Everything you need to know about travel to California amid the Getty and Kincade wildfires

Travel to parts of California is returning to normal schedules as firefighters have been able to better contain wildfires in the northern and southern parts of the state.

Last weekend, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency as high winds fueled wildfires across parts of California.

Now, both the Kincade wildfire in the North and the Getty wildfire in the South are more than 60 percent contained. Evacuees are returning home in some areas and power is being restored in many neighborhoods in both areas.

Northern California

The Charles M. Schultz-Sonoma County Airport (STS) in Santa Rosa said it’s restoring full commercial air service, but it will take a few days to return to normal schedules. The airport had shut down all commercial air services due to the Kincade Fire, which started on Oct. 23 near Geyserville in Sonoma County.

Map of Kincade Fire 2019
This is a map of the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County as of Oct. 28, 2019. (Courtesy of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection)

As of today, the Kincade Fire was 68 percent contained and is expected to be fully contained by Nov. 7, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The fire has burned more than 77,000 acres.

Today, the Santa Rosa airport said it’s restoring full commercial air service, but it will take a few days to return to normal schedules. American Airlines, Sun Country Airlines and United Airlines have resumed normal flight schedules to and from that airport, but Alaska Airlines said on its blog that it has suspended all its 18 daily flights in and out of Santa Rosa through Saturday, Nov. 2, because the situation in Sonoma County remains “dangerous and unpredictable.”

“Everyone’s safety remains the top concern,” Alaska said on its blog. The airline is letting customers change or cancel their flights without fees.

For the Santa Rosa airport, American Airlines is letting customers reschedule flights without fees; Alaska Airlines, Sun Country Airlines and United Airlines are letting passengers change or cancel flights without fees. Certain dates apply for each airline.

Flights in and out of other Northern California airports in Oakland, Sacramento and San Francisco were not directly affected.

Southern California

The Getty Fire in Los Angeles, which was reported on Oct. 28, is 66 percent contained, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department. It has burned about 745 acres.

American Airlines is letting travelers rebook flights without fees for five Southern California airports in Burbank (BUR), Long Beach (LGB), Los Angeles (LAX), Ontario (ONT) and Santa Ana/Orange County (SNA). Delta Air Lines is letting passengers change or cancel flights through the same five  airports without penalty and Sun Country Airlines is doing the same to/from the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Certain dates apply for each airline.

The Getty Fire or smoke from it has not affected other airline operations at Southern California airports.

Airline and traveler aid

Some airlines are directly helping California communities affected by the wildfires — and opening avenues for customers to do the same.

American has activated its Disaster Giving program through a partnership with the American Red Cross, which would supply shelter, food, supplies and health services as needed. American’s AAdvantage members wanting to help can give money, earning 10 miles for every dollar donated to the Red Cross with a minimum $25 donation through Nov. 16.

Alaska donated $10,000 to the California Fire Foundation’s SAVE (Supplying Aid to Victims of Emergency) and $5,000 to the Latino Community Foundation’s Wildfire Relief Fund. And the airline will match up to 1 million Mileage Plan miles donated by its customers to its Disaster Relief Pool.

Travelers can register with their airline for text or email notifications of flight delays or cancellations. They also should check with their airline for more details or information about service in California.

Wanna fly cheap? It’s not impossible

As the travel season prepares to heat up, people may wonder what kind of prices await them.

Don’t fret. The global airline market remains competitive, especially if you’re willing to book early, fly at off-peak times and try one of the many young low-cost carriers out there.

Europe always has much cheaper flights, and that’s still true despite the demise earlier this year of  Icelandic budget darling Wow Air. International carriers, including England’s EasyJet, Hungary’s Wizz Air and Ireland’s RyanAir offer cheap international flights, including from the United States.

Not all budget airlines are startups. Several large, international airlines also operate budget brands to compete with their low-cost peers. Australia’s JetStar is a subsidiary of Qantas Airways, Australia’s Tigerair is a unit of Virgin Australia, Spain’s Level Airline is part of Iberia Airway and Spain’s Vueling Airlines is a sister company to British Airways.

Level Airline
Some European low cost-carriers, such as Spain’s Level Airline, shuttle passengers to their plans on the tarmac. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

There are low-cost U.S. options, too. Condor Airlines, a German carrier, flies to 10 U.S. cities and many international destinations, Minnesota-based Sun Country Airlines started as a vacation charter, but now offers scheduled passenger service to over 50 destinations in the United States, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.

