Trump stops Europe flights, China says coronavirus outbreak may end by June

Reuters
By Liangping Gao and Andrea Shalal

BEIJING/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Travelers scrambled to rebook flights and markets reeled on Thursday after U.S. President Donald Trump imposed sweeping restrictions on travel from Europe, hitting battered airlines and heightening global alarm over the coronavirus.

But China, where the disease originated, said its epidemic had peaked and the global spread could be over by June if other nations applied similarly aggressive containment measures as Beijing’s communist government.

Trump had downplayed risks to the United States during the crisis, but with epidemics ballooning from Iran to Italy and Spain, he limited travel from continental Europe for 30 days.

“This is the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history,” he said in a prime-time televised address from the Oval Office on Wednesday.

That sent markets into a tailspin, with European shares plunging to their lowest in almost four years and oil also slumping.

It also sent stressed travelers rushing to airports to board last flights back to the United States.

“It caused a mass panic,” said 20-year-old Anna Grace, a U.S. student at Suffolk University on her first trip to Europe who rushed to Madrid’s Barajas airport at 5 a.m. to get home.

The outbreak has disrupted industry, travel, entertainment and sports worldwide, even throwing the Tokyo Summer Olympics into question. But its progress in the epicenter of China’s Hubei province has slowed markedly amid strict curbs on movement, including the lockdown of its capital Wuhan.

Hubei logged just eight new infections on Wednesday, the first time in the outbreak it has recorded a daily tally of less than 10. Beyond Hubei, mainland China had just seven new cases, six of them imported from abroad.

“The peak of the epidemic has passed for China,” said Mi Feng, a spokesman for the National Health Commission.

OVER BY JUNE?

The Chinese government’s senior medical adviser, Zhong Nanshan, an 83-year-old epidemiologist renowned for helping combat the SARS outbreak in 2003, said the crisis could be over by mid-year.

“If all countries could get mobilized, it could be over by June,” he said. “But if some countries do not treat the infectiousness and harmfulness seriously, and intervene strongly, it would last longer.”

The coronavirus has infected more than 126,000 people across the world, the vast majority in China, and killed 4,624, according to a Reuters tally.

Already annoyed at what it considered over-draconian travel restrictions by Washington early in the crisis, Beijing smarted again at latest U.S. criticism of its handling.

White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien accused China on Wednesday of initially covering up the Hubei outbreak, saying that cost the world two months in response time.

In fact, retorted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, China’s efforts bought the world time and “immoral and irresponsible” remarks would not help U.S. epidemic efforts.

The World Health Organization (WHO) now officially describes the crisis as a pandemic, meaning it is spreading fast across the globe.

“Describing this as a pandemic does not mean that countries should give up,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told diplomats in Geneva. “The idea that countries should shift from containment to mitigation is wrong and dangerous.”

Trump’s surprise travel order, which starts at midnight on Friday, does not apply to Britain or to Americans undergoing “appropriate screenings”, he said. “The restriction stops people not goods,” he tweeted after his speech.

EU DISAPPROVAL

The 27-nation European Union (EU) bloc was not impressed.

“The European Union disapproves of the fact that the U.S. decision to improve a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation,” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and Council president Charles Michel said in a statement.

The market plunge hit airline and leisure stocks particularly hard.

“This is something that markets had not factored in … it’s a huge near-term economic cost,” Khoon Goh, head of Asia Research at ANZ in Singapore, said of the U.S. move.

Although exempt from Trump’s ban and no longer a member of the EU, Britain also expressed disappointment, saying it would have an impact on its economy.

But U.S. Vice President Mike Pence defended the new restrictions, saying the epicenter of the pandemic had shifted from Asia to Europe. “We know there will be more infections in the days ahead. We’re trying to hold that number down as much as possible,” Pence told NBC’s “Today” program.

In the United States, classes were suspended for two weeks in the greater Seattle area, which accounts for the bulk of at least 38 U.S. fatalities from the disease.

Oscar-winning American actor Tom Hanks tested positive in Australia, where he is on a film shoot.

Despite fears for the Tokyo Olympics, the torch relay got started in Greece when the flame was lit by the rays of the sun in ancient Olympia – albeit in a scaled-down ceremony and without spectators.

