Eerily silent Paris CDG marks Easter without air travel rush

By Tim Hepher and Christian Hartmann

PARIS (Reuters) – Easter at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport typically starts two weeks early as extra staff are trained to cope with one of the busiest weekends of the year. On Friday, an eerie calm pervaded Europe’s largest airport as France slides back into lockdown.

Instead of crowded check-ins and relentless take-offs and landings, rows of unused trolleys and redundant queuing barriers greeted visitors to one of the world’s busiest transport hubs.

“It’s nothing like what you would normally see,” said Amor, who has worked at the airport for 20 years, organizing check-in zones and passenger assistance for an airport sub-contractor.

“The airport would be full of people going to Turkey, Greece, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt for the spring holidays. We handled a Tunisia flight yesterday and there were 80 people,” he said. Air France typically serves Tunis with 150-seat jets.

Charles de Gaulle on Thursday handled 18.1% of the number of passengers seen on the same day in 2019, Aeroports de Paris said.

Adjusting for different dates for Easter, throughput on the few open concourses is closer to 20-25% of a usual Easter.

The enforced lull is more striking given that the airport’s 11 terminals have been condensed into two during the pandemic, though some were already closed for maintenance.

Terminal 2E, usually used by Air France and partners for U.S. flights, is handling all long-range traffic, throwing competing carriers from across the globe into a shared space.

A dedicated check-in zone for business class – worst hit by the coronavirus travel crisis – has been suspended and a large COVID-19 testing area takes up one end of the vast hall.

Europe’s border-free Schengen area is served opposite at 2F.

JOBS AT RISK

Charles de Gaulle airport, built in wheat fields northeast of Paris, has seen explosive growth since the first jumbo touched down from New York in 1974.

Terminal 2 opened in 1982 as a hub for Air France, with its undulating modular design shortening the time from gate to curb.

The original 2B was closed for repairs before the crisis but much of the rest of the Terminal 2 complex has been transformed from a snarl of traffic jams to a bowl of deserted concrete.

The global travel slump has cast a shadow over the local economy where 100,000 people work at Charles de Gaulle, a major employer in the capital’s depressed northern suburbs.

Airport staff say less than half of those people are actively working this Easter, with the rest on furlough or finding that the usual temporary jobs have not materialized.

Up to 30,000 jobs could disappear for good, the deputy head of Paris CDG Alliance, which groups the airport’s largest employers and regional government agencies, told Le Monde newspaper.

That contrasts with crowded scenes observed this week in China and the United States, two fast-recovering markets.

On Thursday, the U.S. screened 1.56 million air travelers, 65% of the comparable 2019 level, official data showed.

In Europe, progress in pushing back a third wave of coronavirus infections has been widely described as patchy. On Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron ordered France into its third national lockdown.

With Easter already a wash-out, the airline industry is fretting over bookings for summer. Experts say a second lost summer would threaten more bankruptcies..

The drop in passenger numbers means fewer staff from security to cleaners and wheel-chair attendants. Check-in for one Gulf airline now uses 4 agents per flight rather than 7.

Inconsistent border rules for dealing with the pandemic further complicate the planning.

“For Denmark and Sweden we have to have 5-6 agents to check the paperwork rather than the normal two,” one employee said.

On the airport’s most southerly runway, the morning wave of long-haul jets continued to arrive on Friday from as far away as Buenos Aires, Taipei or Douala. But industry statistics show such international flights are much emptier than usual.

International travel is expected to lag short-haul trips in any eventual recovery, hobbled by a video-conferencing craze.

“Zoom is doing well,” said an airline employee who specializes in looking after premium customers.

Still, some export-dependent companies are beginning to test the water, fearing Russian, Chinese or U.S. competition.

“We have to start moving again and keep doing business,” said Marc Vacher, a production executive at French energy services company Idex, arriving early for a flight to Ukraine.

“You can’t go without face-to-face contact with customers; otherwise, it is harder to catch up later,” he added.

(Additional reporting by Laurence Frost, Tracy Rucinski, David Shepardson; editing by Barbara Lewis)

U.S. airlines see ‘glimmers of hope’ as bookings improve

By Tracy Rucinski and Sanjana Shivdas

(Reuters) – U.S. airlines said on Monday that leisure bookings are rising and offered some of the first concrete signs that the worst may be over for the sector since the coronavirus pandemic ground air travel to a near halt a year ago.

Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways each said first-quarter revenue would decline at the low end or less than previously forecast as vaccine rollouts accelerate and more people plan vacations or visits to friends and relatives

Speaking at a J.P. Morgan conference, Delta Chief Executive Ed Bastian said there are “real glimmers of hope.”