Critics say budget carriers nickle and dime consumers, have poor on-time records and don’t offer the same service or quality. But there increasingly is little difference between the big and small airlines besides price — unless you’re flying business or first class.

It comes down to what what you are willing to pay vs. what you are willing to put up with within your schedule. Your destination also makes a difference.

I can’t complain about recent cheap, economy-class flights I took on Level, JetStar and TigerAir. One airline was delayed and one had narrow,, basic seats. On the other hand, I thought the food was rather good.

thumb_IMG_E5328_1024
Spanish low-cost carrier, Level Airline, provided seat-back entertainment systems and a USB charger on a transatlantic flight I flew nearly a year ago. Its movie selection impressed me. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

Follow these tips to help find affordable airfare no matter what type of airline you fly:

  • Book your tickets on a Tuesday or Wednesday, the cheapest days of the week to fly. An average fare on a Tuesday will cost nearly $85 less than Sunday, which is the most expensive day to travel, according to the CheapAir.com 2019 Annual Airfare Study.
  • Last year, the “best day” to book a flight within the continental United States was 76 days — or 2.5 months — in advance, according to CheapAir, which analyzed 917 million airfares. That falls in the middle of what it calls the “prime booking window” — four months to three weeks before your departure date, when fares are at their lowest.
  • Don’t wait until 20 days or less before your target departure. That’s when your chances of getting a bargain or an aisle seat are the worst.
  • Typically, flights during the winter (excluding around the holidays) tend to be less expensive than in summer. It’s simple supply and demand.
  • Based on that premise, flying to Iceland or Germany in winter will probably cost less than going to a warmer climate.

Note: I took the featured photo of Tigerair at top.

Hello again: Delta’s free food in economy class on long domestic flights is a welcome change to constant fees

I recently ate my first free meal in years on a domestic flight in coach class. On Delta Air Lines. And it was pretty good.

Most U.S. airlines cut complimentary meals on domestic flights in the main cabin more than a decade ago. Delta did so in 2001 to cut costs. (Airlines still offer free meals and drinks to all passengers on long-haul international flights.)

Since then, however, in-flight food has been making a bit of a comeback. First came the paid meals, but now some airlines, like Delta, are once again offering free meals in economy class.

Delta’s decision is not brand new, but this was my first chance to sample it on a cross-country flight from Boston to San Francisco. In early 2017, Delta re-introduced free meals in the main cabin on some of its longest domestic flights. The service now is offered on more than a dozen routes, including:

  • New York (JFK) to/from Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle and Portland, Ore.
  • Washington D.C. (DCA) to/from Los Angeles
  • Seattle to/from Boston; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; Orlando, Fla.; and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
  • Boston to/from San Francisco and Los Angeles
  • Atlanta to/from Honolulu
  • New York (JFK) to/from Honolulu
  • Minneapolis to/from Honolulu

Like other airlines, Delta is focused on serving healthier food and drinks. Options on its free main cabin meal menu vary depending on the time of a flight. Recent options included a Turkey and Swiss Bagel or Protein Pack in the morning; a beef pastrami sandwich or veggie wrap for lunch; a Greek Mezze Plate or Sesame Noodle Salad for dinner on overnight flights. Fruit and cheese plates are offered at all times.

Delta's complimentary menu cover
Delta’s main cabin passengers get their own menu of complimentary food and drink options. This is the menu cover. (Sheryl Jean)

On my recent flight, I ate the Sesame Noodle Salad. The dish included four types of vegetables, the noodles weren’t overcooked, the sauce wasn’t overly sweet or salty, and the portion size was just about right for me. (See featured photo at top.) All in all, I was happy with the meal.

I also received free snack (a small Kind bar) among options including Cheez-It crackers and cookies. Delta offers free snacks to main cabin passengers on flights over 250 miles. In addition, passengers travelling in Delta Comfort Plus domestic routes (on flights over 900 miles) will receive free snacks.

Delta main cabin complimentary menu
These were Delta’s complimentary food and drink options on my recent cross-country flight. (Sheryl Jean)

Delta also offers 17 different special meals, such as diabetic, gluten-free and vegetarian to all passengers on flights that offer complimentary meals. Passengers can pre-order these meals.

Other U.S. airlines also have upgraded their food menus and other services to make flying easier and more comfortable, though most charge for food.

As of December, American Airlines began offering a new inflight healthy menu to main cabin passengers on most U.S. flights longer than three hours — in collaboration with Zoës Kitchen. I wrote a blog post about it.