(Additional reporting by Ryan Woo, Stella Qui, Kevin Yao and Gabriel Crossley in Beijing; Alexandra Alper, Steve Holland, Susan Heavey, David Lawder, and Richard Cowan in Washington, Marine Strauus in Brussels, William Schomberg in London, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Karolos Grohmann in Ancient Olympia; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel and Andrew Cawthorne)

Factbox: Airlines suspend China flights due to coronavirus outbreak

(Reuters) – Airlines are suspending flights to China in the wake of the new coronavirus outbreak.

Below are details (in alphabetical order):

AIRLINES THAT HAVE CANCELED ALL CHINA FLIGHTS

*American Airlines – Jan. 31-March 27. Hong Kong service suspended Feb. 8-March 27.

*Air France – Said on Feb.6 it would suspend flights to and from mainland China for much of March

*Air Seoul – The South Korean budget carrier suspended China flights from Jan. 28 until further notice.

*Air Tanzania – Tanzania’s state-owned carrier, which had planned to begin charter flights to China in February, postponed its maiden flights.

*Austrian Airlines – until end February.

*British Airways – Jan. 29-March 31.

*Delta Airlines – Feb. 2-April 30

*Egyptair – Feb. 1 until further notice.

*El Al Israel Airlines – Jan. 30-March 25 following a health ministry directive.

*Finnair – Suspended all flights to China between Feb. 6-29, to Guangzhou between Feb. 5-March 29.

*Iberia Airlines – The Spanish carrier extended its suspension of flights from Madrid to Shanghai, its only route, from Feb. 29 until the end of April.

*Kenya Airways – Jan. 31 until further notice.

*KLM – Will extend its ban up to March 15

*Lion Air – All of February.

*Oman and Saudia, Saudi Arabia’s state airline, both suspended flights on Feb. 2 until further notice.

*Qatar Airways – Feb. 1 until further notice.

*Rwandair – Jan. 31 until further notice.

*Nordic airline SAS – Feb. 4-29.

*Scoot, Singapore Airlines’ low-cost carrier – Feb. 8 until further notice.

*United Airlines – Feb. 5-March 28. Service to Hong Kong suspended Feb. 8-20.

*Vietjet and Vietnam Airlines – Suspended flights to the mainland as well as Hong Kong and Macau Feb. 1-April 30, in line with its aviation authority’s directive.

AIRLINES THAT HAVE CANCELED SOME CHINA FLIGHTS/ROUTES

*Air Canada- Canceled direct flights to Beijing and Shanghai Jan. 30-Feb 29.

*Air China – State carrier said on Feb. 9 it will “adjust” flights between China and the United States.

*Air New Zealand – Suspended Auckland-Shanghai service Feb. 9-March 29.

*ANA Holdings – Suspended routes including Shanghai and Hong Kong from Feb. 10 until further notice.

*Cathay Pacific Airways – Plans to cut a third of its capacity over the next two months, including 90% of flights to mainland China. It has encouraged its 27,000 employees to take three weeks of unpaid leave in a bid to preserve cash.

*Emirates and Etihad – The United Arab Emirates, a major international transit hub, suspended flights to and from China, except for Beijing.

*Hainan Airlines – Suspended flights between Budapest, Hungary, and Chongqing Feb. 7-March 27.

*Philippine Airlines – Cut the number of flights between Manila and China by over half.

*Qantas Airways – Suspended direct flights to China from Feb. 1. The Australian national carrier halted flights from Sydney to Beijing and Sydney to Shanghai between Feb. 9-March 29.

*Royal Air Maroc – The Moroccan airline suspended direct flights to China Jan. 31-Feb. 29. On Jan. 16, it had launched a direct air route with three flights weekly between its Casablanca hub and Beijing.

*Russia – All Russian airlines, with the exception of national airline Aeroflot, stopped flying to China from Jan. 31. Small airline Ikar will also continue flights between Moscow and China. All planes arriving from China will be sent to a separate terminal in the Moscow Sheremetyevo airport.

*Singapore Airlines – Suspended or cut capacity on flights to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chengdu, Xiamen and Chongqing, some of which are flown by regional arm SilkAir.

*UPS – Canceled 22 flights to China because of the virus and normal manufacturing closures due to the Lunar New Year holiday.

*Virgin Atlantic – Extended its suspension of daily operations to Shanghai until March 28.