Bastian said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the airline could halt its cash burn this spring and that it would use cash for aircraft purchases in the second quarter.

More than 1.3 million passengers were screened in U.S. airports on Friday and Sunday, according to Transportation Security Administration data, the highest number since the pandemic crushed air travel in 2020.

Delta expects its first-quarter revenue decline to be at the low end of its forecast for a 60% to 65% decline from the same quarter in 2019, before the onset of the pandemic.

Southwest forecast lower cash burn in the first quarter on Monday and a lower decline in operating revenue for February and March than previously forecast.

JetBlue also forecast a slowing pace in its first-quarter revenue drop, projecting a decline of between 61% and 64%, compared with the same period in 2019. It had previously forecast a 65% to 70% fall in revenue.

(Reporting by Tracy Rucinski, Editing by Louise Heavens and Paul Simao)

White House says no intention to require COVID-19 testing on domestic flights

By David Shepardson and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House said on Friday it was not currently planning to require people to take COVID-19 tests before domestic airline flights after the prospects of new rules raised serious concerns among U.S. airlines, unions and some lawmakers.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at a briefing on Friday that “reports that there is an intention to put in place new requirements, such as testing, are not accurate.”

Psaki spoke after the chief executives of major U.S. airlines, including American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines, met virtually with White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said last month the agency was “actively looking” at expanding mandatory COVID-19 testing to U.S. domestic flights.

The CDC on Jan. 26 began requiring negative COVID-19 tests or evidence of recovery from the disease from nearly all U.S.-bound international passengers aged 2 and older.

Any CDC order would first need to be drafted and then reviewed by other federal agencies in the Biden administration, including the White House.

The White House and officials told Reuters this week that no formal order had been circulated and that officials were not expected to endorse requiring negative COVID-19 tests before domestic flights, but added that decision could change at a later date.

“We had a very positive, constructive conversation focused on our shared commitment to science-based policies as we work together to end the pandemic, restore air travel and lead our nation toward recovery,” Nick Calio, chief executive of the Airlines for America industry group, said in a statement after the meeting on Friday.

The White House has a separate interagency meeting scheduled for later Friday to discuss coronavirus issues.

The meeting of airline CEOs, Zients and other administration officials involved in COVID-19 issues came after the industry strongly objected to the possibility of requiring COVID-19 testing before domestic flights.

Southwest Airlines warned such a requirement could put jobs at risk and a major aviation union said it could lead to airline bankruptcies.

One idea that has been under serious consideration is for the CDC to issue recommendations advising against travel to specific areas of the United States with high COVID-19 caseloads, although those travel recommendations would not be binding, officials said.

The CDC currently has a broad recommendation discouraging all non-essential air travel.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Jonathan Oatis; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Jonathan Oatis and Sonya Hepinstall)

Despite COVID-19 travel warnings, many Americans ‘not living in fear’ ahead of Thanksgiving

By Daniel Trotta and Nathan Layne

(Reuters) – Millions of Americans appear to be defying health warnings and traveling ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, likely exacerbating a surge in coronavirus infections before a series of promising new vaccines become widely available.

With U.S. COVID-19 infections hitting a record 168,000 per day on average, Americans are flocking to airports against the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. surgeon general and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert.

For Americans, the long holiday weekend, which begins on Thursday, is traditionally the busiest travel period of the year, and 2020 may prove to be no exception.

Some 1 million passengers passed through airport screenings on Sunday, the highest number since March. It was the second time in three days that passengers screened topped 1 million but screenings are down nearly 60% from the same time last year, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration said.

Meanwhile, the seven-day average number of U.S. COVID-19 deaths rose for a 12th straight day, reaching 1,500 as of Monday, according to a Reuters tally of official data.

That has further taxed already exhausted medical professionals, as coronavirus hospitalizations have surged nearly 50% over the past two weeks and the United States has surpassed 255,000 deaths and 12 million infections since the pandemic began.

Pleading with residents to stay home and avoid gatherings during the holiday season, Governor Andrew Cuomo reminded New Yorkers of the grim early days of the pandemic when as many as 800 people died in a single day in the state.

Hospitalizations have spiked 122% in New York state over the last three weeks, Cuomo said, prompting the re-opening of an emergency medical facility on Staten Island.

Help could arrive soon. The head of the U.S. campaign to rapidly deploy a vaccine said the first Americans could start receiving vaccinations as early as mid-December, and another global drug company on Monday unveiled promising trial results on a vaccine candidate.

“NOT LIVING IN FEAR”

Still, many Americans are refusing to follow the health advice that could save their lives.

