U.S. holiday air travel week opens briskly

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Americans have begun hitting the roads and skies in large numbers in advance of Thursday’s Thanksgiving holiday as weather so far looks favorable for travel plans.

On Sunday, the Transportation Security Administration screened 2.21 million U.S air passengers, the fourth consecutive day with checkpoint volume topping 2 million.

The TSA said Friday was the single busiest air travel day since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, with 2.24 million travelers screened.

AccuWeather said Monday that “a largely quiet weather pattern should prevent widespread travel worries from the weather ahead of Thanksgiving.”

The weather forecaster added that “some Americans could still face minor weather-related delays during one of the busiest travel periods of the year – and weather for the trip home may be a different story.”

As vaccination rates have risen, many Americans are traveling for the holidays after skipping family gatherings last November and December.

Travel group AAA forecasts 53.4 million people will travel for the Thanksgiving holiday, up 13% from 2020, with most travelers going by car. About 48.3 million Thanksgiving travelers are expected to go by car, up from 47.1 million last year, but still below 2019’s 49.9 million.

Those on the roads will face gasoline prices hovering near the highest since 2014, and the high prices likely will prompt some Americans not to make holiday trips.

Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy, said some Americans “are responding to the prices by slamming the car door shut and staying off the road.”

TSA expects to screen about 20 million air passengers during the busy Thanksgiving travel period, compared with nearly 26 million in the same period in 2019.

“We are ready,” TSA Administrator David Pekoske told reporters on Friday at Washington Reagan National Airport. “We will be able to handle the passenger volumes that we anticipate seeing.”

Airlines have ramped up staffing and offered bonuses and other incentives to employees facing the busy holiday travel season.

Delta Air Lines said it expects to fly up to 5.6 million passengers from Friday through Nov. 30, nearly 300% over 2020’s 2.2 million Delta passengers for the period but still below the 6.3 million passengers during the same period in 2019.

United Airlines said it anticipates more than 4.5 million passengers during the Thanksgiving travel period – about 88% of 2019 volume.

United Chief Executive Scott Kirby told Skift last week he has confidence in the airline’s ability to fly its holiday schedule. “We’ve left ourselves a margin of error,” Kirby said.

He cautioned, however, that problems can ripple and “If you are not careful it can cascade into a meltdown.”

Some airlines have in recent weeks faced weather issues, resulting in hundreds of daily cancellations over several days.

United said it was adding about 700 domestic flights for Thanksgiving week, and would fly 87% of its 2019 domestic schedule in November.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Shri Navaratnam and Dan Grebler)

TSA bolsters airport security ahead of pro-Trump rally at U.S. Capitol

By David Shepardson and Jan Wolfe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Travelers arriving at the airport nearest Washington, D.C., will face increased security in the run-up to a planned Saturday rally supporting people charged with taking part in the deadly Jan. 6 riot, the Transportation Security Administration said.

“Travelers will notice increased law enforcement and canine presence along with a generally higher level of awareness in TSA’s intelligence-driven, risk-based approach to transportation security,” a TSA spokesperson told Reuters, referring to Reagan National Airport, in Virginia just across the Potomac River.

Hundreds of far-right demonstrators are expected in the District of Columbia for the “Justice For J6” rally, a reference to the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump in an attempt to stop certification of President Joe Biden’s election victory.

Trump has continued his false claims that his defeat was the result of widespread election fraud, an assertion that was rejected by multiple courts, state election authorities and members of his own administration.

The pro-Trump group organizing the Sept. 18 rally, Look Ahead America, has alleged that the more than 600 people facing criminal charges over the Jan. 6 riots have been mistreated and singled out because of their political views.

Police have ramped up security around the Capitol in response, mindful of the scenes that played out early this year when rioters attacked police, smashed through windows into the building and sent lawmakers and then-Vice President Mike Pence running for safety.

A fence that was put up around the Capitol following that day, which had been taken down in July, was being reassembled in place around the white-domed building on Thursday.

The fencing separated the lawns of the Capitol grounds from other government landmarks including the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, congressional office buildings and the Capitol Reflecting Pool just west of Capitol Hill, where protesters were scheduled to gather on Saturday.