*Virgin Australia – Said it will withdraw from the Sydney-Hong Kong route from March 2 because it was “no longer a viable commercial route” due to growing concerns over the virus and civil unrest in Hong Kong.

(Compiled by Jagoda Darlak, Tommy Lund and Aditya Soni, editing by Barbara Lewis and Uttaresh.V)

Southwest Airlines extends 737 MAX cancellations through October 1

FILE PHOTO: A number of grounded Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft are shown parked at Victorville Airport in Victorville, California, U.S., March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

(Reuters) – Southwest Airlines Co on Thursday said it was extending the cancellation of Boeing’s 737 MAX planes from its flying schedule until Oct. 1, a day after the Federal Aviation Administration warned it had uncovered a new issue that must be resolved before the plane can be ungrounded.

The airline had previously planned to keep the jet off its flying schedule through Sept. 2. Boeing Co’s MAX fleet has been grounded since March, following a second fatal crash in five months.

Southwest, the world’s largest MAX operator with 34 jets, said the delay will result in removing about 150 flights out of its total peak daily schedule of 4,000.

The FAA on Wednesday said it had identified a new potential risk that Boeing must address on the planes.

Reuters reported on Wednesday that Boeing will not conduct a certification test flight until July 8, under a best-case scenario. The test is a necessary step before Boeing can submit a formal request for approval of a software upgrade for the planes.

Southwest said it “made this decision before any developments of the past few days.”

Once the FAA approves the MAX for flight, Southwest has said it would take about 30 days to get the jets up and running again.

American Airlines said on Thursday it did not “have any schedule announcement to make at this time.” United Airlines on Wednesday said it was extending cancellations into September.

Boeing shares were down 2.5% at $365.48 on Thursday.

(Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington and Ankit Ajmera in Bengaluru; Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty and Bill Berkrot)

U.S. cruise operators stop sailing to Cuba, travelers vent anger online

Tourists enjoy a view of the city in Havana, Cuba, June 4, 2019. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

(Reuters) – Major U.S. cruise operators said on Wednesday they will no longer sail to Cuba following the Trump administration’s ban on travel to the Caribbean island, angering travelers and prompting worries about trip cancellations and company earnings.

The new restrictions are aimed at pressuring Cuba’s Communist government to reform and stop supporting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

“Due to changes in U.S. policy, the company will no longer be permitted to sail to Cuba effective immediately,” Carnival Corp said.

A spokesman for Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd said the company had ceased all calls to Cuba and was modifying previously scheduled sailings.

The U.S. State Department said on Tuesday the country would no longer permit visits to Cuba via passenger and recreational vessels, including cruise ships and yachts, as well as private and corporate aircraft.

American Airlines Group Inc, JetBlue Airways Corp and United Airlines, which started flying to Cuba in 2016, said they were reviewing the revised regulations.

Delta Air Lines Inc said it had stopped accepting bookings to Cuba under the so-called people-to-people license as of midnight on June 4. Customers who booked under the exemption before that time will be allowed to travel.

“The reduction in the number of travelers will probably mean the end of U.S. commercial air flights from places outside Florida because there won’t be sufficient demand to fill regular flights,” said William LeoGrande, a Cuba expert and a professor of government at American University.

The ban was effective as of Wednesday, the U.S. Commerce Department told Reuters, giving cruise lines no grace period to change destinations and sowing confusion among cruise passengers.

Both Carnival and Royal Caribbean said they would stop at different non-Cuban ports and would offer compensation to travelers.

Carnival said the guests currently aboard its Carnival Sensation cruise that set sail on June 3 would now stop in Mexican island Cozumel on Thursday instead of Havana. The company said the guests would receive a $100 onboard credit for the inconvenience.

“We are working as quickly as possible to secure alternative itineraries for the remainder of our Cuba voyages and expect to have information for sailings further out in the next 2-3 days,” Carnival said. It has three cruise lines that sail to Cuba.

Royal Caribbean said all cruises on the ‘Majesty of the Seas’ and ‘Empress of the Seas’ this year will have alternative ports in the Caribbean. It is also working on alternate itineraries for 2020 sailings.

Guests can cancel their current booking for a full refund, or can keep their sailing date with a new itinerary and receive a 50% refund, Royal Caribbean said.

On Tuesday, Royal Caribbean said its ships sailing Wednesday and Thursday would no longer stop in Cuba.