In Pennsylvania, the number of COVID-19 tests coming back positive was 25% last week, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project. On Monday, Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine warned that the latest models indicated the state could start to run out of intensive care unit beds within a week.

Linda Lafferty, a nurse and the owner of a bed and breakfast in McConnellsburg, said family and friends gathered on the first Sunday in November to celebrate, as they do every year because she and others often have to work on Thanksgiving Day.

But Lafferty said her family would have assembled if they could.

“We are not living in fear and if we were able to get together on Thanksgiving Day we absolutely would,” said Lafferty, 47. “We would still get together and we wouldn’t limit the number of folks because if you are family you are family.”

To be sure, many Americans said they would do their best to conform with health recommendations.

Donnalie Hope, a 78-year-old resident of Petersburg, West Virginia, is planning to make fresh cranberries, mash potatoes and her famous corn pudding for Thanksgiving, which she will spend with her daughter, who will be visiting, and a neighbor.

Hope said they would social distance as much as possible in her home, and that she planned to ready rubber gloves and hand sanitizer. She acknowledged that her guests might eventually take off their masks in the home.

“I’m trying very hard to comply with the regs because I want this country to get back to where it belongs,” she said.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Nathan Layne; Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert, David Shepardson and Susan Heavey in Washington, Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey; Writing by Daniel Trotta and Maria Caspani; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Lisa Shumaker)

U.S. may require masks at airports in changes to limit coronavirus

By Ted Hesson and David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The lead U.S. airport security agency is weighing the possibility of requiring masks or face coverings for passengers who pass through checkpoints, according to a U.S. official and two people familiar with the deliberations.

The move is part of a broader rethinking of how to limit the spread of the new coronavirus during air travel, an effort that could bring some of the most significant changes to the industry since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Travelers passing through U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints will see other changes, including additional barriers to protect security officers, more extensive cleaning regimes and upgraded screening equipment to speed travelers through lines faster, according to current and former U.S. officials and industry experts familiar with the plans.

TSA officers are allowed to wear masks at checkpoints but not required to do so. The agency is considering such a requirement, sources said.

News of potential changes came as the Senate Commerce Committee was set to hold a hearing Wednesday on the state of the aviation industry.

The number of U.S. air travelers plunged by 95% in March as lockdowns went into effect across the country to limit the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory ailment caused by the new coronavirus. But with restrictions ending in some states, U.S. officials, airports and airlines are grappling with how air travel must change to operate more safely.

The discussions over possible face mask requirements came after nearly every major U.S. airline said in the past week they will require passengers to wear them onboard flights. The San Diego International Airport and San Francisco International Airport already require face coverings.

Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the country’s largest union for federal workers, said during an online discussion with Democratic lawmakers on Thursday that passengers should be encouraged to wear masks, calling it “a priority.”

TSA has been reviewing the legality of requiring passengers to wear them, as well as reviewing whether it would need to have masks available for passengers, but has not reached a final decision, according to a U.S. official and a source familiar with the matter.

An agency spokeswoman declined to comment on a mandate for passengers, calling it “speculative.”

INCREASED SAFETY, FASTER PROCESSING

Aside from masks, passengers will find other changes in place at airports.

Plexiglass barriers have been installed at TSA checkpoints in more than a dozen airports around the country to protect officers from infection, according to the agency.

Cleaning efforts will be stepped up, too.

Some U.S. airports and airlines are disinfecting surfaces with electrostatic sprayers, which create a quick-drying mist.

Separately, TSA frontline employees have been instructed to routinely clean frequently touched surfaces and screening equipment, the agency said.

The most ambitious developments could be on the technology front to speed up passenger processing and limit interactions with security officers.

A technology rolled out in 2019 that allows TSA security officers to scan a traveler’s driver’s license or identity document to confirm its authenticity and check it against flight records could be positioned to allow passengers to insert their IDs themselves.

The agency has installed more than 500 of the “credential authentication” machines across the country and recently awarded French company Idemia $11 million for another 500 units, which will be deployed over the summer, according to the TSA.

The agency has been pushing ahead with more advanced checkpoint scanning equipment that creates 3-D images of the contents of a traveler’s bag. Since November, TSA has put nearly 100 such machines into place and continues toward a goal of 300 in total, a spokeswoman said.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson and David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

U.S. airlines now requiring masks, promise more safety measures

By Tracy Rucinski and David Shepardson

(Reuters) – With the largest U.S. airlines now set to mandate – and provide – facial coverings for all passengers over the next two weeks, many are turning their focus to other measures to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus during air travel.

