Routes: DOT authorizes double the flights to Cuba from US; SFO ranks 2nd in J.D. Power airport survey

In this week’s air travel news, American and JetBlue get approval for more Cuba service; travelers polled by J.D. Power rank San Francisco International in second place among the nation’s largest airports; American Airlines revealed plans for new cabin layouts in the longer-range Airbus A321s it has ordered, including Flagship Suites with privacy doors; CEOs of leading regional airlines warn that they are likely to keep dropping smaller cities from their route networks as they continue to suffer from pilot shortages; Delta brings improvements to its international premium economy service; Southwest Airlines makes it easier for Rapid Rewards members to achieve tier status; airlines add flights to South America for the winter season; three nations in Asia ease up on COVID restrictions for foreign arrivals; Spain decides to keep COVID-19 entry rules in place for now; and United opens a new passenger lounge at Phoenix. 

American Airlines will be able to operate a virtual shuttle service between its Miami hub and Havana thanks to the Transportation Department’s approval this week of additional flight frequencies to the Cuban capital. DOT said American could add another 13 weekly flights between MIA and Havana, increasing its schedule from six daily flights on weekdays to eight. The agency also said JetBlue could increase its Fort Lauderdale-Havana schedule from 19 flights a week to 20 by adding a Saturday flight. Two months ago, DOT ruled that American could also resume service to five other cities in Cuba that it had once served before it was ordered out of those markets by former President Donald Trump’s administration. Meanwhile, Reuters reports that United Airlines is also working to restore service to Cuba later this year; in March 2020, it suspended flights to Havana from Houston and Newark.

A sign is posted near the departures monitor for the Yoga Room at SFO’s Terminal 2 in January 2012.

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Those renovations and improvement projects at San Francisco International Airport in recent years are starting to pay off as SFO ranked in second place among North America’s 20 largest airports in this year’s J.D. Power survey. The company’s 2022 North America Airport Satisfaction Study polled more than 25,000 travelers, asking them to grade airports on a variety of factors and compiling the overall results on a 1,000-point scale. SFO’s score of 796 was just 4 points behind first-place Minneapolis-St. Paul International in the study’s “mega airport” category. Also ranking in the top five were Detroit Metro and New York JFK (tied at 791) and Las Vegas Harry Reid International (790), while LAX ranked 18th out of 20. The study included separate categories for smaller airports. In the “large airport” category, Tampa International ranked No. 1 out of 27 with a score of 846, followed by John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, at 826 and Dallas Love Field at 825; Oakland ranked 18th in that category, and Mineta San Jose was in 21st place.

Among the 18 medium-sized airports, Indianapolis ranked first, followed by Pittsburgh and Jacksonville. At the bottom of the scales, Hollywood Burbank finished last in the medium-sized rankings, while Philadelphia International was at the bottom among large airports and Newark Liberty International hub had the worst score among mega airports.

J.D. Power noted that overall passenger satisfaction with airports dropped by 25 points this year after reaching a record high in 2021. Last year’s satisfaction levels peaked because airports were relatively uncrowded as passenger numbers plummeted due to the pandemic. But this year, “the combination of pent-up demand for air travel, the nationwide labor shortage and steadily rising prices on everything from jet fuel to a bottle of water have created a scenario in which airports are extremely crowded and passengers are increasingly frustrated—and it is likely to continue through 2023,” said Michael Taylor, travel intelligence lead at J.D. Power. In the 2022 survey, 58% of those polled said airports were too crowded, and 24% said they didn’t buy food or beverages at the airport because they were too expensive. A lack of parking spaces at airports caused satisfaction with those facilities to drop by 45 points from last year, J.D. Power said.

American Airlines’ new Flagship Suites on its A321XLRs.