Travelers took to Twitter to vent their anger and frustration over the forced changes in their vacation plans.

“Has anyone’s cruise to Cuba from @CruiseNorwegian been rerouted yet? If so where did they change the port of call to? Im (sic) booked for July and PISSED! Thanks Trump!” tweeted Sabrina Carollo @superbri_22.

Susan Berland, a parenting coach from Huntersville, North Carolina, said she was enraged that a vacation designed around visiting Cuba had been upended by the Trump administration.

“To say I’m angry is an understatement. This whole (sic) cruise was chosen around going to Cuba and now we can’t,” tweeted @SusanBerland.

Neither responded to requests for further comment.

Cuba accounts for a small percent of sailings at about 4% for Norwegian Cruise, about 3% for Royal Caribbean, and about a percent for Carnival, Wolfe Research analyst Jared Shojaian wrote in a note.

Shojaian said that while cruise lines can easily swap a Cuban port for another non-Cuban port, guests may have purchased the itinerary entirely for Cuba.

“That means cruise lines may need to issue refunds or future cruise credits to compensate guests, which makes forecasting the earnings impact to 2019 even harder, and potentially more of a headwind,” he said.

Shares of Norwegian Cruise closed down 3.5%, while Royal Caribbean and Carnival ended about 3% lower.

(Reporting by Uday Sampath and Nivedita Balu in Bengaluru, Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York, Tracy Rucinski in Chicago and Sarah Marsh in Havana; Editing by Shinjini Ganguli, Maju Samuel and Tom Brown)

With 737 MAX grounded, airlines face daily scheduling challenges

FILE PHOTO: Southwest Airlines Co. Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft sit next to the maintenance area after landing at Midway International Airport in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., March 13, 2019. REUTERS/Kamil Kraczynski

By Tracy Rucinski and Allison Lampert

CHICAGO/MONTREAL (Reuters) – Following the global grounding of Boeing Co’s 737 MAX jets, U.S. and Canadian airlines that fly the roughly 175-seat aircraft face a fresh logistical challenge every day: which flights to cancel and which to cover with other planes.

Southwest Airlines Co and American Airlines Group Inc, the two largest MAX operators in the United States, said they have bolstered their reservation and operations teams to figure out how to spread flight cancellations across their networks, not just on MAX flights.

American Airlines, for example, had most of its 24 MAX jets flying in and out of Miami, where load factors have been full during the Spring Break season.

“We can’t just cancel all of those flights, so the goal is to spread out the cancellations across our entire system to impact the least amount of customers,” American Airlines spokesman Ross Feinstein said.

This means that an American Airlines flight from Miami to the Caribbean initially scheduled on a 737 MAX may now fly on a 737-800 with a similar seat configuration, while that 737-800 flight is canceled.

“It’s a challenge to explain to customers who weren’t previously booked on a MAX why their flight is canceled,” Feinstein said.

The 737 MAX jets were grounded last week following two fatal crashes in the past five months, the causes of which are under investigation.

Southwest, the largest MAX operator in the world with 34 jets representing about 5 percent of its total fleet, is canceling about 150 flights per day due to the grounding, but not all on MAX routes.

Steve West, Senior Director of Southwest’s Operations Control, said the company is trying to cancel flights five days in advance, while looking at issues such as weather, that could free up jets, like last week’s snowstorm in Colorado.

Southwest and American were already grappling with a larger than the normal number of out-of-service aircraft, further straining their fleets.

So far United Airlines, with 14 MAX aircraft, has not canceled any flights due to the grounding but has had to put smaller aircraft on some routes and fly the larger 777 to places like Hawaii.

It is unclear how long the grounding will last. Deliveries are also on hold, meaning an additional hit to airlines due to receive more of the jets this year.

Boeing has over 5,000 orders for the MAX, which sold fast thanks to its higher fuel-efficiency and longer range. Now airlines face a dent to 2019 profits.

Calgary-based WestJet said it took steps prior to the MAX grounding to start protecting trans-border flights to sunny destinations that were previously scheduled to fly with the carrier’s 13 MAX planes.

Meanwhile, Air Canada said on Tuesday it would remove its 24 737 MAX aircraft from its schedule until at least July 1, 2019.

“It is easier to put the aircraft back in the schedule than to pull it out,” said a source familiar with the carrier’s thinking, who is not allowed to publicly discuss its strategy.

