American Airlines, Delta, United to require facial coverings on U.S. flights

By David Shepardson and Tracy Rucinski

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Three of the largest four U.S. airlines said Thursday they will require passengers to wear facial coverings on U.S. flights, joining JetBlue Airways Corp in taking the step to address the spread of the coronavirus and convince reluctant passengers to resume flying.

United Airlines, Delta Air Lines Inc and American Airlines Group Inc , along with the smaller Frontier Airlines, which is owned by private equity firm Indigo Partners LLC, announced they will require facial coverings next month.

Delta and United’s new rules start May 4, while Frontier’s start May 8 and American’s requirements begin May 11. The policies exempt young children from wearing masks or other facial coverings.

Many U.S. airlines are also requiring pilots and flight attendants to use facial coverings while on board aircraft.

Airlines in the United States have seen a nearly 95% drop in U.S. passengers and have slashed flight schedules. They are now working to reassure customers about the safety of air travel by instituting new cleaning and social distancing procedures.

Some airline unions and U.S. lawmakers have urged the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to require facial coverings for all passengers and crew.

United said it will provide complimentary masks to passengers. Southwest Airlines Co <LUV.N>, one of the largest U.S. airlines, has not required facial coverings.

The FAA has declined to implement the requirement, and it is not clear if the agency has the authority to compel passengers to wear face masks. The FAA said Wednesday it is “working with air carriers to ensure they have processes in place for addressing public health risks for their crews and passengers.”

Representative Peter DeFazio, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, called on the FAA Wednesday to “require masks or other face coverings for all crewmembers and passengers on U.S. flights” and to require airlines “adopt reasonable, sound procedures for ensuring that passengers are spaced at safe distances from one another.”

Delta said the airline will require face coverings “starting in the check-in lobby” and at “Delta Sky Clubs, boarding gate areas, jet bridges and on board the aircraft for the duration of the flight – except during meal service.”

Delta added their use “is also strongly encouraged in high-traffic areas, including security lines and restrooms. People unable to keep a face covering in place, including children, are exempt.”

American said the rules will prioritize “customer and team member well-being.”

German airline group Lufthansa  also said this week it would require facial coverings for all passengers starting May 4.

Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants union, praised the carriers adopting the requirements and added “absent federal action, we need every airline to require passengers wear face coverings to keep everyone safe in aviation.”

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chris Reese and Aurora Ellis)

Delta, American suspend all China flights as U.S. government takes action

By David Shepardson and Tracy Rucinski

WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) – Delta Air Lines Inc and American Airlines Group Inc decided on Friday to temporarily suspend all remaining U.S.-China flights after the U.S. State Department elevated a travel advisory over concerns about the coronavirus.

U.S. officials were due to hold a call with airlines later on Friday to discuss the Chinese flights. Some airline officials worried that if they did not voluntarily halt flights it would prompt the Trump administration to take formal action, potentially complicating any subsequent flight resumption.

The United States told citizens on Thursday not to travel to China due to the epidemic that has infected nearly 10,000 people and been declared a global emergency.

Pilots and flight attendants have been demanding airlines stop flights to the country, with American Airlines’ pilots filing a lawsuit on Thursday seeking an immediate halt.

“The decision to file a lawsuit was made out of concern for the safety of our pilots,” said Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association which represents American’s pilots.

As of Thursday United Airlines Holdings Inc was still planning to operate some flights from San Francisco, even after its pilots union told its members they would be allowed to drop their trip without pay if they were concerned about flying to the country.

Delta and American had both announced lighter schedules to China earlier this week.

On Friday, American said operations to and from China would be halted starting on Friday through March 27. The carrier will continue to fly to Hong Kong.

Delta said its last China-bound flight departing the United States will leave on Monday, Feb. 3, with the last U.S. return flight departing China on Feb. 5.

The Delta suspension is set to last through April 30.

U.S. airline shares have posted heavy losses this week on concerns of the financial impact of the virus.

Other airlines that have stopped their flights to mainland China include Air France KLM SA, British Airways, Germany’s Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic.

Major Chinese carriers were still operating flights to and from the United States as of Friday.

(Reporting by David Shepardson and Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Tom Brown)

Pilots, flight attendants demand flights to China stop as virus fear mounts worldwide

By Tracy Rucinski and Laurence Frost

CHICAGO/PARIS (Reuters) – Pilots and flight attendants are demanding airlines stop flights to China as health officials declare a global emergency over the rapidly spreading coronavirus, with American Airlines’ pilots filing a lawsuit seeking an immediate halt.

China has reported nearly 10,000 cases and 213 deaths, but the virus has spread to 18 countries, mostly, presumably, by airline passengers.

The United States has advised its citizens not to travel to China, raising its warning to the same level as those for Iraq and Afghanistan.

U.S. airlines, which have been reducing flights to China this week, were reassessing flying plans as a result, according to people familiar with the matter.

