United Airlines bets on Florida, adding dozens of flights a day starting November

By David Shepardson

(Reuters) – United Airlines is adding up to 28 daily nonstop U.S. flights to Florida starting Nov. 6 as the Chicago-based airline bets on a rebound in leisure travelers heading to sunny skies.

The direct flights are from non United hub cities in Boston, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, New York/LaGuardia, Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio to four Florida destinations.

United said it is part of its “continuing strategy to aggressively, and opportunistically manage the impact of COVID-19 by increasing service to destinations where customers most want to fly.” But the carrier said it could reduce the number of flights if COVID-19 infections in Florida remain high.

New Florida flights will go to Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Orlando and Tampa.

Ankit Gupta, United’s vice president of domestic network planning, said the new flights represent “United’s largest expansion of point-to-point, non-hub flying and reflects our data driven approach to add capacity where customers are telling us they want to go.”

United can adjust up or down. Gupta said the added Florida flights could amount to more than 400,000 additional seats this winter season. He said many U.S. travelers are picking Florida instead of international destinations.

There are modest signs of improving air travel demand. The Transportation Security Administration said it screened 831,789 people on Sunday — the first time it screened more than 800,000 people since March 17. That is still down 70% over prior year figures.

Still, Florida has reported 542,792 coronavirus cases, the second most of any U.S. state behind only California, according to a Reuters tally, and more than 10% of all reported U.S. cases. If coronavirus cases in Florida remain high, “we will adjust our plans,” Gupta said.

Southwest Airlines chief executive Gary Kelly said at a Texas Tribune forum on Wednesday the airline is still trying to figure how many flights to offer as it works to reduce its $20 million a day losses. “It is pure guesswork at this point” Kelly said.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by David Gregorio)

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. plans to send transportation staff to U.S.-Mexico border

FILE PHOTO: Concertina wire is seen atop a section of border fence near the U.S.-Mexico border in Donna, Texas, U.S. May 2, 2019. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration plans to redirect Transportation Security Administration staff to the U.S. southern border to assist with immigration duties and migrant flows, the TSA said on Wednesday.

A TSA spokesman said in a statement the bureau was looking for volunteers to support efforts at the U.S. border with Mexico, where the government has said it is grappling with record numbers of people.

“TSA, like all DHS components, is supporting the DHS effort to address the humanitarian and security crisis at the southwest border. TSA is in the process of soliciting volunteers to support this effort while minimizing operational impact,” TSA spokesman James Gregory said in a statement.

The TSA border assignment will last at least 45 days and comes at the start of the busy summer travel season, which a U.S. official acknowledged carried “some risk,” CNN reported, citing an internal email it obtained.

TSA staff will include 175 law enforcement officials, including air marshals, and as many as 400 security staff drawn from six U.S. cities but will not include airport screeners, CNN said, citing two additional unnamed sources. The six cities were not immediately identified.

TSA law enforcement officials sent to the border will receive legal training and assist the Customs and Border Protection department as immigration officers, the report said.

The decision comes as the airline and travel industry urge lawmakers to approve funding for more Customs and Border Patrol officers, warning of excessive wait times for traveling and shipping as officers have been shifted to the border.

The Department of Interior has also doubled the number of officers it is sending for three-week stints to the border, from 22 to 47, The Hill reported on Wednesday, citing an internal memorandum.

An Interior Department spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. government reported earlier this month that border officers had apprehended nearly 99,000 people crossing the border with Mexico in April, the highest figure since 2007. More than two-thirds of those apprehended were children or people traveling as families.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Additional reporting by Makini Brice; Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Meredith Mazzilli)

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. ending laptop ban on Middle Eastern airlines

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Transportation Security Administration said on Monday it had lifted a ban on passengers on Saudi Arabian Airlines carrying large electronics like laptops onboard U.S.-bound flights, the last carrier under the restrictions.

In March, U.S. officials imposed restrictions on passengers carrying laptops and other large electronic gear in cabins on nine airlines, most of which were Middle Eastern carriers, to address the potential threat of hidden explosives.

Last month, U.S. officials announced new security requirements for all airlines rather than an expansion of the laptop ban and have been dropping the restrictions from airlines as they boosted security.

A TSA spokesman said the U.S. government had lifted the restrictions at Saudia Arabian Airlines’ main hub in Jeddah at King Abdulaziz International Airport on Monday. U.S. government officials will visit Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport “later this week to confirm compliance there as well,” spokesman James Gregory said.

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

An airline official briefed on the matter said the directive gave airlines more flexibility and additional time to obtain explosive trace detection equipment. The official was not authorized to discuss sensitive security issues with the media and requested anonymity.

 

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Tom Brown)

 

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)

U.S. says expanding laptop ban ‘still on the table’

FILE PHOTO: A TSA official removes a laptop from a bag for scanning 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 David Shepardson and Julia Fioretti

WASHINGTON/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is still considering an expansion of a ban on laptops and other large electronics in airline cabins after Secretary John Kelly spoke to European officials on Tuesday, a department spokesman said.

