The Latest on COVID-19: New Variant Spooks Countries, Halts Some Flights
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The Latest on COVID-19: New Variant Spooks Countries, Halts Some Flights

Editor’s Note: This post will be regularly updated with the latest news and updates on the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on travel. Scroll down or click for previous updates and stay tuned for additional coverage. 

 

TSA, Airlines Brace for Thanksgiving Travel Surge

Friday, Nov. 26 at 1 p.m.
The U.S. and several other countries around the world are bracing for the arrival of another new, fast-spreading variant of COVID-19, blocking flights from South Africa where it’s believed to have originated and reintroducing another wave of uncertainty into international travel.

Little is known about the new variant dubbed “Omicron” by the World Health Organization, including how fast and far it may spread and its potential resistance to the vaccines in widespread use. Health officials worldwide and in South Africa where the Omicron variant was first detected cautioned against overreaction.

But several countries were quick to react, hoping to stamp out a new strain of the virus after the fast-spread delta variant fueled several new waves of infections across the globe. Several countries in the European Union temporarily halted flights on Friday morning from several African nations, leaving one flight that took off from Johannesburg in South Africa before the ban was announced stuck on the tarmac for hours, according to the New York Times.

By Friday afternoon, the White House announced it would ban entry of non-citizens coming to the U.S. from South Africa and several other African nations. That policy takes effect starting Monday, Nov. 29.

“The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn said, The Associated Press reported.

In the U.S., the new variant has not yet been detected. With international travel underway and Americans free to travel to many countries with COVID-19 testing and vaccination requirements, it’s unlikely the world would close down again.

But just like the Delta variant-fueled spikes from the summer led to secondary testing and vaccination measures across Europe and elsewhere, countries could impose more restrictions in response to the new omicron variant. That makes double-checking travel requirements and booking airfare with flexible change and cancellations paramount.

Read up on how to book travel smarter as pandemic uncertainty looms!

The head of emergencies at the WHO urged restraint.

“We’ve seen in the past, the minute there’s any kind of mention of any kind of variation and everyone is closing borders and restricting travel,” Dr. Michael Ryan said. “It’s really important that we remain open and stay focused.”

Read all our coverage of traveling and COVID-19.
 

TSA, Airlines Brace for Thanksgiving Travel Surge

Thursday, Nov. 18 at 7:45 a.m.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and airlines alike are preparing for a hectic holiday travel season next week, expecting the biggest surge of travelers they’ve seen since the start of the pandemic.

The TSA said this week that it expects to handle about 20 million passengers through the long Thanksgiving travel period, starting this Friday, Nov. 19 through Sunday, Nov. 28. That would more than double the count from 2020.

And the agency expects the Sunday following Thanksgiving to be the busiest travel day of the season – that same day in 2019 set a travel record with more than 2.9 million travelers heading home or back to work. While federal officials don’t expect to surpass that number in 2021, it could get close.

“We anticipate that travel may be very close to pre-pandemic levels this holiday, and we are staffed and prepared for the holiday travelers,” TSA Administrator David Pekoske said in a statement. “We have deployed technologies that enhance detection capabilities and reduce physical contact, and it’s equally important that passengers are prepared with travel tips for the most efficient checkpoint experience.”

Check out our tips to make it through the hectic holiday travel season unscathed!

While some areas of the country are struggling with fourth and fifth waves of COVID-19 cases and surging hospitalization rates, it’s clear Americans are ready to put the pandemic behind them and resume traveling in pandemic-record numbers.

Delta alone expects to handle 5.6 million travelers over Thanksgiving, three times what it saw in 2020. And the travel planning app TripIt crunched the numbers and found this Thanksgiving will be the busiest holiday for air travel since the start of the pandemic – with nearly three times as many flights booked as Thanksgiving 2020.

There’s some cause for concern that things may not go smoothly. Heading into winter, several airlines have canceled flights by the thousands as they struggle to keep up with demand when things go wrong. And just a month ago, more than 40% of TSA agents were still unvaccinated. The vaccine mandate for federal workers takes effect next Monday.

The TSA’s Pekoske brushed off concerns about a possible worker shortage next week, saying vaccination rates have accelerated among his workforce.