It is possible the White House could opt to take further action to bar flights to China in coming days, but officials stressed that no decision has been made.

The Allied Pilots Association (APA), which represents American Airlines pilots, cited “serious, and in many ways still unknown, health threats posed by the coronavirus” in a lawsuit filed in Texas, where the airline is based.

American said it was taking precautions against the virus but had no immediate comment on the lawsuit. On Wednesday, it announced flight cancellations from Los Angeles to Beijing and Shanghai, but is continuing flights from Dallas.

APA President Eric Ferguson urged pilots assigned to U.S.-China flights to decline the assignment. In a statement, the American Airlines’ flight attendants union said they supported the pilots’ lawsuit and called on the company and the U.S. government to “err on the side of caution and halt all flights to and from China.”

Pilots at United Airlines, the largest U.S. airline to China, concerned for their safety will be allowed to drop their trip without pay, according to a Wednesday memo from their union to members.

United announced on Thursday another 332 U.S.-China flight cancellations between February and March 28, though it will continue operating round trip flights from San Francisco to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

The American Airlines pilot lawsuit came as an increasing number of airlines stopped their flights to mainland China, including Air France KLM SA, British Airways, Germany’s Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic.

Other major carriers have kept flying to China, but protective masks and shorter layovers designed to reduce exposure have done little to reassure crews.

‘COUNTDOWN’

A U.S. flight attendant who recently landed from one major Chinese city said a big concern is catching the virus and spreading it to families, or getting quarantined while on a layover.”I didn’t understand the gravity of the situation until I went there,” she said on condition of anonymity, describing general paranoia on the return flight, with every passenger wearing a mask.

“Now I feel like I’m on a 14-day countdown.”

Thai Airways is hosing its cabins with disinfectant spray between China flights and allowing crew to wear masks and gloves.

Delta Air Lines is operating fewer flights and offering food deliveries so crew can stay in their hotels. The carrier is also allowing pilots to drop China trips without pay, a memo from its union to members said.

Korean Air Lines Co Ltd and Singapore Airlines are sending additional crew to fly each plane straight back, avoiding overnight stays.

The South Korean carrier also said it was loading protective suits for flight attendants who might need to take care of suspected coronavirus cases in the air.

Airlines in Asia are seeing a big drop in bookings along with forced cancellations because of the coronavirus outbreak, the head of aircraft lessor Avolon Holdings Ltd said, adding the impact could last for some months.

The outbreak poses the biggest epidemic threat to the airline industry since the 2003 SARS crisis, which led to a 45% plunge in passenger demand in Asia at its peak in April of that year, analysts said.

Fitch Ratings said airlines with more moderate exposure to China and the Asia-Pacific region were likely to be able to re-deploy capacity to alternative routes to mitigate the effect on traffic, but that could increase competition on those routes and reduce airfares.

Air France, which maintained China flights throughout the SARS epidemic, suspended its Beijing and Shanghai flights on Thursday after cabin crews demanded an immediate halt.

“When the staff see that other airlines have stopped flying there, their reaction is ‘Why are we still going?’,” said Flore Arrighi, president of UNAC, one of the airline’s four main flight attendants’ unions.

(Reporting by Tracy Rucinski, Laurence Frost and David Shepardson; Additional reporting by Allison Lampert in Montreal, Aradhana Aravindan, John Geddie and Anshuman Daga in Singapore, Chayut Setboonsarng and Panu Wongcha-um in Bangkok, Caroline Pailliez in Paris, Josephine Mason in London, Jamie Freed in Sydney and Joyce Lee in Seoul; Writing by Jamie Freed and Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Lisa Shumaker)

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)

United Continental pulls 737 MAX flights out of schedule

FILE PHOTO: A worker from United attends to some customers during their check in process at Newark International airport in New Jersey , November 15, 2012. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz/File Photo

(Reuters) – United Continental Holdings Inc said on Monday it had pulled Boeing Co’s 737 MAX flights out of its schedule through early July, following similar moves by rivals American Airlines Group Inc and Southwest Airlines Co.

United, with 14 MAX jets, had largely avoided cancellations by servicing MAX routes with larger 777 or 787 aircraft.

But the airline’s president, Scott Kirby, warned last week that the strategy was costing it money and could not go on forever.

Boeing’s 737 MAX planes have been grounded worldwide since March after an Ethiopian Airlines jet crashed, killing all 157 aboard, just five months after a similar crash of Indonesia’s Lion Air flight.

(Reporting by Ankit Ajmera in Bengaluru; Editing by Anil D’Silva)

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)

U.S. might ban laptops on all flights into and out of the country

A TSA worker loads suitcases at the checked luggage security screening station at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, California,

By Toni Clarke

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States might ban laptops from aircraft cabins on all flights into and out of the country as part of a ramped-up effort to protect against potential security threats, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said on Sunday.