There were few other signs of beefed-up security, though plexiglass police shields could be seen stacked at police checkpoints inside doorways to the Capitol building.

Four people died on Jan. 6, one fatally shot by police and three from medical emergencies. A Capitol Police officer who had been attacked by protesters died the following day. Four police officers who took part in the defense of the Capitol later committed suicide.

The U.S. Capitol Police on Wednesday said it has asked the Pentagon to provide National Guard troops if they are needed to help with security.

Trump referred to the upcoming protest in a statement on Thursday, saying, “Our hearts and minds are with the people being persecuted so unfairly relating to the January 6th protest concerning the Rigged Presidential Election.”

Police and congressional leaders said they are prepared for Saturday’s protest, which will come at a time that most members of Congress will be out of town.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, participating at a forum in Britain on Thursday, said, “They have their plans. Everybody will be more ready for them.”

(Reporting by David Shepardson and Jan Wolfe; Additional reporting by David Morgan and Richard Cowan; Editing by Scott Malone and Alistair Bell)

Airlines, unions urge U.S. to prosecute ‘egregious onboard conduct’

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A group representing major U.S. airlines and aviation unions on Monday wrote to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland asking the Justice Department to crack down on the growing number of disruptive and violent air passengers.

The Justice Department did not immediately comment on the letter, first reported by Reuters.

The letter from Airlines for America, which represents American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines and others, along with major unions said the “incidents pose a safety and security threat to our passengers and employees, and we respectfully request the (Justice Department) commit to the full and public prosecution of onboard acts of violence.”

The head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Steve Dickson, in January imposed a zero-tolerance order on passenger disturbances aboard airplanes after supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump were disruptive on some flights around the time of a Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol attack.

Monday’s letter added that the airlines and unions hope the Justice Department “will commit to taking action, along with coordination with the FAA, to ensure that egregious onboard conduct is fully and criminally prosecuted, sending a strong public message of deterrence, safety and security.”

The letter to Garland said that since the FAA’s zero- tolerance policy was announced, the agency has received more than 3,039 reports of unruly behavior and has opened 465 investigations into assaults, threats of assault or interference with crew members.

More than 2,000 cases included passengers refusing to wear face masks as required on all airplanes.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on April 30 extended a federal face mask mandate on airplanes and in airports through Sept. 13.

(Reporting by David Shepardson, Editing by Franklin Paul and Howard Goller)

U.S. agency screened 1.18 million airline passengers on Sunday

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Transportation Security Administration said it screened 1.18 million airline passengers on Sunday, the highest number since mid-March but still about 60% lower than the comparable day last year.

The number of passengers screened on the Sunday after Thanksgiving last year was 2.88 million, the highest ever recorded by the agency.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month urged Americans not to travel during this week’s Thanksgiving holiday to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus as cases of COVID-19 spike around the United States.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Toby Chopra)

U.S. screens highest number of airline passengers since March

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Transportation Security Administration said it screened 1.047 million passengers on Sunday, the highest number since mid-March.

The number of U.S. air travelers is still nearly 60% lower than the same date last year but Sunday was the second time in three days that passengers screened topped 1 million.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday urged Americans not to travel during this week’s Thanksgiving holiday to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus as cases of COVID-19 spike around the United States.

There have been just three days since March 16 that the number of U.S. airline passengers screened topped 1 million, with the first being Oct. 18 when it was 1.031 million.

Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines have cautioned that the recent surge in COVID-19 cases may have a negative impact on travel over the winter holidays, a period the sector had hoped would see improved bookings.

U.S. airlines say travel demand remains down 62%, while international travel demand remains down more than 70%. Some officials think U.S. restrictions barring many non-U.S. citizens from arrival could be eliminated or reduced with new testing.

The CDC on Saturday said COVID-19 testing before and after international travel can reduce risk and “make travel safer by reducing spread on planes, in airports, and at destinations.”

On Wednesday, the chief executives of the seven largest U.S. airlines made a fresh plea for more payroll relief in a letter to congressional leaders.

American Airlines and United Airlines last month furloughed 32,000 workers.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought travel to a near halt earlier in the year, forcing airlines to scale back operations and seek government bailouts.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Toby Chopra and Andrea Ricci)

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)