 

(Reporting by Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

Higher wages, fuel prices turn up cost pressure on airlines

A plane is seen during sunrise at the international airport in Munich, Germany, January 9, 2018. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle - RC1E5B4C2870/File Photo

By Victoria Bryan

BERLIN (Reuters) – With inflation paramount in investors’ minds at a time of rising wages and oil prices, the line separating winners and losers in the global airline industry this year looks likely to be drawn on how well they manage costs, especially on the labor side.

Industry body IATA in December flagged higher spending on labor and fuel – which make up about half of airlines’ operating expenses – as their members’ biggest challenge in 2018, especially after several years of record profits.

Labor costs surpassed fuel as global airlines’ biggest single expense in 2016, at 22 percent of costs against just under 21 percent for fuel. That is expected to jump this year to 30.9 percent versus 20.5 percent for fuel.

Back in 2013, when oil prices were much higher than now, fuel was 33 percent of expenses against 18 percent for labor.

Staff costs are typically higher in North America and Europe than in Asia, where fuel remains the biggest expense.

The crux of the issue is that amid signs of a global shortage of workers generally, in some regions there’s also a scarcity of qualified pilots at a time of expanding fleets.

“As airlines have been making profit, the workforce has got market power, so that is pushing up the cost of labor,” IATA Chief Economist Brian Pearce said in an interview.

Overall, unit costs – the measure of how much it costs an airline to operate each kilometer and seat flown – will rise 4.3 percent this year versus 1.7 percent in 2017, IATA forecasts.

In the highest profile example of the pressures, budget carrier Ryanair was compelled last year by pilot shortages to cancel thousands of flights, and in December recognized trade unions for the first time.

The battle that forced Ryanair’s hand could put wage pressures on other European budget carriers such as Wizz, industry experts say.

The bigger carriers feel it too.

At Air France, 10 unions representing pilots, cabin and ground staff have called for a strike on Feb. 22 to push a demand for a 6 percent pay rise.

“After three years of strong profitability improvements in the sector, we believe personnel and suppliers are asking for wage/price increases and thus keeping non-fuel costs under control will remain a challenge for the sector,” Kepler Cheuvreux analyst Ruxandra Haradau-Doser wrote.

The wage issue has even extended to the United Arab Emirates, the Middle East trade and financial hub where labor disputes are rare and unions and industrial action are banned.

The region’s largest airline, Dubai-based Emirates, is facing calls from cabin crew to improve conditions and benefits. Employees say management is considering their requests.

Last week, brokerage Kepler Cheuvreux cut its rating on German flagship carrier Lufthansa – already on its lists of stocks to avoid and least preferred in the sector – to “reduce” from “hold”.

In the United States, investors are worried that the three largest carriers – American, Delta and United- are heading for a price war just as higher costs from pay increases agreed last year start to bite.

CONSOLIDATION

Lufthansa, British Airways parent and Air France-KLM are all expected to report improved 2017 profits when they publish results over the next few weeks.

All airlines will need to look at areas where they can save, however.

“The most successful airline managements are the ones that have been very cost-focused every day¬†– not just on staff costs but on aircraft costs, airport charges, distribution costs and so on,” said aviation consultant John Strickland.

The success of Ryanair, which boasts of having the lowest costs in Europe, is partly down to hard negotiating with manufacturers and airports to get good deals on orders and fees, those in the industry say.

Strickland said that while pilot costs would rise, Ryanair was unique in having much lower overall costs than rivals.

“If they can continue to keep other items such as airport and aircraft costs down, then they will still be in a very strong position.”

Lufthansa has been taking a tougher stance lately both with staff and airports.

Unlike in previous negotiations for its main brand in Germany, Lufthansa stayed firm during a series of pilot strikes from 2014 to 2016 and has now struck a deal to cut its cockpit staff costs by 15 percent, while an increase in ground staff’s wages will be partly linked to company profits.

Last year, it also put pressure on Frankfurt Airport operator Fraport by moving planes to Munich. It predicts unit costs will fall by 1-2 percent this year.

Analysts at Barclays say while such measures should help Lufthansa, the rate of improvement is not sustainable and progress still needs to be made at budget unit Eurowings, which earns less than half the margin of its nearest peer.

“There is a significant amount more work for the company to do on its cost base,” they wrote in a note.

