Bay Area residents some new options for travel to Mexico this winter. The airline said this week it plans to introduce weekly seasonal service from San Francisco International to three Mexican resort destinations – Loreto, Mazatlan and Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo – from Dec. 18 through April 16. The new flights will operate on Saturdays. Elsewhere in the state, Alaska will revive Palm Springs-Reno/Tahoe service five days a week from Dec. 16 through March 16. In southern California, Air Canada will begin flying four times a week from Orange County Airport in Santa Ana to Vancouver starting Oct. 2, increasing to daily frequencies in 2022. And low-cost Allegiant Airlines’ latest announcement of new routes includes California service from Orange County to Phoenix-Mesa and to Sioux Falls, S.D., and from Palm Springs to Provo, Utah, all starting Nov. 19.

In international route developments, JetBlue this week finally launched its long-planned transatlantic expansion, introducing daily flights from its New York JFK base to London Heathrow. The airline is using new long-range Airbus A321s configured with 138 seats, including a front cabin with 24 redesigned Mint suites. JetBlue first announced the London route plans more than two years ago. It also plans to kick off flights from JFK to London’s Gatwick Airport in late September. Meanwhile, Delta has followed United and British Airways in ramping up service to the U.K. now that it has reopened to vaccinated U.S. travelers. The airline said it will resume Seattle-London Heathrow service on Oct. 7 with three flights a week, and four weekly flights from Detroit to London beginning Oct. 11. It already operates London routes from Atlanta and New York JFK, and the latter will increase from seven flights a week to 14 on Oct. 6. “With Delta’s joint venture partner Virgin Atlantic, customers can also seamlessly connect to LHR with over 30 flights from Boston (BOS), Los Angeles (LAX) and Miami (MIA), as well as ATL and JFK,” Delta said.

Emirates' latest schedule revision now includes San Francisco-Dubai service this fall.

Emirates’ latest schedule revision now includes San Francisco-Dubai service this fall.


In other international developments, Emirates is increasing San Francisco-Dubai frequencies this month from four flights a week to five and also increasing capacity on its Boston and New York JFK routes. Singapore Airlines on Aug. 25 will start flying from Los Angeles to Singapore via a stop in Taipei three times a week with fifth-freedom rights, i.e., passengers can fly only the LAX-Taipei segment if they want. In fact, according to, “current travel restrictions mean it is not possible to fly between Singapore and Los Angeles on this service. Taiwan is not allowing transit passengers at present, so the service is only bookable either between Singapore and Taipei or between Taipei and Los Angeles.”

After United Airlines announced last week that all its 67,000 employees would have to be vaccinated against COVID by Oct. 25, some other airlines have followed suit. Frontier Airlines said it has told all employees to complete their shots by Oct. 1; as an alternative, the airline said, they can “provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test on a regular basis.” And Hawaiian Airlines set a Nov. 1 deadline for workers to be vaccinated, although it could allow exceptions for medical or religious reasons. American, Delta and Southwest are all encouraging their employees to get the vaccine, but so far they have stopped short of making it mandatory. 

A new low-cost airline in Alaska wants to connect U.S. cities including San Francisco and Los Angeles to Asian destinations like Tokyo and Seoul starting next year, with flights operating via a stop in Anchorage. It’s called Northern Pacific Airways and it’s an affiliate of the intrastate carrier Ravn Alaska. The fledgling airline plans to acquire a fleet of 12 Boeing 757s over the next two years, and that aircraft’s limited range will probably restrict the carrier’s transpacific routes to Japan and South Korea. Airline officials say they hope to operate from gateways in the Lower 48 including SFO, LAX, New York, Las Vegas and Orlando, and part of their strategy will be to encourage passengers to make an Anchorage stopover of a few days so they can explore the state on their way across the Pacific. Northern Pacific Airways hopes to start intercontinental operations by next summer.

New foreign airlines continue to set their sights on service to the U.S. in the months ahead. In South Korea, a start-up carrier called Air Premia plans to seek U.S. government approval to begin flying to Los Angeles from Seoul Incheon in the second quarter of next year, using a Boeing 787-9.  Rights to LAX-Seoul non-stops are currently held both Korean Air and Asiana, companies that are planning to merge – although reportedly not until 2024. Air Premia is expected to begin its first scheduled service next week on a domestic route between Seoul’s Gimpo Airport and the Korean resort island of Jeju – the busiest airline route in the world, already served by 11 airlines. 

Meanwhile, the new Norse Atlantic Airways is moving ahead with plans to start flying between Europe and the U.S., filling in the void left by the low-cost carrier Norwegian Air after it suspended its many transatlantic routes due to the pandemic. Norse Atlantic said this week it has agreed to lease another six 787-9 aircraft, for delivery in December of this year. With the aircraft it had already lined up, that will give the carrier a total of 15 787s. ““We very much look forward to welcoming customers on both sides of the Atlantic on board these state-of-the-art aircraft as soon as demand for transatlantic travel resumes,” said Norse Atlantic CEO Bjorn Tore Larsen. Although it hasn’t yet announced any specific route plans, Norse Atlantic reportedly hopes to fly from U.S. points like Los Angeles, New York and Florida to European destinations including Oslo, Paris and London, among others. 

A Boeing 737 MAX-9, built for Alaska Airlines, undergoes testing as it flies past the Boeing factory in Everett Washington on March 23, 2020. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times/TNS)
A Boeing 737 MAX-9, built for Alaska Airlines, undergoes testing as it flies past the Boeing factory in Everett Washington on March 23, 2020. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times/TNS)Mike Siegel/TNS

In airport news, Alaska Airlines has set an Aug. 31 opening date for its new Alaska Lounge at San Francisco International, located in Terminal 2 where it is taking over the space formerly occupied by an American Airlines Admirals Club. At more than 9,000 square feet, it will be Alaska’s second largest lounge after the one at its Seattle-Tacoma home base. It will offer food including soups, salads, oatmeal and made-to-order pancakes; a full bar with local beers and wines, and an espresso bar. Alaska Lounge membership costs $350 for Mileage Plan elites or $450 for non-elites.

More California Travel Stories

Next Post

Mads Pedersen's Tour de France suffering pays off with Denmark win

Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) reported the win on stage 2 of his property country tour, the PostNord Danmark Rundt, was a welcome spend off after the trials of a complicated Tour de France. Pedersen crashed out of the Critérium du Dauphiné in the guide up to the Tour de France and […]

You May Like