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What air travel has in store for us in 2021

A photo illustration of a puppy, airplanes, palm fronds and a downward-trending economic chart
(Ross May / Los Angeles Times; Getty Images)

Although many of us are still in lockdown following stay-at-home guidelines, let’s look ahead to see what air travel, that magical carpet ride, has in store for us as the year begins.

Airfares continue to be low

Airlines were hoping for a Christmas miracle, but that didn’t happen. Although the number of people who flew for the holidays reached 2020 highs (which were abnormally low, of course), the numbers weren’t quite what carriers hoped.

Once again, there are more seats than there are fliers.

“Airlines had thought for a while they had brought seats in line with demand,” said Seth Kaplan, an airline analyst and co-author of “Glory Lost and Found,” a book about Delta’s reinvigoration in the first decade of the 20th century, “but it turned out they didn’t cut quite enough.

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“Travel demand is driven by the pandemic.”

And we’ve seen how that’s gone. Business travel is less than robust, and the continuing surge of COVID-19 is keeping many people closer to home. That means fares probably will continue to be low.

If only to break my heart, I checked LAX to Honolulu for Jan. 20-27, and Kayak, the airline aggregator, taunted me with the trifecta of tickets: the cheapest, best and fastest flights were all $312 round trip on United, Hawaiian and American — and that’s main cabin, not basic economy. (These fares may no longer be available.)

The bad news: Hawaii has a 10-day quarantine (if you can’t provide a negative COVID-19 test), but if you’re willing to spend a week and a half in your hotel room to then experience the island pleasures, it may be worth it, especially seeing some of the hotel rates for those Jan. 20-27 dates. Priceline has an $82-a-night tab for the Aqua Palms, my perfectly fine go-to fave on Ala Moana Boulevard. It’s less than a mile from the Royal Hawaiian, a sentimental favorite showing $277 a night, also on Priceline.

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For now, though, I’ll dream about that and hope prices hold until we can travel like it’s 2019. Good news: Most airlines are still waiving change fees on domestic flights.

Even better news: Some airlines are waiving change fees for international flights as well, but the policies vary from carrier to carrier. Just remember that if the new ticket you book costs more than the old one, you’ll probably pay the difference. Reading about policies and change fees isn’t an evening’s entertainment, but it may save you grief in the long term.

Do you really want to book that $884 round-trip fare from LAX to Sydney, Australia, on Japan Airlines for Nov. 10-24? Analyst Kaplan thinks we may begin to travel by year’s end.

Even if you’re a gambler, international travel is a roll of the dice. U.S. travelers are not welcome in some countries right now, including Japan, Canada and the United Kingdom. Although most of the U.K. is locked down, not all of it is. England was announced as locked down Monday. Scotland had already locked itself down. Northern Ireland and Wales have their own rules. Check the website of the country you wish to visit or go to the State Department’s country information pages at travel.state.gov.

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Like almost everything 2020, all plans are subject to change, and not always at your discretion.

About those vaccinations…

The U.K. seems to be moving along with its COVID-19 jabs, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Monday, thanks in part to the AstraZeneca/Oxford shot, now available there, helping speed up the inoculation program. (It’s not yet available in the U.S. because of questions about its testing.)

The big unknown is whether you must have the vaccine to travel. The chairman of Australia’s Qantas airline said in November that you would. Other airlines and countries have demurred.

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But many destinations are asking you to have a negative COVID-19 test to enter. As I mentioned in a Dec. 26 column about vaccination processes, the International Air Transport Assn. is testing digital health passports. Singapore Airlines announced last month that it’s testing IATA’s Travel Pass app on flights to Singapore from Jakarta, Indonesia, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The airline hopes to integrate Travel Pass into its mobile app by mid-2021; other apps are in the works.

More on animals in the air

Alaska, American, United and JetBlue airlines have announced they are banning emotional support animals.

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Those creatures are not to be confused with service animals, which the Department of Transportation said last month was dogs only.

The difference between an emotional support animal and a service dog focuses on training. Emotional support animals often turn out to be the family pet, disguised with a vest and documents that can be faked. They may be special to the owner, but when it comes to special skills, they usually don’t measure up.

Service animals, on the other hand, undergo extensive training that helps the animal provide assistance and perform tasks that benefit its owner. Such dogs and dogs in training ride free on a plane and must fit in a designated space.

In its Dec. 2 announcement, the DOT said it “no longer considers an emotional support animal to be a service animal.” The rule takes effect Jan 11.

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Alaska Airlines will allow emotional support animals to travel in the cabin if reservations were made before that date for flights before Feb. 28. American is banning emotional support animals as of Feb. 1.
And Delta will no longer accept reservations for emotional support animals after Jan. 11.

That doesn’t mean your pet can’t travel in the cabin. Airlines do allow crated animals to fly in the cabin, but you must pay for their passage.

Alaska, for instance, will allow five animals in crates in the main cabin and one in premium class. The fee? It’s $100 each way on Alaska. Your pet must remain in its crate and will not be allowed to sit in an empty seat.

Not all airlines are on the same page about emotional support animals versus service dogs, so consult with your carrier before making a reservation.

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The DOT’s revision was years in the making. As the number of emotional support animals grew along with the number of incidents involving bad animal behavior, so did the urgency for changes.

Rory Diamond, chief executive of K9s for Warriors, knows the value of a well-trained animal, thanks to his work teaming dogs with veterans. “Dogs react to each other,” he said, but “two service dogs don’t. We can put 10 service dogs in a van and have no problems at all.”

Untrained animals aren’t equipped to deal with the challenges of air travel, said Carol Borden, founder and chief executive of Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs, a nonprofit that raises, trains and donates medical service dogs to people with a variety of conditions.

She hopes people will see such situations from the untrained dog’s perspective. “You have traumatized a dog that’s never been in a plane,” she said, and that is unfamiliar “with the sound, sights and smell — the way dogs process information.”

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And, she asked, “Who’s training the person? So often [that person] does not know what proper dog etiquette is.”

Here’s to everyone — animals, their humans, airlines and travelers — behaving well in 2021.

Have a travel problem, dilemma or question? Write to catharine@catharinehamm.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.


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