In an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” Kelly said the United States planned to “raise the bar” on airline security, including tightening screening of carry-on items.

“That’s the thing that they are obsessed with, the terrorists, the idea of knocking down an airplane in flight, particularly if it’s a U.S. carrier, particularly if it’s full of U.S. people.”

In March, the government imposed restrictions on large electronic devices in aircraft cabins on flights from 10 airports, including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Turkey.

Kelly said the move would be part of a broader airline security effort to combat what he called “a real sophisticated threat.” He said no decision had been made as to the timing of any ban.

“We are still following the intelligence,” he said, “and are in the process of defining this, but we’re going to raise the bar generally speaking for aviation much higher than it is now.”

Airlines are concerned that a broad ban on laptops may erode customer demand. But none wants an incident aboard one of its airplanes.

“Whatever comes out, we’ll have to comply with,” Oscar Munoz, chief executive officer of United Airlines told  the company’s annual meeting last week.

Airlines were blindsided in January when President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning entry for 90 days to citizens from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, sending airlines scrambling to determine who could board and who could not. The order was later blocked in the courts.

In the case of laptops, the administration is keeping the industry in the loop. Delta Air Lines  said in a statement it “continues to be in close contact with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security,” while Munoz applauded the administration for giving the company a “heads up.”

“We’ve had constant updates on the subject,” he said. “We know more than most. And again, if there’s a credible threat out there, we need to make sure we take the appropriate measures.”

MORE SCRUTINY OF CARRY-ONS

Among the enhanced security measures will likely be tighter screening of carry-on items to allow Transport Security Administration agents to discern problematic items in tightly stuffed bags.

Kelly said that in order to avoid paying fees for checking bags, people were stuffing them to the point where it was difficult to see through the clutter.

“The more stuff is in there, the less the TSA professionals that are looking at what’s in those bags through the monitors can tell what’s in them.”

The TSA has begun testing certain new procedures at a limited number of airports, requiring people to remove additional items from carry-on bags for separate screenings.

Asked whether the government would expand such measures nationwide, Kelly said: “We might, and likely will.”

(Reporting by Toni Clarke in Washington; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington, David French in New York and Alana Wise in Chicago; Editing by David Gregorio and Peter Cooney)

Four U.S. airports to open automated security lanes this fall

American Airlines plane

(Reuters) – Four major U.S. airports plan to speed up security checks by automating the distribution of bins for travelers’ carry-on bags, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and American Airlines Group Inc said on Tuesday.

American’s hubs in Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth and Miami will open the automated lanes this fall, which are expected to decrease wait times by 30 percent, the airline and TSA said in a joint statement.

Long security lines at U.S. airports this spring caused thousands of travelers to miss their flights and prompted criticism of TSA by airlines and other industry groups.

In an interview last month, American’s CEO Doug Parker said the world’s largest airline was working with airports to roll out the faster lanes, already in place at rival Delta Air Lines Inc’s Atlanta hub.

At the four airports, automated conveyer belts will move bins for carry-on luggage through X-ray machines and divert those with suspicious items to a separate area, preventing bottlenecks. After screening is complete, the belts automatically move the bins back to the start of each lane.

American and TSA also said they plan to add computed tomography, or CT, scans for carry-on bags at a checkpoint in Phoenix by year-end.

The technology, currently in use for checked luggage, could allow travelers to leave carry-on liquids and laptops stowed in their bags.

“Think of the time – and bins! – that saves,” American’s Chief Operating Officer Robert Isom said in a letter to employees on Tuesday, shared with Reuters, noting that the airline is spending nearly $5 million on the new lanes.

“Neither initiative is a slam dunk to solve TSA woes, but they are both huge steps in the right direction,” he said.

American has said the TSA must add enough staff to handle checkpoints during peak travel times, without relying on airlines to contract extra airport staff. Earlier this year, TSA projected it will screen 15 percent more people than in 2013, with 12 percent fewer agents.

TSA may deploy CT scans elsewhere if the Phoenix pilot program succeeds, according to the statement.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Dastin in New York, editing by G Crosse)

Airport screening made 70,000 miss American Airlines flights this year

Passengers make their way in a security checkpoint at the International JFK airport in New York

(Reuters) – American Airlines Group Inc has had more than 70,000 customers and 40,000 checked bags miss flights this year because of delays in airport screening, according to an executive’s testimony before a U.S. Congressional subcommittee Thursday.

A shortage of staff and a surge in air travelers have created a nightmare scenario for the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), with airport wait times in places like Chicago stretching beyond two hours. American, the world’s largest airline, wants TSA to create a senior internal role focused on advocating for travelers, according to prepared remarks by American’s Senior Vice President for Customer Experience Kerry Philipovitch.

(Reporting By Jeffrey Dastin in New York; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)