Will such moves be enough to attract new customers? Who knows. But they’re sure to please existing customers who’ve been nickeled-and-dimed by airlines for everything from headphones to extra leg room.

Talking turkey: Thanksgiving air travel could soar

The Thanksgiving travel season promises to be one of the busiest ever for fliers, and I’m not talking about turkeys.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) expects more than 25 million people to travel through airports across the country this Thanksgiving season (Nov. 16 through Nov. 26). That’s nearly a 7 percent increase from 2017, making the holiday season one of TSA’s busiest on record.

Last year, the TSA noticed a shift in Thanksgiving air travel patterns it expects to continue this year: The big travel crush starts the Friday before Thanksgiving, instead of one day before the holiday.

Still, the busiest travel days are expected be the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday afterward when people are returning home.

If this Thanksgiving might log record travel numbers, should we expect Christmas travel to do the same?

Most outlooks for the December holidays aren’t out yet, but it’s a good bet. In its 2018 Holiday Outlook report, PricewaterhouseCoopers expects more than a third (35 percent) of consumers to travel for the winter holidays. That figure is even higher for younger people: 52 percent for older millennials (age 32-36), 46 percent for young millennials (age 23-26) and 40 percent for Generation Z (people age 17-22).

Overall, travel volume to and within the United States has been growing each year for nearly 10 straight years, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

And the winter holidays always have been busy times of year for travel as children come home on college break and other family members gather from afar.

Here are some quick holiday air travel tips:

  • Plan to arrive at the airport early. That means two hours before the departure of a flight within the United States and three hours before an international flight. Allow extra time for traffic congestion, parking, returning a rental car or checking luggage.
  • Check this list from the TSA of items you can and cannot carry through an airport or onto an airplane.
  • Be prepared to move quickly through airport security. Have your identification and boarding pass ready. Remember to remove from your carry-on bag any electronic devices larger than a cell phone and the quart-size plastic bag containing liquids and gels in 3.4-ounce containers or smaller (unless you have TSA PreCheck).
  • Travel light. The less luggage you have, the easier it will be to move around. It could cost you less since many airlines have raised their checked baggage fee.
  • Dress light. You must remove shoes, coats or sweaters and empty your pockets at airport security checkpoints. You also may need to remove watches and jewelry, if you’re wearing any.

American and Zoës Kitchen team up to spice up airline food

Airline food –at least ay American Airlines — just got a little better thanks to a collaboration with Zoës Kitchen on a new inflight menu.

Starting Dec. 1, main cabin passengers on most U.S. flights longer than three hours will be able to buy these new healthy food items.

If you’re not familiar with Zoës, the fast casual restaurant chain offers healthy Mediterranean fare inspired by family recipes and made from scratch. Getting into the whole Mediterranean, Blue Zone lifestyle, Zoës even has a “life blog,” with posts about healthy eating and fitness.

A Greek-American friend of mine swears by Zoës’ seasoning, “Spice of Life.”

Founded in 1995 and based in Plano, Texas, Zoës operates over 260 restaurants in 20 states. (Cava Group Inc. is buying Zoës.) So, Fort Worth, Texas-based American basically teamed up with a neighbor.

Janelle Anderson, vice president of global marketing for American Airlines, said customers have asked for “lighter, tasty food.”

American and Zoës head chef Antonio Iocchi designed the new menu with some items American Zoës head chef Antonio Iocchi designed a menu with some items exclusive to the airline and some signature dishes from Zoës restaurants, such as just for the airline and some signature dishes from Zoës restaurants, such as:

* Breakfast sandwich: Turkey bacon, egg slices, tomato and Calabrian pepper aioli topped with baby arugula on a waffle brioche bun

* Continental breakfast box: Belgian waffle with hazelnut spread and fresh berries

* Hummus duo: Two types of hummus — traditional and basil pesto flavor — topped with Kalamata olives, carrot, cucumber and pita bread

* The Grüben sandwich: Sliced turkey, Manchego cheese, Mediterranean slaw and feta spread layered on marble wheat bread and served with a chocolate chip cookie

* Chicken wrap: Grilled chicken with mozzarella, roasted tomatoes, arugula and artichokes and served a chocolate chip cookie

Throughout 2019, American and Zoës plan to introduce more food items in the domestic main and first class cabins. American said it still will continue to offer its breakfast platter and fruit-and-cheese plate.

American Airlines loosens its carry-on policy for Basic Economy passengers

Starting Wednesday, American Airlines flights might be more packed because it will let Basic Economy passengers carry more bags aboard a plane.

