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.

Holiday travel: 5 tips to packing light to avoid paying to check baggage

It’s getting tougher to avoid checking a bag on an airline — and possibly paying more to do so — for flights within the United States.

United Airline’s new “Basic Economy” fare doesn’t allow a full-size carry-on bag. The carry-on size limit is 9 x 10 x 17 inches (about the size of a gym bag), and it must fit under the seat in front of you.

United passengers who bring a full-size carry-on bag to the airport gate must check it there, paying a checked bag fee (typically $25 for the first bag or $35 for a second bag) plus a $25 gate-handling charge. There are exceptions to the rule, including if you’re a MileagePlus Premier member or a Star Alliance Gold member.

Only Southwest Airlines lets you fly with two checked bags for free. If you’re not flying on Southwest for the holidays, pack light.

Last year, I wrote a blog post on how to pack smarter. Those tips still stand, but I’m downsizing them to five for a shorter holiday trip:

    • Take one carry-on bag. Carry-on size limits differ by carrier, so check first.
    • Take one pair of versatile shoes, such as boots.
    • Wear your heaviest, bulkiest items, such as boots and a sweater, on the plane. Consider wearing extra layers, which will free up room in your luggage and keep you warm on chilly airplanes.
    • Don’t pack soap, shampoo or other items that a hotel or your hosts will have.
    • Think European: Wear the same clothes more than once. Borrow clothes from family or friends if you’re the same size or when size doesn’t matter (scarf).

United Airlines changes frequent flier awards

United Airlines just changed its frequent flier awards, moving closer  to a revenue based model.

The changes will take effect on Nov. 1 for all MileagePlus members worldwide.

The biggest changes are that new “Everyday Awards” will replace “Standard Awards” and pricing for Everyday Awards will vary from flight to flight. United’s Upgrade Awards will not change.

It was only a matter of time before this happened. American Airlines and Delta Air Lines have changed their programs in the last few years. Last year, United tweaked its award fee structure and booking process, introducing the Excursionist Perk.

United’s MileagePlus current awards charts show a Standard Award for one-way, economy class travel within the 48 contiguous United States costs 25,000 miles. As of Nov. 1, the new awards charts show that same one-way flight will cost no more than 32,500 Everyday Award miles. Click on the above links to see how the changes will affect where you like to travel.

United will continue to offer Saver Awards, but some prices will change. Prices will be:

      • The same (10,000 or 12,500 miles one way) for for Economy Saver travel to, from or within the 48 contiguous states
      • Lower for most short-haul intra-region Economy Saver Awards for flights outside the United States, such as within Europe
      • Higher for Saver Awards for certain international cities
      • Higher for Business Saver Awards for U.S. premium transcontinental routes and some Hawaii routes

    Another big change is that MileagePlus members who don’t show up for a flight and request a redeposit of their miles will have to pay a $125 redeposit fee for award bookings made on or after Nov. 1.

Report vs. reality: Is airline service improving?

A new report showing airline improvements across the board comes on the tail of two recent examples of just how bumpy air travel can be.

The 2016 Airline Quality Rating report debuted today by professors at Wichita State University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University found that airlines are flying on time more often, mishandling fewer bags,  getting fewer complaints and denying boarding to fewer passengers.

But over the last few days, Delta Air Lines canceled more than 3,000 flights after a storm at its home base of Atlanta. Chicago-based United Airlines created an uproar on social media after a video showed security agents drag a man off a plane on Sunday after he refused to give up his seat on the overbooked United flight. (See video below.)

 

Fellow passenger Audra D. Bridges posted the video on Facebook while the plane was boarding at Chicago O’Hare International Airport headed to Louisville, Ky. She also wrote on the post: “United airlines overbooked the flight. They randomly selected people to kick off so their standby crew could have a seat. This man is a doctor and has to be at the hospital in the morning. He did not want to get off. We are all shaky and so disgusted.”

Here was United CEO’s response on Facebook:

 

United offered compensation to four volunteers who would leave the overbooked flight so four crew members could get to Louisville for work the next day, according to Bridges’ report in the Louisville, Ky., Courier Journal. With no takers, United randomly selected four passengers; three left the plane but the fourth, the man who has dragged away, refused to leave, according to the news report.

United ranked No. 8 among 12 airlines in the Airline Quality Rating report. Alaska Airlines, which recently acquired Virgin America, as the No. 1 U.S. carrier.

Here are some other findings from the report, which is based on data from the U.S. Department of Transportation:

On-time performance: The share of on-time arrivals rose to 81.4 percent in 2016 from 79.9 percent in 2015. The DOT considers a flight on time if it arrives within 15 minutes of its scheduled time.

Customer complaints: The rate of complaints filed with the government declined 20 percent.

Baggage: The rate of lost, stolen or delayed bags fell 17 percent.

Bumped passengers: The rate of passengers bumped from oversold flights fell 18 percent.