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.

More Alaska Airlines changes are on the horizon

Alaska Airlines today will end its year-old daily flight between Los Angeles and Cuba due to low demand and changes in the Trump administration’s policy toward Cuba.

It’s just one of many changes occurring since Alaska merged with Virgin America in December 2016 and have been gradually integrating their operations, staff and policies. Earlier this month, Alaska received a single operating certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration for it and Virgin America to fly as one airline, which will enable some of the biggest changes.

Here are some examples of what Alaska has in store this year and beyond:

  • Paint the first Airbus plane in Alaska’s colors this month.
  • Add high-speed, satellite Wi-Fi to its entire fleet of Boeing and Airbus aircraft starting in March.
  • Upgrade its in-flight menus by adding fresh meal options in the First Class and Main cabins, and West Coast-inspired beer and wine choices.
  • Install blue mood lighting on more Boeing planes. Virgin America is famous for its cabin “mood lighting,” which changes color and brightness throughout a flight depending on the time of day and conditions outside the plane. The largely pink and purple hues were supposed to create a calm environment.
Alaska Airlines' blue mood lighting
Alaska Airlines said it plans to add blue lighting to more planes vs. the primarily pink and purple mood lighting that was popular on Virgin American planes. (Courtesy of Alaska Airlines)
  • Install new modern interiors in all Airbus planes, such as new seats, carpeting and lighting.  Alaska will increase the number of First Class seats and introduce Premium Class seats.
  • Locate an Airbus operations control center with one for Boeing aircraft at its Seattle-based flight operations center in March.
  • Offer travelers one mobile app, website and airport check-in counter when Alaska moves to a single reservations system in late April. For now, customers will continue to use separate Alaska and Virgin America platforms.
  • Update and expand airport lounges, including a new New York JFK lounge in April and a flagship lounge at Seattle next year.
  • See new uniforms designed by Seattle designer Luly Yang in 2019. Flight and ground crews will start testing new uniforms soon.
Since late 2016, travelers already have seen Alaska make the following changes: merge Virgin America’s loyalty program with the Alaska Mileage Plan; end Virgin America’s credit card program to focus on Alaska’s credit card; and update its no-show policy.

The featured photo at top is by Artur Bergman via Flickr under Creative Commons license.

Q&A: What the Alaska Airlines and Virgin America deal means for travelers

Alaska Airlines on Wednesday completed its purchase of Virgin America, kicking off a merger process it hopes to complete within three weeks.

The Seattle-based parent of Alaska Airlines paid $2.5 billion for Burlingame, Calif.-based Virgin America, a week after getting approval from the U.S. Department of Justice contingent on Alaska Air Group Inc. reducing the scope of its code-share agreement with American Airlines, the world’s largest airline based in Texas. Alaska expects to receive approval from regulators and Virgin America shareholders by Jan. 1.

The merger Alaska and Virgin America will create the nation’s fifth largest airline, with nearly 1,200 daily flights to 118 destinations in North America, Costa Rica and Cuba. Based in Seattle, the combined airline will be a West Coast powerhouse, with hubs in Seattle; Portland, Ore., Anchorage; San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Here are some answers to questions travelers may have:

Q. Where can Virgin America tickets be bought online?

A. Starting Dec. 19, customers can buy Virgin America tickets at AlaskaAir.com. They also can continue to buy tickets at VirginAmerica.com for the immediate future.

Q. Are there any new routes?

A. The combined airline will offer new daily flights to Minneapolis; Orange County, Calif.; and Orlando, Fla.; from its San Francisco hub starting in summer 2017. The schedule will be announced on Dec. 21, the same day tickets to those places go on sale.

Q. Will the Virgin America name and/or experience go away?

A. Travelers should not see “major changes” to the Virgin America product or flying experience in the next 12 months. Alaska said it’s “conducting extensive customer research to understand what customers value most” and hopes to have a decision about the Virgin America brand in early 2017.

Q. If you have an existing flight reservation, what should you do?

A. If you have an existing reservation, your reservation remains the same, and each airline’s current travel policies still apply. If you have a flight on Virgin America, check in at a Virgin America counter. If you have a flight on Alaska, check in at an Alaska counter.

Q. What changes will loyalty program members of each airline see?

A. Alaska Mileage Plan and Virgin America Elevate will continue to operate as separate programs. Starting Dec. 19, Virgin America Elevate members and Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan members can earn rewards on each other’s flights and elite members will receive priority check-in and boarding on each other’s flights. Starting Jan. 9, members of both frequent flier programs will be able to redeem award travel on both airlines and Elevate members will be invited to open new Alaska Mileage Plan accounts.

aa-va-merger-chart
Courtesy of Alaska Airlines Group Inc.

Q. What does the merger mean for California customers?

A. The combined airline offers 289 daily flights to 52 places in California. Just from the San Francisco Bay Area, there are 113 daily flights to 32 destinations.

Q. Will Alaska’s fleet change?

A. Alaska said it has not made any long-term decisions about its fleet. For now, Virgin America’s Airbus A319 and A320 jets will join Alaska’s all-Boeing fleet.

It remains to be seen how the Alaska and Virgin America merger and their different styles will shake out. Virgin America is known as young, fun airline with cabin mood lighting and touch-screen personal entertainment. Alaska has invested in technology, such as luggage tags customers can print at home, for more efficient operations.

“Alaska Airlines and Virgin America are different airlines, but we believe different works – and we’re confident fliers will agree,” Alaska Air Group CEO Brad Tilden said in a statement. “The two airlines may look different, but our core customer and employee focus is very much the same.”

Travelers can find more answers on an Alaska web page designed for that purpose.