Courtesy of American Airlines

American Airlines said this week it is planning a major overhaul for front-cabin premium seating on its prime transcontinental routes like San Francisco-New York JFK and LAX-JFK, as well as on long-haul international aircraft including 787-9s and 777-300ERs. On its busiest transcontinental routes, American currently uses specially configured single-aisle Airbus A321s (known as A321Ts) that offer four types of seating: first class, business class, main cabin extra (economy with extra legroom) and main cabin. The airline has ordered several dozen new A321XLRs (extra-long range) from Airbus for delivery starting in 2024, and those planes are expected to gradually replace the A321Ts and to serve shorter U.S.-Europe routes. American said instead of the first class and business class cabins on the A321Ts, the A321XLRs will have 20 “Flagship Suite” seats and 12 seats in a new premium economy section. The Flagship Suites will feature “a privacy door, a chaise lounge seating option and more personal storage space,” American said. Its existing A321Ts will be retrofitted “to align those 16 aircraft with the rest of its A321 fleet,” the airline said, noting that it will continue to offer lie-flat seats on transcontinental routes out of New York and Boston “along with its Northeast Alliance partner JetBlue Airways.” 

American said its new long-haul Boeing 787-9s, due for delivery starting in 2024, will also feature the new front cabin with 51 Flagship Suites as well as 32 premium economy seats. Its current fleet of 20 777-300ERs will be overhauled starting in 2024 to include 70 Flagship Suites and 44 premium economy seats. The 777-300ERs currently have first class, business class, premium economy and main cabin seating options. With the coming changes, “premium seating on American’s long-haul fleet will grow more than 45% by 2026,” the company said. The changes at American are in line with a long-term realignment of major airlines’ long-haul cabin designations; what used to be first class, business class and economy have now largely become an upgraded business class, premium economy and economy — and in many cases, the new business class cabins (which may carry specific brand names like Delta One and United Polaris) are a big improvement over the first-class cabins of years ago.  

We’ve reported several times this year about the ongoing decisions by major carriers to drop various smaller cities from their route networks, and it looks like that trend could continue into the indefinite future. Those small markets are served by the regional carrier affiliates of the major airlines, and at a conference of the Regional Airline Association in Washington this week, the heads of two carriers warned of more service cuts to come over the next several years, according to a report on Routesonline.com. Chip Childs, the CEO of SkyWest Airlines — the country’s largest regional carrier — said regionals continue to struggle with a severe shortage of pilots and that unless the situation changes, those airlines could keep dropping service to smaller cities for “around five years.” And this is not due to a lack of passenger demand, he said: “Even as we’re pulling out of cities, my phone is ringing off the hook all the time with more cities wanting air service.”

Bryan Bedford, the CEO of Republic Airways, said the ongoing service reductions will be gradual but steady rather than a “wholesale dislocation.” He said cities that used to have 30 flights a day to six hubs of the major carriers might now have 15 flights to three hubs. “Ultimately, it’s going to end with three daily flights to one hub. That’s the gradual decline that many of these communities are experiencing,” Bedford said.

Bryan Bedford, CEO of Republic Airways, in Denver. 

Hyoung Chang/Denver Post via Getty Images

To help alleviate the pilot shortage, Republic Airways — which operates about 1,000 flights a day as a regional partner of United, Delta and American — had petitioned the Federal Aviation Administration to let graduates of Republic’s flight training school get their pilot’s licenses with just 750 hours of flying time instead of the 1,500 that the rules currently mandate. The FAA this week shot down that idea, saying that the airline’s training “does not provide an equivalent level of safety” as the 1,500 hours requirement. Republic’s petition had also been opposed by major pilot associations. The shortage has led some regional carriers to offer significant pay increases to attract more pilots — higher costs that they pass along to the major carriers. (Example: The pilots’ union at Alaska Airlines regional subsidiary Horizon Air just approved a new contract that will almost double the pay rates for pilots and co-pilots on its 76-seat jets.) Republic CEO Bedford said this week that the regional airline business “will be smaller in the future than it is today, because as we raise prices to our consumer–which is the mainline carriers–they’ll want less of what we do.”