Along with strong travel demand thanks to robust economies and low oil prices last year, European airlines have also benefited from some consolidation following the insolvencies of Air Berlin and Monarch, which helped lead to higher ticket prices.

In addition, many European carriers hedged on jet fuel – unlike their U.S. counterparts who got burned making the wrong bets when the oil price starting tumbling in mid-2014 – meaning the impact of higher fuel prices will come through for European airlines later than U.S. ones.

EasyJet’s revenue per seat rose 6.6 percent at constant currencies in the quarter to end-December, the no-frills airline said, citing the struggles of rivals including Air Berlin, Monarch, Ryanair and Alitalia. It forecast a rise of 5-9 percent for the six months to March.

“Airlines need to be careful they don’t lock themselves into cost structures that are too high for weaker economic conditions,” IATA’S Pearce warned. “At the moment, they’re not doing that but it’s always a risk.”

(Reporting by Victoria Bryan; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

Flights canceled, schools closed across snowy U.S. South

Snow falls through a picture frame in the Boston Public Garden during a winter storm in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., January 17, 2018.

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – A bitter winter storm gripped much of the South on Wednesday, prompting schools to close and causing thousands of flight delays and cancellations as snow, ice and record-breaking cold hit the region.

The storm led to a least one death when a vehicle in Austin, Texas, plunged more than 30 feet off a frozen overpass late on Tuesday, killing a man in his 40s, Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Service said on its Twitter feed.

Winter weather advisories were in effect from the Northeast to the Mid-Atlantic states and Southeast, as well as over the central Gulf Coast of Texas, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). Winter storm warnings were also in effect for portions of the Carolinas, southern Virginia and the New England area.

More than 360 outgoing flights at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport were canceled or delayed on Wednesday, according to Flightaware.com, and another 60-plus were canceled or delayed at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

The governors of Georgia, North Carolina and Louisiana declared states of emergency due to severe winter weather conditions, which caused multiple car accidents during rush-hour traffic, officials said.

NWS meteorologist Dan Petersen said snowfall in central and north Georgia had ended, and the arctic cold front would now bring snow, frigid temperatures and frozen roadways across central North Carolina on Wednesday.

“The rain in central North Carolina will eventually turn into snow later today and is predicted to dump 6 to 8 inches of snow over central North Carolina and about 1 to 3 inches over east North Carolina,” he said.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper warned at a news briefing that cold temperatures Wednesday night would make travel conditions even more hazardous.

“The snow is pretty, but don’t be fooled,” Cooper said.

In Houston, the nation’s fourth most populous city, most freeways were closed on Wednesday morning after icing over, the city’s Office of Emergency Management said.

“Not a good idea to be out on the roads. Conditions are still unsafe,” the Texas Department of Transportation Houston Division said on its Twitter feed.

New Orleans had record-breaking cold temperatures Wednesday morning with 20 degrees Fahrenheit in the area, beating its previous record 23 degrees set in 1977, according to the NWS. Hattiesburg, Mississippi, also broke temperature records with 12 degrees Fahrenheit on Wednesday, beating its 14 degrees also set in 1977.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and David Gregorio)

Houston slowly begins grim recovery from Harvey’s devastation

A family puts their belongings on furniture to keep them above floodwaters in their house from Harvey in Houston, Texas August 31, 2017

By Gary McWilliams

HOUSTON (Reuters) – As water levels receded and search teams began checking abandoned homes for victims, Houston began a grim cleanup on Thursday and businesses began to reopen for the first time since Hurricane Harvey hit last weekend.

Previously flooded streets were lined with water-damaged furniture and roads filled with vehicles as residents went hunting for cleaning supplies, insurance estimates and repair help.

“It’s a bit overwhelming,” said John Becker as he salvaged personal items and hauled water-logged sheetrock from his home amid the hum of dehumidifiers and fans. Water that had reached 8 inches (20 cm) inside had ebbed. “We have flood insurance; we’ll do the best of it.”

Record rains and flooding from Harvey spread misery across a broad swath of the Houston metropolitan area of about 6.5 million people. Thursday brought a sense of it coming slowly back to life, however, with the city’s airports all operating again and the resumption of at least some public transportation services.

A Texas Department of Transportation worker monitors a temporary water filled dam keeping Harvey floodwaters from getting onto highway I-10 in Houston, Texas August 31, 2017.