The spokesman, David Lapan, confirmed that Kelly spoke to European Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos and Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc on Tuesday and told them that while no expansion was announced Tuesday that it “is still on the table.”

Lapan said both sides agreed on the need to improve “aviation security globally, including through a range of potential seen and unseen enhancements.”

Lapan said that “Secretary Kelly affirmed he will implement any and all measures necessary to secure commercial aircraft flying to the United States – including prohibiting large electronic devices from the passenger cabin – if the intelligence and threat level warrant it.”

Lapan said no announcement on any expansion was planned this week.

Kelly told “Fox News Sunday” over the weekend that he “might” ban laptops from airplane cabins on all international flights both into and out of the United States.

An EU Commission spokesman said Kelly did not make an announcement about whether the United States would extend the ban to European airports during the “positive and constructive” call.

“Both sides agreed to intensify talks both at technical and political levels to find common solutions to mitigate potential threats to aviation security and work together to step up security requirements,” the spokesman added.

After meetings with airlines and European officials, the Department of Homeland Security has declined to offer a timetable for making a decision and instead said it would be made by Kelly on a review of threats.

One major issue that has been under consideration is the potential safety implications of storing large numbers of laptop batteries in the cargo holds of airliners.

Airline and government officials say there have been discussions about potential alternatives to an expansion of the laptop ban, including enhanced screening, but that no decisions have been made.

In March, the United States announced laptop restrictions on flights originating from 10 airports, including in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, because of fears that a concealed bomb could be installed in electronic devices taken onto aircraft.

Britain quickly followed suit with restrictions on a slightly different set of routes.

The U.S. restrictions cover about 350 flights a week. Extending the ban to all European airports would affect nearly 400 flights a day and cover 30 million travelers.

(Reporting by David Shepardson. Additional reporting by Julia C. Fioretti in Brussels; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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)

U.S. decision on expanded laptop ban not imminent: Homeland Security

FILE PHOTO: An illustration picture shows a laptop on the screen of an X-ray security scanner, April 7, 2017. Picture taken April 7, 2017. REUTERS/Srdjan Zivulovic/Illustration

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Homeland Security Department said on Wednesday t2hat no specific timeline had been set for a decision on whether to expand a ban on larger electronics as carry-on luggage for air travel.

DHS spokesman David Lapan told reporters at a briefing there was “nothing imminent” that would require an immediate decision to expand the ban on laptops, which currently applies to 10 mostly Middle Eastern airports. He also said there has been no discussion on expanding the ban to domestic U.S. flights or flights leaving the United States.

In March, the United States announced laptop restrictions on flights originating from 10 airports, including in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, because of fears a bomb could be concealed in electronic devices taken aboard aircraft.

Britain quickly followed suit with restrictions on a slightly different set of routes.

Lapan reiterated that DHS still believed it was “likely” the U.S. ban will be expanded. He said talks with Europe were not a “negotiation” over whether to expand the airports covered because Homeland Security director John Kelly would make any decision based strictly on an analysis of threats.

DHS and European officials held a working group level meeting on Tuesday but no new talks are currently scheduled, Lapan said.

Lapan said the United States would give airports at least the same four-day notice it gave Middle Eastern and other airlines in March before the restrictions took effect, but said it could be longer.

Reuters and other outlets reported on May 11 that the ban on laptops on commercial aircraft was likely to include some European countries.

Any expansion of the ban could affect U.S. carriers such as United Airlines (UAL.N), Delta Air Lines Inc (DAL.N) and American Airlines Group (AAL.O).

In 2016, 30 million people flew to the United States from Europe, according to U.S. Transportation Department data.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Tom Brown)

Passengers walk through JFK checkpoint without being screened: NBC

(Reuters) – Eleven passengers walked through a security checkpoint without being screened before apparently boarding planes at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on Monday, national media reported.

The breaches occurred at about 6 a.m. local time at a checkpoint lane that was not fully staffed, NBC News reported.

The passengers’ carry-on bags were screened and cleared by a security team with sniffer dogs, Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) sources told the broadcaster.

Three of the passengers set off metal detectors but were permitted to continue to their boarding gates without being body searched by staff, the broadcaster said.

U.S. authorities beefed up security at airports in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks.

A debate over whether it should be tightened further has been given impetus by a deadly shooting in January in a Florida airport baggage claim area, and attempts by President Donald Trump to clamp down on immigration from some Muslim-majority countries.

The Port Authority said three passengers were screened after they got off their flight when it landed in California.

It did not say if they were the people who had also set off the metal detectors, and gave no information about the identities or flight schedules of the other eight passengers.

The TSA said it was confident the incident presented “minimal risk to the aviation transportation system,” NBC News reported.

TSA and port authority officials were not immediately available for further comment.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien; editing by John Stonestreet)