“I don’t think they should expect chaos… We’re very confident that this is going to be a very smooth operation over the next several days,” he told CBS News this week.
 

Hawaii’s Governor Gives Travelers Green Light to Return

Thursday, Oct. 21 at 8 a.m.
Hawaii has been open to travelers from the mainland U.S. for more than a year, allowing tourists with proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to visit the islands. But as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations skyrocketed across Hawaii this summer, Gov. David Ige begged travelers to stay away until at least November.

Now Ige is saying it’s safe for travelers to return to Hawaii.

“I think we are all encouraged by what we’ve seen over the last several weeks with the continuing trend of lower case counts,” Ige said this week, according to USA Today. “Our hospitals are doing better, and we have fewer COVID patients in them. Most importantly, our health care system has responded, and we have the ability to move forward with economic recovery.”

When Ige pleaded with travelers stay away back in August, Hawaii was in the midst of its worst outbreak throughout the entire pandemic, with skyrocketing COVID-19 case counts and health care systems strained by surging hospitalizations. But daily cases have plummeted in recent weeks, and the burden on hospitals driven by the fast-spreading Delta variant has lifted.

After locking out travelers with strict quarantines when the pandemic first struck in March 2020, Hawaii has steadily loosened entry requirements since restarting travel last October. As of July 9, fully vaccinated travelers from the mainland can now bypass onerous COVID-19 testing requirements to enter Hawaii.

Read more on Hawaii’s travel restrictions and requirements!

And the number of travelers heading for Hawaii continues to grow. In August, more than 722,000 travelers entered the islands by air, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. While that was down by 22% compared to pre-pandemic levels, it was up by 320% just since January 2021.

Hawaii is bracing for more arrivals soon – including travelers from outside the U.S. Ige says Hawaii is seeking more information about the plan to reopen the U.S. to fully vaccinated foreign visitors from Europe, Brazil, China, and elsewhere come Nov. 8.

 

United Airlines: Europe-U.S. Bookings up 35% From 2019

Wednesday, Oct. 20 at 12:00 p.m.

United Airlines hosted its quarterly earnings call Wednesday morning, where executives pointed to data showing a resurgence in travel and a recovery CEO Scott Kirby said was “on track.”

The most eye-popping statistic cited by the airline is that Europe to the U.S. flight bookings on United are up 35% in November and December from 2019. The U.S. border reopens to vaccinated travelers Nov. 8.

Last week, United partner Lufthansa’s CEO Carson Spohr said bookings between Europe and the U.S. increased 40% after the announcement of the U.S. reopening.

United Commercial Chief Andrew Nocella said demand across the Atlantic Ocean has remained at about the same levels as the airline saw in 2019, but that Tuesday’s demand was up 19% from two years prior.

Overall, United said it plans to fly 5% more capacity on its planes next year than in 2019 thanks to the resurgence of international travel.

United has painted a rosy picture of its recovery recently. Last week, Kirby made headlines when he said, “My guess is that next summer will be the busiest over the Atlantic ever. There is a huge desire to travel.”

Earlier this month, we crunched the numbers and found several key indicators showing a coming resurgence in travel, too.

The Nov. 8 reopening announcement won’t bring many changes for Americans traveling internationally, but will help many Americans reunite with friends and family abroad. Along with vaccination, COVID-19 tests will still be required for foreign nationals to enter into the U.S. come November.

Read all our coverage of traveling and COVID-19.

 

40% of TSA Agents Are Unvaccinated as Federal Deadline Looms

Monday, Oct. 18 at 7:30 a.m.
Roughly 40% of TSA agents nationwide are still unvaccinated, the agency’s leader said, raising alarm bells about a worker shortage and backups at airports over the holidays when a federal vaccination mandate takes effect next month.

President Joe Biden’s vaccination mandate for federal employees kicks in Nov. 22, just before Thanksgiving and the start of the hectic holiday travel season. But TSA Administrator David Pekoske told CNN in an interview last week that just 60% of TSA employees are currently vaccinated.

“We have about 60% of our workforce that has been vaccinated. That number needs to go quite a bit higher over the next few weeks,” Pekoske said.

