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Routes: Alaska’s big day + No Fly List, Olympics, Hawaiian, United, Southwest, CLEAR at Sacramento

SF Gate logo SF Gate 3/28/2021 Jim Glab

In this week’s roundup, Alaska Airlines officially joins the Oneworld global alliance this week; the federal government might add domestic extremists to its No Fly List; U.S. passenger numbers keep rising; the Tokyo Olympics won’t allow foreign spectators; Air France tests a health passport at SFO; airlines add Hawaii routes; United and Southwest expand domestic networks for the summer; Delta returns to Iceland; in-flight services gradually come back; a new JetBlue website helps customers book ground arrangements; and CLEAR brings expedited screening access to Sacramento International.

March 31 is a landmark date for Alaska Airlines. That’s when the airline finally becomes a full member of American Airlines’ Oneworld global alliance, the latest and biggest step in the increasingly close partnership between the two companies. Membership means that Alaska customers will get seamless connections to American and a dozen other international airlines that belong to the group. And elite-level members of Alaska’s Mileage Plan loyalty program will be entitled to special treatment and perks on other Oneworld airlines, depending on their tier level. Mileage Plan MVP members will get Oneworld Ruby status as of March 31, while MVP Golds will have Oneworld Sapphire status and MVP Gold 75Ks will get the benefits of Oneworld Emerald status. All Oneworld tier categories let members earn and redeem miles on all alliance carriers and include access to priority check-in, preferred seating, and priority waitlists and boarding. The Emerald and Sapphire categories provide access to member airlines’ business class or first class lounges and check-in, extra checked bag allowances and priority baggage handling.

Even before the Oneworld membership, Alaska and American have offered their customers reciprocal mileage-earning and redemption privileges, as well as reciprocal lounge access for members of the Alaska Lounge program and American’s Admirals Clubs, and the two airlines have started code-sharing on each other’s flights. The Alaska partnership and Oneworld membership is part of a broader strategy by American to build up international connecting traffic at Alaska’s Seattle hub, on both AA’s own flights and those of its alliance partners. As part of that effort, American is due to begin new Seattle-London non-stops this week, and to launch Seattle-Bangalore non-stops later this year.

In addition to American, Oneworld member carriers include British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia, Japan Airlines, Qantas, Malaysia Airlines, Qatar Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Royal Jordanian, Fiji Airways, SriLankan Airlines, and Russia’s S7 Airlines.

Ever since 9/11, the Dept. of Homeland Security’s focus when it comes to air travel has been on identifying foreigners suspected of terrorist associations or connections and keeping them off airplanes. That’s the group that forms the heart of DHS’s notorious “No Fly List.” But now the Biden administration is reportedly considering an expansion of that effort to include potential domestic terrorists – something the administration has identified as a key national security concern, especially in the wake of the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.

According to a report in Politico, citing unnamed administration sources, DHS “could begin analyzing the travel patterns of suspected domestic extremists, monitor flights they book on short notice and search their luggage for weapons … There have also been discussions about putting suspected domestic violent extremists — a category that includes white supremacists — on the FBI’s No Fly List.” Suspected domestic extremists who take international flights could be subjected to more intensive questioning before passing through customs, and their phones and laptops could be searched as well, Politico reported, adding that that discussions about the expanded effort have been taking place across “multiple federal agencies at the interagency level, including the FBI.” Individual U.S. airlines have put hundreds of travelers on their own internal no-fly lists in recent months, mostly for refusing to wear masks, but the federal government has yet to do so.

Even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still urging Americans not to travel until the nationwide COVID vaccination effort makes more progress, fewer citizens are following that advice, especially during spring break season. According to the Transportation Security Administration, the number of passengers screened at U.S. airports exceeded 1 million a day on 20 of the first 25 days in March, reaching a high of 1.54 million on March 21. Last year, as the pandemic was beginning, passenger numbers nose-dived during March, dropping from more than 2 million a day during the first week of the month to fewer than 300,000 during the last week. Although passenger screenings during March 2021 are showing a significant revival, they are still well below the same month of 2019, when daily screening numbers were well above 2 million.

Are you among the hundreds of thousands of foreign nationals who planned to travel to Japan this summer for the Olympic Games, which were delayed from 2020 to 2021 due to the ongoing coronavirus epidemic? If so, don’t start packing. Japan has decided that while the Olympic Games will go on as planned from July 23 to Aug. 8 (followed by the Paralympic Games Aug. 24-Sept. 5), no spectators will be allowed. “Based on the present situation of the pandemic, it is highly unlikely that entry into Japan will be guaranteed this summer for people from overseas. In order to give clarity to ticket holders living overseas and to enable them to adjust their travel plans at this stage, the parties on the Japanese side have come to the conclusion that they will not be able to enter into Japan at the time of the Olympic and Paralympic Games,” said the Organizing Committee for Tokyo 2020. The group said refunds will be provided to the estimated 600,000 overseas ticket purchasers.

Air France is currently using its flights from San Francisco International and Los Angeles International to conduct pilot tests of a new digital health passport called the IOC AOKpass, developed with MedAire/International SOS. Passengers on Air France flights to Paris who opt to participate in the free program must download a mobile app, take a pre-departure COVID test at a participating lab, and have the test results downloaded onto the app. On the day of departure, they use a dedicated boarding lane where they show their test results via a QR code on their smartphones. When they arrive in Paris, they use the same verification procedure through a priority lane at passport control. The IOC AOKpass is just one of several digital health passports under development that could become mandatory in the future as proof of COVID test results and/or vaccinations.