A Texas Department of Transportation worker monitors a temporary water filled dam keeping Harvey floodwaters from getting onto highway I-10 in Houston, Texas August 31, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

United began flying out of Houston’s Bush Intercontinental late on Wednesday and American Airlines restarted flights from Hobby airport Thursday morning.

Metro, which operates the city’s bus and rail services, resumed limited operations on 21 bus and one rail line routes responsible for carrying about half of its daily passengers, said spokeswoman Tracey Jackson.

The storm dumped as much as 50 inches (1.3 meters) of rain over four days in some parts of metropolitan Houston before the sun appeared on Wednesday. At one point early in the week, 10 percent to 15 percent of Harris County which includes Houston was underwater, officials said.

Houston hospitals were phasing in more services. Harris Health System said speciality clinics at its Ben Taub hospital would resume normal hours beginning Friday. M.D. Anderson Cancer Center was running “limited outpatient operations,” it said via Twitter on Thursday.

The county’s confirmed death toll from the storm reached 18 on Thursday and at least another eight deaths were being investigated as storm-related.

Most of Houston’s larger employers and schools will remain closed through the Labor Day holiday weekend. The transit restart and clear roads in many areas of the city encouraged businesses and banks to open their doors.

The Children’s Museum of Houston also reopened Thursday and expects about 1,000 visitors, said Executive Director Tammie Kahn. The museum sits on a working rail route and recalled staff to provide a respite for families and kids housed in emergency shelters.

“We turned people away from the door yesterday because we were not open,” said Kahn. The museum is free to children from emergency shelters, and decided to reopen with the start of mass transit. “We did this during (Hurricane) Katrina. It’s a great benefit and deeply appreciated,” she said.

Regional power companies continued to reduce the number of homes without power. Electric service providers from Corpus Christi to Louisiana reported 200,000 homes and businesses were dark on Thursday, down from more than 300,000 customers at the peak, according to data from AEP, Entergy, Centerpoint Energy and TNMP.

 

(Reporting by Gary McWilliams; Editing by Tom Brown)

 

U.S. ends controversial laptop ban on Middle East carriers

FILE PHOTO: Baggage and a laptop are scanned using the Transport Security Administration's new Automated Screening Lane technology at Terminal 4 of JFK airport in New York City, U.S., May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Penney/File Photo

By Alexander Cornwell

DUBAI (Reuters) – The United States has ended a four month ban on passengers carrying laptops onboard U.S. bound flights from certain airports in the Middle East and North Africa, bringing to an end one of the controversial travel restrictions imposed by President Donald Trump’s administration.

Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport was the last of 10 airports to be exempted from the ban, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) confirmed in a tweet late on Wednesday local time.

Middle East carriers have blamed Trump’s travel restrictions, which include banning citizens of some Muslim majority countries from visiting the United States, for a downturn in demand on U.S routes.

In March, the United States banned large electronics in cabins on flights from 10 airports in the Middle East and North Africa over concerns that explosives could be concealed in the devices taken onboard aircraft.

The ban has been lifted on the nine airlines affected — Emirates [EMIRA.UL], Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways, Turkish Airlines <THYAO.IS>, Saudi Arabian Airlines, Royal Jordanian <RJAL.AM>, Kuwait Airways [KA.UL], EgyptAir [EGY.UL] and Royal Air Maroc [RAM.UL] — which are the only carriers to fly direct to the United States from the region.

A ban on citizens of six Muslim-majority countries — Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, — remains in place though has been limited after several U.S. court hearings challenged the restrictions.

“The aviation industry has been trying to come together with a united message to governments and stakeholders about regulation and supporting the industry,” said Will Horton, senior analyst at Australian aviation consultancy CAPA.

“That was dealt a first blow from the travel ban and then a second from the large electronics ban.”

Leading industry group the International Air Transport Association (IATA) criticized the laptop ban as ineffective, as security experts argued that militants could travel to the United States via Europe or elsewhere where the restrictions didn’t apply.

The restrictions were imposed as major U.S. carriers American Airlines Group <AAL.O>, Delta Air Lines <DAL.N> and United Airlines <UAL.N> resumed their campaign against the Gulf carriers Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways by pressuring the new U.S. administration to renegotiate its open skies agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

However, U.S. and Middle East officials said the campaign and the travel restrictions were not related.