That’s right, the world’s largest airline is changing its carry-on baggage policy as of Sept. 5 for those no-frills travelers. They’ll be able to take one personal item and one carry-on bag on to a plane.

The previous policy let Basic Economy travelers bring aboard just one personal item that fit under the seat. Those passengers could not also bring a carry-on bag to store in an overhead bin.

Why? The world’s largest airline said the move will make it “more competitive with airlines that include a carry-on bag in their lowest fares.” American announced the change in late July.

The airline launched the Basic Economy fare in February 2017 to offer travelers a less expensive flying option.  American president Robert Isom said in a January 2017 statement that the new fare “gives American the ability to compete more effectively with the growing number of ultra low-cost carriers.”

All of the nation’s three big legacy carriers — American, United and Delta — launched no-frill fares in the last several years to compete better against lower-fare airlines such as JetBlue, Southwest and Spirit.

In addition to carry-on restrictions, American’s Basic Economy fare carries other restrictions, such as no advance seat selection, no cancellations and a $25 gate fee for passengers who must check carry-on luggage at the gate.

American also plans to expand its Basic Economy airfares to certain Europe flights  starting in April 2019. All of those main cabin passengers will be allowed one personal item and one larger carry-on, but American will charge a new fee for the first checked bag to trans-Atlantic Basic Economy passengers.

What do airline passengers want the most? Wi-fi service

The demand for wi-fi service on flights is so strong that many passengers are even willing to sacrifice alcoholic drinks and meals, according to a new survey.

More than three quarters of those surveyed (78 percent) think wi-fi is “fundamental” to daily life and more than half (55 percent) say the service is crucial, according to the fourth annual global Inflight Connectivity Survey by London-based global mobile services provider Inmarsat. But high-paying customers, parents and younger passengers are among those most likely to use inflight wi-fi service.

“Whether it’s used for sending that important work email, entertaining the children or even connecting with fellow passengers, staying online is becoming a crucial part of the inflight experience for today’s airline passengers,” Philip Balaam, president of Inmarsat Aviation, said in a statement.

Connectivity has become more of a focus as more people are using smartphones and other smart devices for everything. New data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that more than two-thirds of all U.S. households (68 percent) access the Internet via their mobile devices,

Global passengers ranked inflight wi-fi as the fourth most important factor — after airline reputation, free checked baggage and extra leg room — in booking a flight. Nearly 90 percent business travelers (87%) say they would use inflight wi-fi to work and 51 percent of nervous flyers would use it to keep in touch with family and friends on land.

Demand for inflight wi-fi outstrips supply. Passengers can send emails, search the Internet and more on some flights, but access is spotty from airline to airline. Less than half of global passengers (45 percent) have traveled on flights offering it, the survey found.

That led Inmarsat to conclude that inflight wi-fi is a key driver in forming airline customer satisfaction and loyalty. More than two-thirds of all passengers (67 percent) are more likely to rebook with an airline if quality inflight wi-fi was available (it’s 83 percent for business travelers and 81 percent of passengers traveling with children).

Most airline passengers are willing to give up other inflight amenities, such as alcohol (53 percent) and meals (54 percent, from Inmarsat’s 2016 survey), for Internet access.

Inmarsat and market research company Populous surveyed more than 9,300 passengers from 32 countries in the Americas, Asia Pacific, Europe and the Middle East.

What will battle about Taiwan name mean for U.S. airlines, passengers?

Flying just became more political for some U.S. airlines.

China’s aviation regulator recently said U.S. airlines missed a deadline to stop referring to Taiwan as a separate entity on their websites.

American Airlines screen shot 7-28-18
This screen shot from American Airlines’ website shows the airport options that appear for a search for Taiwan.

Although American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines removed references to Taiwan on their websites on the July 25 deadline, the Civil Aviation Administration of China said their actions were “incomplete,” according to the Financial Times.

It’s unclear what will happen next — and if it will affect U.S. airlines and their passengers.

Other global airlines, including British Airways and Lufthansa, have shifted to using “Taiwan, China” on their websites.

Lufthansa screen shot 7-28-18
Lufthansa is now using “Taiwan, China” as seen on this screen shot from its website.

In April, China demanded that dozens of global airlines change how they refer to Taiwan by July 25 or risk sanctions.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders has called China’s actions “Orwellian nonsense. In a May statement, she said China’s demand was “part of a growing trend by the Chinese Communist Party to impose its political views on American citizens and private companies.”