United Airlines Holdings Inc., for example, told journalists on Friday that it has purchased hundreds of hospital-type electrostatic fogging machines that it will start using in June to decontaminate airplane cabin surfaces and crevices before every flight.

The measures are among the steps airlines are taking to help passengers feel more comfortable about flying in the midst of the pandemic, which has decimated travel demand.

The industry, through lobby Airlines for America, has also begun discussions with policymakers in Washington on measures such as virus testing and pre-boarding temperature checks, United Chief Communications Officer Josh Earnest said.

Southwest Airlines Co and Alaska Airlines on Friday joined other major airlines in imposing facial coverings.

JetBlue Airways Corp <JBLU.O> was the first to mandate such a policy, and on Thursday United, Delta Air Lines Inc. American Airlines Group Inc  and low-cost carrier Frontier Airlines, which is owned by private equity firm Indigo Partners LLC, followed suit.

The largest airlines provide masks for passengers who do not have their own facial covering. United noted that recent supply issues with masks have now eased.

The requirements are being made by airlines on an individual basis and will be included in the contracts of carriage and explained on their websites. They are not mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration, which has said that it only has the authority to regulate matters that are directly tied to air safety.

Asked how airlines would enforce the policy, United’s Earnest said: “We’re gonna ask customers to comply with the requirement.”

Peter DeFazio, chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, applauded the airlines’ “common-sense measure” on Friday while calling on the U.S. government to “provide clear and consistent policies that reflect the seriousness of this global pandemic.”

Airlines have also made face coverings mandatory for employees.

In Canada, regulators started requiring that passengers wear a non-medical mask or face covering during the boarding process and flights last month, and the European Commission has said that it is working on a set of rules for the safe reopening of air travel.

(Reporting by David Shepardson and Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Steve Orlofsky)

Air travel fears mount as U.S. government shutdown drags on

An employee with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checks the documents of a traveler at Reagan National Airport in Washington, U.S., January 6, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. airport security workers and air traffic controllers working without pay warned that security and safety could be compromised if a government shutdown continues beyond Friday when some workers will miss their first paychecks.

On the 19th day of a partial government shutdown caused by a dispute over funding President Donald Trump wants for a border wall, the president stormed out of talks with Democratic congressional leaders, complaining the meeting was “a total waste of time.”

As the effects of the shutdown began to ripple out, the Trump administration insisted that air travel staffing was adequate and travelers had not faced unusual delays.

But union officials said some Transport Security Administration (TSA) officers, who carry out security screening in airports, had already quit because of the shutdown and others were considering quitting.

“The loss of (TSA) officers, while we’re already shorthanded, will create a massive security risk for American travelers since we don’t have enough trainees in the pipeline or the ability to process new hires,” American Federation of Government Employees TSA Council President Hydrick Thomas said. “If this keeps up there are problems that will arise &ndash; least of which would be increased wait times for travelers.”

Aviation unions, airport and airline officials and lawmakers will hold a rally on Thursday outside Congress urging an end to the shutdown.

TSA spokesman Michael Bilello said the organization was hiring officers and working on contingency plans in case the shutdown lasted beyond Friday, when officers would miss their first paycheck since the shutdown began on Dec. 22.

“There has been no degradation in security effectiveness and average wait times are well within TSA standards,” he said.

He added that there had been no spike in employees quitting and that on Tuesday 5 percent of officers took unscheduled leave, up just slightly from 3.9 percent the same day last year. It screened 1.73 million passengers and 99.9 percent of passengers waited less than 30 minutes, the TSA said.

But U.S. Representative Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security committee, questioned how long adequate staffing at airports could continue.

“TSA officers are among the lowest paid federal employees, with many living paycheck-to-paycheck,” Thompson wrote. “It is only reasonable to expect officer call outs and resignations to increase the longer the shutdown lasts, since no employee can be expected to work indefinitely without pay.”

Airports Council International-North America, which represents U.S. airports, urged Trump and congressional leaders in a letter to quickly reopen the government.

“TSA staffing shortages brought on by this shutdown are likely to further increase checkpoint wait times and may even lead to the complete closure of some checkpoints,” the group said.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) noted that the number of controllers was already at a 30-year low, with 18 percent of controllers eligible to retire.

If a significant number of controllers missed work, the Federal Aviation Administration could be forced to extend the amount of time between takeoffs and landings, which could delay travel, it said.

NATCA President Paul Rinaldi said controllers often must work overtime and six-day weeks at short-staffed locations. “If the staffing shortage gets worse, we will see reduced capacity in the National Airspace System, meaning more flight delays,” Rinaldi said.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Diane Craft and Rosalba O’Brien)