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.

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.

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.

Global Entry may speed up for some international travelers

International travelers now may find it faster to get a Global Entry membership — at least for some international travelers passing through the San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and a few other locations.

Global Entry applicants must use this kiosk at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office at the San Francisco International Airport to complete the process. (Sheryl Jean)

As of this month, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is letting people who’ve completed the first part of the Global Entry application process proceed to an interview without an appointment at one of five airports, including SFO. Until now, travelers often waited several months for an interview.

Last year, I blogged about my experience waiting seven months for a Global Entry interview at SFO.

The five airports with the Enrollment on Arrival program are among the busiest Global Entry enrollment areas. In addition to SFO, the four other airports are: Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Austin, Texas; George Bush Intercontinental Airport and William P. Hobby Airport in Houston; and Vancouver International Airport in Canada. The CBP plans to expand the program to more airports.

CBP Acting Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said Global Entry application volume has increased steadily over the last several years. A five-year membership costs $100.

Over 4 million Global Entry members use automated kiosks to bypass the traditional customs inspection process at 53 U.S. airports and 15 other sites, speeding up the international arrivals process. Members also get expedited airport security screening through TSA PreCheck.

Here’s what you do to become a Global Entry member:

  1. U.S. citizens, U.S nationals, U.S. lawful permanent residents and citizens of certain countries must apply online through the Global Online Enrollment System (GOES).
  2. If you pass a background check and receive conditional approval, you must make an appointment for an in-person interview with a CBP officer at one of over 100 Global Entry Enrollment Centers or follow the new Enrollment on Arrival program.
  3. You must provide identification and biometrics during the interview.
  4. After final approval, you receive a Global Entry number. A Global Entry card arrives via mail a few weeks later.

Finnair is latest airline to test facial recognition

Finnish airline Finnair is the latest airline to test facial recognition technology at check-in as a way to increase security and improve the airport passenger boarding process.

Finnair is testing the technology created by Futurice at Helsinki Airport this month on 1,000 of its frequent flyers. Those customers use a mobile app to send a photograph to Finnair and use a designated check-in counter equipped with face recognition technology at the airport. A Finnair agent still must check the customer’s travel information.

Last month, British Airways launched automated biometric technology at London’s Heathrow Airport for departing domestic flights at some gates, with plans to expand the program to international flights in the future. Travelers’ digital facial scan is recorded as they go through security and when they arrive at the gate. Their face is matched with this representation when they present their boarding pass.

Closer to home, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been testing facial and iris imaging capabilities to improve travelers’ identity and security. Test sites have included Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C.; John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York; and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta.

Finnair’s head of ground experience and ancillary, Sari Nevanlinna, said facial recognition could “eliminate the need for a [travelers’] boarding pass.” The airline carries more than 10 million passengers a year between Europe, Asia and North America.


SouveNEAR aims to make airport shopping fun and support local artists

SouveNEAR art vending machine
Items for sale at one of SouveNEAR’s vending machines in the Kansas City International Airport. (Sheryl Jean)

Airport gifts might bring to mind images of magnets and key chains.

SouveNEAR is trying to change that by selling locally made art through vending machines. I spied two of its vending machines at the Kansas City International Airport (it has six there).

This is the second time I’ve run across “vendo art” in my travels. In February, I wrote about a vending machine in Minneapolis that sells mini pieces of original art — at $5 a pop. Art-o-mat, a North Carolina artist collective, has more than 100 refurbished cigarette machines across North America.

SouveNEAR art 2
Visitors to Kansas City can by locally made gifts at a SouveNEAR vending machine at the airport. (Sheryl Jean)

SouveNEAR happens to be based in Kansas City, Mo., and run by two women — Tiffany King and Suzanne Southard. They started the business in 2014 to offer convenient mementos to visitors while supporting local artists. They find local artists — not just in Kansas City — and commission work designed and made locally.

Gifts I saw at the Kansas City airport ranged from chocolate and earrings to coasters and small paintings for $5 to $35. Customers can pay by credit card, Google Wallet or Apple Pay.

In addition, SouveNEAR has two other vending machines in the Kansas City, Mo., metro area: one at Union Station (downstairs by the Extreme Screen and Planetarium entrance) and one at Garmin Ltd.’s headquarters in Olathe, Kan. It also has three machines at the Oakland, Calif., International Airport and one machine at The Hall on Market, a food and drink venue in San Francisco.

Lengthy wait for Global Entry yields quick interview


Last summer, I signed up for a government program to help me move faster through airports globally and found myself stuck in a poky approval process.

