The Road Gets Rocky From Here. Then It'll Get Worse.
SUNDAY, MARCH 15, 2020 -- I've just returned from a lovely meal at Palace Dumpling, the official restaurant of the vast, worldwide JoeSentMe headquarters. And I was surprised to learn that I'd be just about the last sit-down customer. Starting tomorrow, Palace Dumpling will only do take-out and pick-up orders.

But when I got home and flipped on the tube, I heard that Starbucks is doing the same thing as Palace Dumpling.* I got the word from Wolf Blitzer and the CNN crew, who were social distancing and sitting at a gigantic desk many feet apart from each other.

Yet there was also the now-daily Official Coronavirus Press Briefing. And there was the President and Vice President and a gaggle of experts, all crowded around a single podium and spitting into the same microphone. The President says we have everything under control. His experts say the very worst is yet to come.

And, oh, yeah, thanks to that insanely botched Trump travel "ban," airports such as Chicago/O'Hare, Washington/Dulles and Dallas/Fort Worth and Terminal 4 at Kennedy in New York are awash in flyers returning from Europe. They're squashed cheek-by-jowl in long, long, long--long--Customs lines. There's no reason to force returnees into 13 overwhelmed airports when absolutely no testing is going on there. You're not fighting the Coronavirus by squeezing flyers--some of whom are surely infected--into tight, sweaty quarters and holding them for hours in endless queues.

How's your ides of March going? Feeling dead inside yet?

We will have many weeks--perhaps months--to discuss the Coronavirus and what will surely be a rush of airlines hoping to dine at the taxpayer trough. Tonight, however, let's look at some of the right-now exigencies of travel as we know it at about 10pm ET.

American and Delta are pulling down service, about 20 percent to start in April, even more in May. United this evening said its global capacity would shrink by 50 percent and the airline carried one million fewer passengers during the first two weeks in March compared to March, 2019. Bottom line: The flight you booked last week or last month might not be there now and may not return for months--or maybe not at all in 2020. Check before you go to the airport. Don't rely on the kindness of automated airline alert and rebooking systems. They're overwhelmed and unreliable now.

With the de facto 30-day ban on Schengen Area travel about to be joined by a functional stranglehold on flying from Ireland and Britain, take Europe off your travel map for a while. Not like you'll actually be able to find many flights anyway.

American is cutting back to just one daily flight to London/Heathrow from its Miami and DFW hubs. Delta will be down to a few daily flights to Amsterdam, Paris and London, most all of them from Atlanta. United's Star Alliance partners in the Lufthansa Group--Brussels Airlines, Swiss and Lufthansa itself--are collectively down to about six flights a day. Finnair, SAS Scandinavian and La Compagnie are on the ground. British Airways will be down to nine U.S. gateways. There'll be a few flights from other carriers, but best to stay away if you can. Besides, huge swathes of Europe are closed or functionally so.

Cathay Pacific (Oneworld Alliance), Singapore Airlines (Star Alliance) and Korean Air (SkyTeam) are mostly your best bet in the short term because they still have reasonable connectivity beyond their hubs. U.S. and Canadian carriers are in full retreat. American, for example, is cutting back to three weekly Dallas/Fort Worth-Tokyo flights.

As demand slumps, there are big cuts coming even to areas not yet plagued by the Coronavirus. Delta today announced it was temporarily ending service to Guatemala, Ecuador and St. Maarten. American is out of Australia and most of South America. Even tiny Air Tahiti Nui is eliminating its Los Angeles run. If you need to get somewhere, maybe try Turkish, Emirates or Qatar Airways--Qatar's boss is a Coronavirus denier, by the way--although they're slashing routes, too.

Airlines are rushing to replace anything and everything in-flight that could be a transmitter of germs. Glassware is being replaced with disposables. You'll find more packaged goods and fewer (if any) cart-type services. As the Chinese carriers did at the beginning of this crisis--remember January?--expect fewer pillows, blankets and even earphones. The environment be damned for the moment: If it isn't single-serve and plastic wrapped, the airlines are trying to replace it.

The same single-serve mentality will be hitting the airports this week. Expect huge, last-minute and unexpected changes in food-service operations. Airport clubs will change, too. Buffet- and soup bar-type offerings are being closed. Nothing should surprise you. Denver International, for example, has closed its interfaith chapel and masjid.

Even the TSA is changing--a bit. It now exempts hand sanitizer from the 3-1-1 rule and you're permitted to bring bottles as large as 12 ounces through security checkpoints. But, of course, you will get extra screening if you do. The TSA is also asking you not to put personal items like keys, phones, wallets and loose change in the bins. It wants that stuff put in your carry-on bag to lessen the chance of community spread. And TSA has done what all bureaucracies do in a crisis: It created a Web page to tell you how great it is and how you must adapt to its new rules and procedures.

Less. Fewer flights, fewer dining options and, maybe, spot bans on domestic flying. As inconceivable as it may have seemed just a few days ago, the Trump Administration may tell carriers not to fly to certain cities or even entire states. Keep on your metaphoric toes. It's going to be a tricky few weeks. Buy one-way tickets and be prepared to switch on the literal fly.

Nothing is more complex than a refund in a travel industry. And the built-in complexity is exacerbated by parsimony: Fearful that their cash flows are about to disappear, travel providers are trying to tell you that you don't qualify for a refund, only a credit against future travel. As I said in Thursday's Tactical Traveler, don't let them bamboozle you. Demand a refund for services not delivered or if you cancel due to legitimate virus issues. If they won't budge, wait to see if they cancel first. A personal tale: I tried last week to convince Norwegian Air to allow me to change two Premium tickets on Tuesday's JFK-Paris flight. Norwegian adamantly insisted on a $150-a-ticket change fee atop the (admitted small) fare differential. Late Friday afternoon, Norwegian cancelled the flight and now I get all my money back. Had Norwegian been reasonable, they'd still have my money and a future reservation, too.

If all else fails, turn to your credit card company. Although there are some wrinkles when it comes to travel, federal law does not allow the card companies to charge you if a supplier does not provide the service. They'll generally issue a chargeback or at least open an investigation. Virtually all credit card firms are being lenient in their interpretation of the rules just now. The process is mostly automated, too. You may not even have to call since many credit card firms now permit you to contest a charge online.

Finally, a realistic assessment: It's going to get worse from here. We're not at the end. We're not at the beginning of the end. We're not even, as Winston Churchill once said, at the end of the beginning.

There's a very tough road ahead. A week from now, we could all be in a 9/11-like travel shutdown. Hell, a week from now we could be China or Italy, locked down and gamely singing Volare from self-quarantine on our balconies.

* As this was being written, the Chick-fil-A chain also has moved to take-out only. Moreover, the mayors of New York and Los Angeles have ordered their cities' bars to close and restaurants to switch to take-out service only.