Customers flying in Delta’s premium economy section — branded as Delta Premium Select and available on all its trans-Pacific and most trans-Atlantic flights — will soon be seeing “a refreshed and improved cabin experience,” the company said. Beginning this week, the airline overhauled its Premium Select dining service to offer “more options infused with local flavors,” Delta said. “Menu options will include meals like braised beef short rib with fingerling potatoes and dijon green peppercorn jus; Impossible Meatballs with polenta, pomodorini sauce and broccolini; honey harissa chicken thighs with jollof rice and stewed greens; and for dessert, mango mousse with mango passion fruit compote.” Customers will also see new service features “like a special ‘bubbles and bites’ moment, with sparkling wine, water and a special treat shortly after takeoff, as well as a premium snack basket.” Next month, Delta will introduce new amenity kits for Premium Select passengers, offering a variety of travel essentials.

A traveler picks up his boarding pass at a check-in kiosk at Midway Airport in Chicago in March 2004.

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Frequent flyers who belong to Southwest Airlines’ Rapid Rewards program are getting a boost in achieving or maintaining A-List or A-List Preferred tier status for 2023, the airline announced this week. Members who took reward flights this year from Jan. 1 through Sept. 19 will see those flight segments automatically credited to their tier progress, with no registration required. Those who register online will also get tier credit for new reward flights booked and flown by Nov. 30, as well as double tier-qualifying points for regular flights booked and flown by that date.   

Airline service from the U.S. to South America is picking up with the addition, resumption or expansion of several routes. United Airlines is due to bring back daily flights from its Newark hub to Lima, Peru, on Oct. 31, a route it had suspended in March 2020 as the pandemic kicked in. At the same time, LATAM Ecuador will resume flying from Miami to Quito with one daily flight, competing against American Airlines’ two daily departures. Then on Dec. 2, LATAM Airlines will increase its schedule between Los Angeles International and Lima, Peru, from seven flights a week to 10. Delta will boost its presence in Brazil on Dec. 17 when it increases service from Atlanta to Sao Paulo from one daily round trip to two for the winter season, using four-class A330-300s. The double daily flights will continue through March 24. And Avianca plans to open up new U.S. service from Pereira, Colombia, on Dec. 8 with four weekly flights to Miami International and two to New York JFK.

An aerial view of downtown Barcelona shows the Salesforce Tower’s twin: Torre Glories.

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More nations in Asia are relaxing their entry rules for international tourists after a couple of years of stringent COVID-related restrictions. As expected, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced in New York this week that effective Oct. 11, his country will no longer require visas for visitors from many nations, including the U.S. He said Japan will also remove the ceiling on the number of foreign visitors allowed to enter, and will again allow individual travel, ending the requirement that visitors must be part of an organized tour group. Since the pandemic started, Japan’s foreign visitor arrivals have plummeted to a small fraction of their former levels. The government of Hong Kong said that beginning on Sept. 26, it is ending its mandate that foreign visitors must quarantine in approved hotels for several days after arrival. Other requirements will remain in place, however, including the need for visitors to self-monitor and take several PCR tests after arrival in Hong Kong; to stay out of bars and restaurants until they have stayed negative for three days; and to show a negative result from a rapid antigen test taken no more than 24 hours before departure from home. Taiwan is adopting a similar regimen, dropping its mandatory hotel quarantine effective Oct. 15 but continuing to require self-monitoring with rapid antigen tests for several days after arrival.

Planning a trip to Spain? While many European nations have eliminated most or all their COVID entry restrictions for international visitors, the Spanish government this week decided to keep its rules in place through Nov. 15. That means arrivals coming from non-European Union countries must still provide a vaccination certificate, a negative COVID test result or a certificate verifying their recovery from COVID when they arrive. The vaccination certificate must show proof of receiving a primary inoculation within the last nine months or a booster shot. However, the government this week also shut down its online travel health portal, where visitors were required to fill out a health control form and obtain a QR code needed for entry at the nation’s airports. 

United Airlines plans to open the 21st domestic location in its United Club airport lounge network on Sept. 27, this one at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. The new 6,080-square-foot United Club at PHX, in Terminal 3, seats 122 members — about twice the size of the previous United Club at the airport. That earlier lounge closed down when United moved into PHX’s Terminal 3 more than two years ago. The new club includes a “wellness space” for meditation or for nursing mothers, along with the usual dining and beverage service and designated workspaces.

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