U.S. officials lifted the ban after visiting the 10 airports in Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Turkey over the past three weeks to confirm new security measures announced last month were being implemented.

On Thursday, the U.S. issued a revised directive to airlines around the world in response to requests that it clarify aviation security measures scheduled to start taking effect this week.

The new requirements include enhanced passenger screening at foreign airports, increased security protocols around aircraft and in passenger areas and expanded canine screening. They affect 325,000 airline passengers on about 2,000 commercial flights arriving daily in the United States, on 180 airlines from 280 airports in 105 countries.

Airlines that fail to meet the new security requirements could face in-cabin electronics restrictions.

The United Kingdom continues to enforce a similar in-cabin ban on electronics ban on flights from some Middle Eastern airports. Those restrictions apply to flights from Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia.

(Reporting by Alexander Cornwell; Editing by Michael Perry)

U.S. unveils enhanced airline security plan to avoid laptop ban

FILE PHOTO -- Passengers use their laptops on a flight out of John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport in New York, U.S., May 26, 2017. Picture taken May 26, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

By David Shepardson and Alana Wise

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – The United States on Wednesday unveiled enhanced security measures for flights to the country designed to prevent expanding an in-cabin ban on laptops, but an airline trade group said the changes might cause more disruptions.

The measures, which European and U.S. officials said would begin taking effect within three weeks, could require additional time to screen passengers and personal electronic devices for possible explosives.

The measures would affect 325,000 airline passengers on about 2,000 commercial flights arriving daily in the United States, on 180 airlines from 280 airports in 105 countries.

The United States in March banned laptops on flights to the United States originating at 10 airports in eight countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Turkey, to address fears that bombs could be concealed in electronic devices taken aboard aircraft.

Britain quickly followed suit with a similar set of restrictions.

The decision not to impose new laptop restrictions eases U.S. and European airlines’ concern that expanding the ban to Europe or other locations could cause major logistical problems and deter travel.

“Inaction is not an option,” U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told a news briefing, adding that he believed airlines would comply with the new screening. But he said the measures were not the last step to tighten security. U.S. carriers said they would follow the new security directive, but industry trade group Airlines for America (A4A), criticized Homeland Security for not working more closely with them on the new policies.

“The development of the security directive should have been subject to a greater degree of collaboration and coordination to avoid the significant operational disruptions and unnecessarily frustrating consequences for the traveling public that appear likely to happen,” A4A Chief Executive Nicholas E. Calio said in a statement.

Kelly had been saying since April he thought an expansion of the laptop ban was “likely.” He said in late May the government could potentially expand the ban worldwide.

Homeland Security officials told reporters they expected more than 99 percent of airlines would comply, a move that would effectively end the controversial electronics ban.

Airlines that fail to satisfy new security requirements could still face in-cabin electronics restrictions, Kelly said. “We expect all airlines will work with us to keep their aircraft, their crew and their passengers safe,” he said.

European and U.S. officials told Reuters that airlines have 21 days to put in place increased explosive trace detection screening and have 120 days to comply with other security measures, including enhanced screening of airline passengers.

U.S. authorities want increased security protocols around aircraft and in passenger areas, expanded canine screening and additional places where travelers can be cleared by U.S. officials before they depart.

Since laptops are widely used in flight by business class passengers – who pay double or more than the average ticket price – the airline industry had feared expanding the ban could cut into revenue.

Airline officials told Reuters they were concerned about adding enhanced security measures to all airports worldwide that have direct flights to the United States rather than focus them on airports where threats are highest. European airline groups said in a document reviewed by Reuters that if the threats are confirmed, the restrictions should be deployed to cover all EU departing flights, not just U.S.-bound flights.

Homeland security officials said Wednesday that those 10 airports can get off the list if they meet the new security requirements, but did not say how long it will take.

U.S. airline stocks rose on Wednesday, with United Continental Holdings <UAL.N> closing up 1 percent, Delta Air Lines Inc <DAL.N> up 2 percent and American Airlines Group <AAL.O> up 1.6 percent.

Kelly said last week he planned a “step by step” security enhancement plan that included short, medium-term and longer-term improvements that would take at least a year to implement fully.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Additional reporting by Alana Wise in New York and Julia Fioretti in Brussels; Editing by Chris Sanders and Richard Chang)