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)

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)