That’s a long way to go for an agency that’s critical in ensuring a smooth travel process: TSA agents man security checkpoints at airports across the country. With lag times between doses and a waiting period of at least two weeks to be considered effective, TSA workers have precious little time to get their shots without missing work.

Pekoske said he’s been holding town halls with workers in an effort to increase vaccination rates, but he didn’t rule out disruptions.

“We are building contingency plans, for if we do have some staffing shortages as a result of this, but I hope to avoid that,” he said.

The potential for disruption is causing alarm. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the nation’s third-highest ranking Democrat, called on the TSA to make sure it has backup plans in place for the holidays.

“News from the TSA that 40% of its employees are unvaccinated could create a turbulent travel experience for Americans and New Yorkers as the holidays approach, but if the agency plans now with contingencies that include the deployment of canine dog teams—wherever vaccine rates are impacting staffing and security—travel headaches could be avoided,” Schumer said in a statement.

Read all our coverage of traveling and COVID-19.
 

Delta Says 90% of Employees (And Counting) Have Been Vaccinated

Wednesday, Oct. 13 at 12 p.m.
Delta Air Lines said Wednesday that 90% of its employees have been vaccinated, as the nation’s largest airlines hurtle toward a federal vaccination mandate in the coming months. And Delta’s CEO expects that number to grow to 95% by next month.

Most of the nation’s largest carriers have announced they’ll enforce President Joe Biden’s recent executive order requiring large U.S. companies to mandate employee vaccination. But Delta has stopped short of making that announcement, hoping its own individual measures like a $200 health care surcharge for unvaccinated workers drive up vaccination rate.

And all signs appear it has. With 90% of employees getting their shots and counting, Delta’s vaccination rate is second only to United Airlines, which announced its own vaccine requirement. More than 99% of United employees have been vaccinated.

“We haven’t done it with a mandate,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian told CNBC on Wednesday after Delta announced it turned a profit in the three-month quarter ending in September. “We have done it working collaboratively with our people, trusting our people to make the right decisions for themselves.”

Vaccine requirements have become major flashpoint in the U.S., and airlines are no different. Pilots unions at Southwest and American Airlines – both based in Texas – have pushed back against the mandates issued by their airlines. These airlines are required to enforce the Biden administration’s mandate because they have contracts with the federal government.

But Delta has stopped short of doing the same. Bastian said Wednesday the airline is on track to vaccinate at least 95% of its workforce by early November.

The Atlanta-based airline has seen a drastic uptick in vaccination rates since announcing a series of measures meant to encourage employees to get inoculated against COVID-19. That includes a $200 monthly health care surcharge, masking requirements indoors for unvaccinated workers and weekly testing requirements, too.

“I think the spirit of the [federal] mandate was to get people vaccinated. It wasn’t to try to force people with the threat of their jobs if companies are doing the right thing,” Bastian added.
 

Delta Stands Alone In Not Mandating Employee Vaccination (Yet…)

Tuesday, Oct. 5 at 7:30 a.m.
One by one, the nation’s largest airlines have announced they’ll comply with President Joe Biden’s recent executive order requiring large U.S. companies to mandate employee vaccination. And then there’s Delta Air Lines.

Biden’s administration rolled out the vaccination requirement last month in a bid to crush the fast-spreading Delta variant and end the COVID-19 pandemic. That order is even more stringent for major U.S. airlines and other companies that have contracts with the federal government – allowing employees to instead undergo regular COVID-19 testing isn’t an option for them. There are some narrow exemptions for medical and religious reasons.

Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, and JetBlue all announced last week that they would comply with the mandate, informing their employees. Southwest was the latest to make it official, saying Monday it would ensure its 54,000-person workforce was vaccinated by a Dec. 8 deadline.

United Airlines beat them all to the punch by announcing its own vaccination requirement way back in early August, spurring more than 96% of its employees to get their shots. Less than 600 employees faced termination for failing to get a shot, according to Reuters.

That leaves just Delta as the lone holdout among the nation’s largest airlines: To date, the Atlanta-based carrier has not announced whether it will require vaccines for its 80,000-strong workforce. The airline told CNBC it is still “examining the federal rules” on vaccination requirements for federal contractors.

