Shock of the New
On the Road
THURSDAY, MARCH 31, 2022 -- Everything's almost back to "normal" in the skies, according to the stats we know are lying.

The TSA says 1,887,350 people flew yesterday, 87.7% of where we were in the "normal" times of 2019. Compare that to March 30, 2020, just as the pandemic began to strangle us. Only 154,080 flew and, within two weeks, that number would be nearly halved again.

The lie is not in the numbers per se, but in who is flying. Yesterday's millions were disproportionately domestic leisure travelers. We business travelers are still flying at only a fraction--50% or 60% is a good guess--of where we were in 2019. And international flying, both leisure and business, remains a shadow of its former self.

Still, more of us are, finally, getting on the road again and that means genuine culture shock. The route map has changed, airports have changed, frequency programs have changed and hotels have certainly changed.

I will have a lot more to say about surviving post-pandemic hotels in an upcoming column, but let me update you here on some of those other changes. And remember: Assume nothing. The road you left behind in 2019 is not the road you'll encounter today ... or tomorrow.

If you haven't been to New York/LaGuardia since the pandemic, you're in for a shock. The place is still a logistical mess as construction continues, but the physical makeover is stunning. You won't recognize the joint. You almost won't hate to go there now. Almost. Memphis, Washington/DCA and Salt Lake City have also undergone major changes. But the long-running LGA makeover and the other projects will be old news compared to some of what's coming in the months ahead:
        Los Angeles will unveil the first tranche of its so-called Delta Skyway next month. It basically combines and renovates Terminals 2 and 3 into a 1.2-million-square-foot facility with 27 gates; 30,000-square-foot Sky Club; 32 self-serve kiosks and 46 check-in positions; and six baggage carousels.
        Seattle-Tacoma gets a much needed new International Arrivals Facility before the end of the spring. The 450,000-square-foot operation will supposedly cut international-to-domestic connections by about 15 minutes. It'll also increase passenger-clearance capacity to 2,600 flyers per hour compared to the current 1,200. Another change: a "security corridor" to allow some gates on the A Concourse to serve both international and domestic flights. One geeky highlight: an 85-foot-high passenger bridge over active taxiways to connect the Arrivals Facility with the S Concourse.
        Orlando expects the South Terminal (also designated Terminal C) to open in the summer with 15 new gates. The terminal is also connected to a new station on the Brightline, a private passenger-rail service that already serves Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Brightline claims it will open westward connections to stops near the Orlando theme parks and Tampa this year.

Here's a number you'd never guess: 45% of U.S. flights now head to Latin America and the Caribbean. Throw in a new (perhaps temporary) emphasis on Florida flights and it explains Miami International recording its busiest day in history on March 13. Meanwhile, Austin/Bergstrom and Seattle-Tacoma are growing so fast that they can't keep up with all the vehicular traffic and passengers on the busiest days. And airlines are trimming small airports off their route maps, partially because of higher fuel costs and partially because the industry created an acute pilot shortage by paying newbie aviators less than they can earn by driving a truck. Add it all up and you have a radically altered national route map.

But the most striking change you will see as you head back to the road is an astounding revival of ultra-long-haul international flights. Logic tells us this shouldn't be happening: Ultra-long-hauls are costly to operate in time of high energy prices because they burn fuel just to carry all the fuel they need to make the long hauls. After all, there are no filling stations at 40,000 feet. Yet airlines seem convinced now is the time to begin new flights that run more than a dozen hours in the air. Here is a rundown on a few new ones:
        Air New Zealand says its long-delayed nonstop between New York/Kennedy and Auckland launches on September 17. There'll be three weekly roundtrips on specially configured Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners with 27 seatbeds in business class, 33 seats in premium economy and 215 coach chairs. There'll also be Skycouches, rows of coach seats that combine into makeshift sofa beds. You'll need a lie-down: This run will be more than 8,800 miles and about 17.5 hours in the air.
        Qantas says it will launch nonstops between Dallas/Fort Worth and Melbourne on December 2. That is almost 9,000 miles and about 17 hours in the air. Qantas promises four weekly flights between Australia's second-largest city and the hub of its Oneworld Alliance partner American Airlines.
        Air Tahiti Nui will deploy Boeing 787-9s on its new route between Sea-Tac and Papeete. There will be two weekly roundtrips on the run, which clocks in at a much more modest 4,800 miles. I mean, that is barely 10 hours in the air, right? Piece of cake. Much the same can be said of the new Turkish Airlines nonstop from Istanbul to Sea-Tac. The four weekly flights, due to begin May 27, also with Boeing 787-9 aircraft, are a piffling 6,100 miles (give or take). What's 12 hours in the air these days?

Still, nothing will quite compare to Cathay Pacific's new/old/revived nonstops between New York/JFK and Hong Kong. Because Cathay now must avoid Russian airspace, flights will operate on a convoluted route over central Asia, southern Europe, the United Kingdom and the Atlantic Ocean. According to an internal memo obtained by the ever-resourceful Danny Lee of Bloomberg News, Cathay's new routing clocks in at 10,326 miles, even longer than Singapore Airlines' JFK-Singapore run. Using Airbus A350-1000s, the "new" nonstop will require about 17 hours in the air, more than 2.5 hours longer than the old JFK-HKG run that traversed Russian airspace.

The new world of loyalty at American AAdvantage--where elite status is as much about how much you spend on your AA credit card as your actual flying--is sure to ignite a new credit card war. If the other carriers follow American--and they probably will--there will be two distinct tiers of credit cards aiming at frequent flyers.

Airline-aligned cards will offer the allure of status, something cards tied to bank programs such as Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards and Capital One Venture Miles cannot. And if airline status still means something to you, then you'll feel pressured to charge on your airline cards. That means cards aligned to bank programs will have to react and offer larger acquisition bonuses, more bonuses on spending and more perks. It'll also require new financial instruments such as Bilt Rewards, which offers points for rent payments, to be even more creative. (BTW, Bilt this week signed a deal with Wells Fargo.)

If all this change on the road worries you, do not fear. As we rush back to "normal," some old, familiar things return, too. Just like the old days, for example, British Airways suffered at least two systemwide outages over the last few weeks, delaying or cancelling hundreds of flights and leaving its passengers grappling with luggage that never arrived. And Germany's eternally unhappy Verdi union of airport workers mounted at least two one-day strikes this month, causing hundreds of cancellations in Berlin, Frankfurt and six other airports.

Because, in case you'd forgotten, life on the road was always a battle of your wits against airline lunacy. That never changes.