Since 1949, China and Taiwan have been governed separately after the Communist victory in a Chinese civil war. The People’s Republic of China, however, claims Taiwan as part of its territory under its “One China Principle.”

What’s your pleasure? travel

We know more Americans traveled last year, and now we know more about who traveled and how they traveled.

Most people traveled for pleasure, not business, and most of that travel is within the United States.

U.S. leisure travel increased about 2 percent last year, accounting for 80 percent of all U.S. travel, according to the U.S. Travel Association (USTA).

Overall, airlines carried a record 965 million U.S. passengers* in 2017, up 3.4 percent from the previous high in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS). More than three-quarters of those passengers (742 million) were on flights within the United States.

Airline passenger traffic 2003-17

Travelers were more likely to choose closer-to-home destinations with paid lodgings, but not necessarily a packaged flight, according to travel research firm Phocuswright. In fact, air and cruise purchases declined in 2017, and prepackaged vacations were flat, it said.

Leisure travelers spent $718 billion in 2017, nearly double the amount spent by business travelers and up 5 percent from 2016, according to the USTA. Food and lodging were the top two spending categories.

Here’s how those USTA numbers broke down for 2017:

  • Travelers spent $257 billion on food at restaurants, grocery stores and bars, accounting for 25 percent of all U.S. traveler spending.
  • Travelers spent $220 billion on lodging, including vacation homes and campgrounds, accounting for 21 percent of total U.S. traveler spending. Although more than two-thirds of U.S. travelers (68 percent) stayed in a hotel, that declined from 73 percent in 2016, according to Phocuswright.
  • Spending on auto travel rose 8 percent, mostly due to higher gasoline prices. Phocuswright also found that the number of car rentals also increased slightly
Phocuswright travel trends
Leisure travel trends from 2014 to 2017. (Courtesy of Phocuswright)

U.S. air travel continues to rise this year. As of April, the number of air passengers was up about 5 percent from a year ago, according to BTS statistics.

* Passengers on domestic and international trips traveling on U.S. or foreign airlines.

5 tips for summer travelers to avoid new food screening at airport security

Get ready for longer airport checkpoint lines this summer as travelers may have to remove fruit, sandwiches and other snacks from their carry-on bags for separate screening under new security measures.

Transportation Security Administration agents recently asked a friend of mine to remove fruit and snacks from her carry-on bag at three airports — Dallas Love Field, Denver International Airport and San Francisco International Airport.

Although food is allowed in carry-on bags, the new screening is part of the TSA’s enhanced measures to raise the “baseline for aviation security.” Now, TSA officers may require travelers to separate items from their carry-on bags, such as food, powders and “any materials that can clutter bags and obstruct clear images on the X-ray machine.” (Tips to avoid this at end.)

Travel food photo
Pack your carry-on snacks in a separate bag for easy separation at the airport security checkpoint. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

Under the new rules, items that cannot be identified (does that include a mangosteen?) and resolved at checkpoint cannot be taken on an airplane. The entire process could hold up security lines and make waits much longer even though the TSA is adding over 1,600 more security staff at airports in preparation for the summer crush.

Oh yeah, the TSA expects to screen a record number of U.S. travelers this summer: 243 million people vs. more than 239 million during summer 2017.

The TSA’s stronger security measures began last summer — with requiring travelers to separately place all electronic devices bigger than a cell phone (laptops, tablets, e-readers and game consoles) in bins for X-ray screening.

Its appears that travelers with TSA PreCheck, a program that moves low-risk passengers through security quicker without having to remove shoes, laptops, liquids, belts and jackets, won’t be subjected to the enhanced screening measures.

Here are my tips for getting through airport security faster this summer:

  1. Review TSA’s list of banned carry-on items before packing for your trip.
  2. The TSA encourages travelers to organize their carry-on bags and avoid overstuffing them to avoid screening gridlock. Pack your snacks in a separate bag, whether it be a canvas or plastic bag, so you can easily separate it from the rest of your carry-on items. (See my photo at upper right.)
  3. Join TSA PreCheck ($85 for five years) or Global Entry, a similar program ($100 for five years) that also provides faster U.S. Customs clearance.
  4. Buy your snacks at the airport after going through the security checkpoint.
  5. Consider buying food on the airplane. It’s still not the most affordable option, but food options and quality have improved.

Photo at top of a security checkpoint at Chicago’s Midway International Airport is by Chris Dilts, Creative Commons via flickr.