Roughly 84% of Delta’s workforce is already vaccinated due in part to the airline’s own measures that penalize employees who fail to get vaccinated. Unvaccinated Delta workers will soon have to pay a $200 monthly surcharge for their employer-backed health insurance plans. They’re also now required to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing and to wear a mask while working indoors.

But Delta CEO Ed Bastian sounded hesitant this week to make vaccination mandatory – despite the federal requirement.

“We have not made a decision on that. We are obviously studying it, talking to the White House and the administration as to what the requirements are,” Bastian said ahead of a major airline industry conference.

“We are up to 84% of the company is vaccinated, a 10-point increase in the last 12 weeks. I fully expect that by the time we get to Nov. 1, we will be well over 90% as a company,” Bastian added.

It’s a change of tune for Delta, which from the start of the pandemic has tried to position itself as putting safety above all else. The airline blocked middle seats longer than any other U.S. carrier to give passengers more space onboard, tripled down on new cleaning measures, and even hired a Mayo Clinic executive to be its first “chief health officer.”
 

Biden Administration will Tighten Reentry Requirements for Unvaccinated Americans

Thursday, Sept. 23 at 12:30 p.m.
Earlier this week, a White House spokesperson announced the U.S. would be reopening to vaccinated foreigners seeking to enter the U.S. starting in November. What wasn’t clear at the time is what the Biden Administration has planned for unvaccinated Americans looking to reenter the country while abroad.

Currently, all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, need to take a COVID-19 test within 72 hours of their return flight back to the United States.

According to reporting from the Associated Press, White House COVID-19 Coordinator Jeff Zients said the Biden Administration is planning to tighten rules for unvaccinated Americans returning home by making them test twice.

Unvaccinated American citizens will need to be tested for COVID-19 within one day of returning to the states and again after they arrive back home. It remains unclear how the government plans to enforce the second test stateside.

The updated policy comes as the Biden Administration has dug in on vaccination and testing requirements in other sectors to regain control of the COVID-19 pandemic across the country.

“Early November” was the timeframe first announced by the White House Monday, but a more official announcement which will likely include more detail should come as early as next week.

 

Reports: U.S. Travel Ban on Vaccinated Foreigners to be Eased in November

Monday, Sept. 20 at 10:30 a.m.

A White House spokesperson told reporters Monday morning that vaccinated foreigners looking to enter the U.S. will be able to do so in November, ending a months-long travel ban.

The Associated Press reported the news Monday morning that White House COVID-19 Coordinator Jeff Zients announced a long-awaited easing of restrictions for foreign travelers who wish to enter the U.S. The updated policy does not affect Americans looking to travel abroad or return home. And so far, no announcements have been made about removing the testing requirements for vaccinated American citizens returning home from abroad.

It does, however, create a reciprocal policy to the European Union and the U.K., which have both started allowing Americans.

The new policy means vaccinated foreign travelers coming to the U.S. will no longer need to quarantine upon arrival, but still must provide a negative COVID-19 test result taken within 72 hours of travel.

Previously, foreign travelers from the U.K., the European Union, China, India, Iran, Ireland, Brazil, and South Africa were restricted from entering the U.S. The new approach will allow individuals who are vaccinated and test negative to enter the U.S. regardless of where they are from.

Notably, the Associated Press also says the CDC is instructing airlines to collect COVID-19-related data from foreign travelers, including contact information for tracing purposes.

Zients told the Associated Press that the policy will be implemented in “early November” and an official announcement on the matter could come as soon as next week.

Many travelers think this policy update is long overdue, as Europe and other destinations have been allowing American travelers for months. Only now is the U.S. reciprocating.

Again, this does not affect Americans looking to travel abroad or return home, but it is undoubtedly good news. This change is likely to reconnect families and friends separated by the pandemic since March 2020.

 

President Biden, TSA Double Fines for No Masks on Planes

Friday, Sept. 10 at 7:30 a.m.
Travelers who refuse to wear masks onboard planes will pay twice as much in fines after President Joe Biden’s latest executive order meant to curb unruly passengers.