Global Entry members place their passport where the green light is to be identified. Airport kiosks spit out a slip of paper (in hand) to bring to a U.S. customs agent instead of the declaration form passed out on airplanes. (Sheryl Jean)

Global Entry members bypass traditional customs inspection lines and use an automated kiosk to enter the United States. (Quick facts at bottom.) It also includes TSA PreCheck, which lets travelers into a special security line without having to take off your shoes and coat or remove your laptop.

It makes sense, especially if you travel often or internationally. Friends raved about Global Entry, but I procrastinated.

I applied just as government agencies and airlines were promoting Global Entry after travelers last spring experienced long waits at U.S. airports.

As a result, applications surged and I was looking at a seven-month wait for an appointment at the San Francisco International Airport. I’m told the wait is not as long at some other airports.

The interview

This week, my interview day finally arrived.

At my local Global Entry office, I joined about a dozen other people sitting in chairs or standing outside the office door, which was closed with a sign saying “Do not knock.” After a few minutes, a woman stepped out to take names.

When my name was called, I entered the office and was told to sit at cubicle No. 3. A  U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officer asked for my identification. Warning: If your home street address is not on your identification, you must bring a utility bill printed with it. Read the “Special Instructions” at the end of your appointment notice.

My photograph was taken and fingerprints scanned. That lets the CBP conduct a criminal background check and it’s needed to use the airport kiosks.

It all took less than 15 minutes.

Still waiting

I’m eager to test my new travel privileges, but I’m still waiting. The CBP officer said I should be notified within 48 hours.

Tip: If you have to wait a while for a Global Entry interview and have an international trip in the meantime, consider downloading the CBP’s free passport control app. It helps because you can electronically fill out the customs declaration form and use a special customs line.

Global Entry Quick Facts

Who: For U.S. citizens, U.S. lawful permanent residents and citizens of some other countries who fly within the United States and internationally.

What: Members who arrive at a U.S. airport go to a Global Entry kiosk to: Scan their passport and fingerprints; answer customs declaration questions; and go through an express customs lane. It includes TSA PreCheck to move through security lines faster.

How: You must create an account online to apply and schedule a visit to a Global Entry Enrollment Center to provide identification and scan your fingerprints.

Where: Kiosks are at over 50 airports worldwide; expedited entry benefits in 11 countries.

Cost: A $100 non-refundable application fee includes the $85 enrollment for five years.

Free showers: New Zealand airport perk is a fresh idea

Say you’re flying to New Zealand for a business meeting and, due to a delay, you don’t have time to first stop by your hotel after nearly 30 hours of travel.

Wouldn’t it be nice to at least take a shower before making your big sales pitch?

You can — if you happen to be at the Auckland or Christchurch airports in New Zealand. The best part is — the showers are free.

As someone who has paid to shower at a truck stop before taking a flight after a week of hiking and camping, I embrace the idea. I’m sure my fellow airline travelers would, too.

Showers are another way airports worldwide are, well, showering travelers with more amenities to keep them occupied and entertained while waiting up to several hours on their property. Nowadays, many airports have top-notch restaurants, yoga rooms, play areas, spas and more.

While some services generate revenue for airports, others such as free gardens, art and showers are more about making weary travelers feel comfortable than making money.

“Auckland Airport is essentially the country’s international gateway, therefore many of our guests will either have traveled from or be headed to other parts of New Zealand,” airport spokesman Gez Johns said in an email. “We therefore think it’s important to provide them with an opportunity to freshen up along their journey.”

Auckland Airport on the North Island provides seven free showers in or near bathrooms in the international terminal — five in the departures area and two in arrivals outside the secure zone. All of them are unisex and two are wheelchair accessible. In addition, the airport’s Emperor Lounge, its guest lounge, rents towels for the departures area showers for $5 plus a $5 deposit.

The Airport is adding three more showers as part of an upgrade to its international departures terminal, which will be finished in 2018, Johns said. It’s New Zealand’s largest and busiest airport, with over 17 million passengers a year.

Smaller Christchurch Airport (over 6 million passengers a year) on the South Island has eight free showers in each of its accessible bathrooms — two in the secure departures area and six in the land-side, non-secure area. (See photo at top.)

Although the showers are “not intended for able-bodied visitors’ use” some long-distance travelers use them, Yvonne Densem, spokeswoman for the Christchurch Airport, said in an email. The airport is in process of updating its public restrooms, she said.

Both airports’ online maps use shower symbols to designate where they are, but the maps are not up to date and do not show all of the locations. Go to an information booth at each airport or explore if you have time.