Despite anomalies like Alaska Airlines’ recent decision not to revive Hawaii service from Oakland this spring, major carriers seem to have an insatiable appetite for more flights to the islands. In the latest example, Hawaiian Airlines said it plans to add seasonal service between Phoenix and Maui May 21-Aug. 15 with three flights a week. That announcement comes on the heels of Hawaiian’s new Ontario-Honolulu route, started two weeks ago with five flights a week, increasing to daily on May 24. Earlier this month, Hawaiian also introduced Long Beach-Maui service to supplement its Long Beach-Honolulu route, as well as new service between Orlando and Honolulu; it plans to begin twice-weekly Austin-Honolulu service April 21. Southwest Airlines this month also kicked off new service to Honolulu and Maui from Long Beach as part of a substantial expansion at that southern California airport.

Meanwhile, United Airlines – which is slated to introduce new year-round Honolulu service from Orange County Airport in Santa Ana on May 6 -- will begin non-stop seasonal service on June 3 from its Newark hub to Maui and from Chicago O’Hare to Kona on the Big Island, both continuing through Labor Day. The carrier also plans to increase frequencies from Denver to Honolulu and Maui, with both routes going from daily flights to 12 a week in May and twice-daily from June through September. Also in May, United will start offering Premium Plus seating – which provides a larger seat and a free meal – on routes from Chicago and Denver to Honolulu and Maui, expanding in June to Chicago-Kona, Houston-Honolulu and Newark-Maui flights.

United’s new Orange County-Honolulu service is just one among dozens of domestic routes – mainly leisure-oriented -- that the airline plans to begin or resume by Memorial Day weekend. United said last week that its new routes will include Montana service (no surprise there) to Bozeman from Washington D.C. and to Kalispell from Houston as well as Chicago-Nantucket, Mass. Other new summer routes continuing through Labor Day will serve eastern vacation spots like Hilton Head, S.C.; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Portland, Me.; and Pensacola, Fla. from various Midwestern cities, using 50-passneger CRJ-550s. On the international side, United said it will resume flights from Chicago to Tokyo Haneda, Chicago-Amsterdam, and Newark to Milan and Rome, bringing its summer 2021 international schedule back to 52% of what it was in May 2019 (vs. 14% in May 2020).

Southwest Airlines also just announced a raft of new routes for the summer. In California, that includes new Sacramento-Austin and Palm Springs-Las Vegas service beginning May 9 as well as Burbank-Austin and Orange County-Austin starting June 6. And what would a new routes announcement be without Montana? Besides its previously announced new service to Bozeman from Denver and Las Vegas starting May 27, Southwest now says it will also offer seasonal weekend flights to Bozeman beginning June 6 from Dallas Love Field, Chicago Midway and Phoenix. Austin’s airport will be crowded this summer; American Airlines recently announced plans to add several new routes there, and Southwest said this week that in addition to the California-Austin routes mentioned above, it will also begin new service June 6 from the Texas capital to Miami, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Salt Lake City.

We reported last week that Iceland is now welcoming U.S. visitors who can present proof that they have completed COVID vaccinations. And now Delta is planning to revive and expand service to that island nation this summer. The airline will resume suspended service from New York JFK to Reykjavik on May 1, and from Minneapolis-St. Paul on May 27. Delta will also introduce new Iceland service from Boston starting May 20.

In the latest sign that airlines are slowly reverting to pre-pandemic practices, Southwest Airlines has ended its recent policy of only letting passengers board the aircraft in groups of 10 at a time – a procedure it adopted to maintain a bit of social distancing. Now passengers can move onto the plane in groups of 30, as they did before the pandemic. Southwest is unique among large U.S. carriers in having no assigned seating.

In-fight service, which had been sharply scaled back or eliminated in recent months, is also making a gradual comeback. Southwest this month started to offer passengers a selection of soft drinks in-flight. United on April 1 plans to make various in-flight snacks and beverages (including beer and sparkling wine) available for purchase – but only via contactless payment, which requires the passenger’s credit card information to be stored in the airline’s app or at United.com. And Delta, which currently serves nothing but water and a small snack bag, is due to resume serving coffee and tea on April 14, as well as various soft drinks and “canned cocktails.”

In an effort to make things easier for leisure travelers who want to start flying again, JetBlue has unveiled a new travel planning website called Paisly by JetBlue for individuals who have booked a flight on the airline. The new website uses the customer’s flight details “to make individually tailored suggestions for travel components such as hotel stays and car rentals. The Paisly dashboard makes it simple to book travel and reference an itinerary in just a few clicks,” JetBlue said. Unlike the company’s existing JetBlue Vacations unit, which bundles trip elements together in a single preplanned package, Paisly lets users select their own components from a roster of participating suppliers. The company said Paisly “will be launching with some established relationships, including Avis Budget Group Car Rentals, Walt Disney World Resort, and Universal Orlando Resort; as well as nationally recognized hotels, which ensure breadth of coverage.” Purchasers will earn TrueBlue points at a rate of one per dollar spent on hotels and attractions; car rentals will earn 100 points a day for regular TrueBlue members and 200 for Mosaic-level members. The new site is at www.paisly.com.

CLEAR, the “trusted traveler” company that uses biometric identifiers like eye and fingerprint scans to let its members bypass long security lines at airports, has opened up at Sacramento International with expedited clearance lanes in Terminals A and B. The company also has an enrollment station in Terminal A. CLEAR does not include membership in the TSA’s PreCheck program, although CLEAR members who also belong to PreCheck can get faster access to those lanes. A membership in CLEAR costs $15 a month, although discounts are available through the loyalty/award programs of Delta, United and American Express. CLEAR lanes are available at 36 airports nationwide, including San Francisco International and Mineta San Jose.

Jim Glab is a freelance travel writer.

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