On Thursday, Biden directed the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to raise fines for noncompliance with the federal mask mandate. Effective Friday, that means first-time offenders would pay $500 to $1,000. Repeat offenders could pay $1,000 to $3,000. Those fines previously topped out at $1,500.

“If you break the rules, be prepared to pay,” Biden said from the White House Thursday.

Mask requirements have been a hallmark of travel since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Biden put those requirements into federal law immediately after taking office in January. The federal mask mandate on planes, in airports, and on other forms of public transport was recently extended through Jan. 18, 2022.

But masks have become a major flashpoint, fueling a surge of unruly passengers this year. Countless viral videos show passengers shouting at flight attendants and fellow travelers – even brawling. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has received more than 4,000 reports about unruly travelers this year, with a vast majority concerning mask requirements.

Biden called on Americans to behave better on planes.

“And by the way, show some respect. The anger you see on television toward flight attendants and others doing their job is wrong. It’s ugly.”

But just because the penalties are increasing doesn’t mean travelers who refuse to wear masks will actually pay them. Data shows that most non-compliant passengers eventually wind up receiving a warning rather than actually paying a fine.

 

23 Responses

  • Hi: How do you see the corona virus situation impacting long-term airline tickets prices? Do you think they might increase? I’ve been checking airfares and find them to be about the same price.

    • Short-term, there’s definitely some price-cutting going on in a targeted way – on select routes, by select carriers. Long-term, it’s just too early to say.

  • I am a USA citizen currently touristing Palawan Island, Philippines. We have tickets to fly out through Manila. However, now all flights are on lockdown and we can not go in or out of Manila. Our USA visa is only good for 30-days. The airport lockdown goes well past our time to leave. What happen when our US visa time runs out and we are locked out of flying?

  • AA will not waive their $150 fee to redeposit my miles to my account. Where are you getting the information that they are waiving their fees?

  • Can I begin my paperwork process for Global Entry now, or is that also on hold? If o can apply how long will the info be kept before I get to interview or come back into the US from an international flight in 2021 & complete the process at that time? Thank you

    • You can apply and may even reach the “conditional approval” stage during this shutdown, but you won’t be able to secure an interview any time soon. And you’re required to complete that interview within 1 year of being conditionally approved, so it’s probably best to just wait a bit.

  • Kyle,
    We have airline tickets to Barcelona on Canada Air in May. We used rewards miles. We’ve been waiting to see if the flights would be cancelled and are hoping to recoup the miles. Is this likely in light of the travel ban to Spain? Thanks.

    • It certainly seems like it. Keep in touch with Air Canada and monitor your reservation. Depending on how you booked, you may even be able to cancel now and get your miles & taxes/fees back even before the airline itself cancels.

  • I liked the SWA CEO’s idea of temperature screening in mass even though it is not a perfect deterrent or predictor of Covid 19. I think it would make more sense for each airport to do this temporary screening for next two years. I don’t like standing in those stanchion lines close to people waiting to be screened. Airports could hire temporary people at the entry doors- best place to stop them. This may mean fewer entry doors or some doors being only for exiting. Prefer the local approach as we lose so much money with TSA program. That way the airlines and airport businesses would pay for it much like many parking lots are paid for. We do pay for airport parking here, but it is subsidized. Door entry screening will increase public confidence in air travel.

  • I personally would not get into an Uber or Lyft that I cannot see their face. If something happens and I cannot identify you…yeah no thanks lol

  • Can you book first class east bound to Europe and return economy? Or must you book first class both ways?

    • You can always book two one-way flights separately – just beware that it might be fairly expensive to do so.

  • Kyle, 6 emails and 7 phone calls to multiple Spanish Embassy/Consulates locations in the US last week resulted in ONE reply telling my client to contact the Embassy by email. He’s leaving for Spain this week, and of course, has not received a reply. How are we going to know if the EU bans US travelers BEFORE they leave. The airline tells me it’s the travelers responsibility to know the rules. If I can find the rules, how is my client going to find them?

  • In all honesty, there is no reason for Delta to continue to block seats. While the thought is nice (80 segments already this year with them), you cannot socially distance on a plane, without having every other row, and really only window seats filled (in narrow body planes). I believe that United and AA are not blocking any seats anymore.

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