We recap the bouncing ball history of the in-flight mask mandate as we try to figure out where it’s going land now that it’s in the courts. But before that, I recap my trip to Santa Fe, NM, take the flight tracking app Flighty for a spin, and wonder why CLEAR keeps giving away annual subscriptions. Then we dig into the current state of regional airports with Joanne Magley, of Daytona Beach International Airport. All this and more – click here to download the podcast file, go up to the Subscribe section in the top menu bar to subscribe on your favorite site, or listen right here by clicking on the arrow on the player.
Here is the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #186:
Since The Last Episode
- Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
- Coming to you from the TravelCommons studio in Chicago, Illinois riding the spring roller coaster of Midwest temperatures — 65 degrees one day, 45 degrees the next. We were in Santa Fe, NM a week-and-a-half ago with a group of friends and the Midwest has nothing on high-desert plateau temperature swings. We’d wake up to 35-40 degrees, bundle up, and then be stripping off layers at lunch when it’d hit the upper 60’s. We had great weather; maybe one day where it was windy, overcast, and cold all day. The rest of the time was sunny and clear blue skies. Some bits of our visit were kind of a replay of our Thanksgiving 2018 trip there. I talked about that trip in episode #147 and then wrote it up in more detail in the Lowbrow Santa Fe blog post — which came in very handy; reminding me of restaurants, taprooms, and things to do while we were doing some bare-minimum planning for the group. And even if some of it was a replay for us, it was the first time for our friends, and seeing these places again through their eyes gave it all a new spin for us.
- Actually, I was happy to see that not a lot had changed in the intervening 3½ years; that COVID hadn’t driven any of our favorite places out of business. The only places I saw closed up were the ABQ restaurant before security and Tent Rocks National Monument which the Bureau of Land Management closed during the COVID lockdowns but now are keeping closed to upgrade the trails. We stayed again at the El Farolito bed & breakfast — there were 10 of us, so we kinda took it over. The owner told us Santa Fe was as busy as ever. And we saw it — our flight down to ABQ was completely full as were all the restaurants.
- But we still managed to wedge our way into a number of places on Santa Fe’s Margarita Trail. Yes, I know that it’s a pure marketing thing, but we were square in their target market and were happy to be tagged. We had high-end premium tequila margaritas, low-brow house margaritas, green chile-infused margaritas; all kinds — except those made with sour mix. I had to draw the line somewhere. A lot of places were saying theirs was the best margarita — so we had to try as many as we could. But as one of our crew so aptly put it, “The world’s best margarita is the one in your hand.”
- Bridge Music — Bogi Beat Budapest by KarmaHacker (c) copyright 2009 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://ccmixter.org/files/hepepe/21074
- OK, just one more note about the place we stayed in Santa Fe, El Farolito — full housekeeping every day in our casita without asking, including restocking the kiva fireplace with fresh wood and newspaper, ready for us to just strike the match. Also, full cooked breakfast. The only lingering COVID service reduction — no afternoon cookies. But given the amount of food and margaritas we were consuming, I actually think that was a good thing.
- Before my flight down to ABQ, T/C contributor Allan Marko pointed me to Flighty, a flight tracker app. I’ve talked about flight tracking apps in past episodes. Years back, I paid the $50/year for TripIt Pro, but eventually dropped it as airlines kept upgrading their own apps — improving real-time status notifications, adding “where’s my plane” functionality. Add in the free FlightAware app and that’s been my flight tracker “tech stack” for a number of years. But looking at app reviews, Flighty seems to be the latest hotness, so I downloaded it to give it a go. It’s a nice looking app, and they’re smart to give a free trial of all the paid features for the first flight. I first sync’d it with TripIt, so didn’t need to re-enter my ABQ flights. Then, that day, got flight status notifications faster and more granular than what Southwest was sending me; scrolled down for a nice timeline of “where’s my plane” — always important for Southwest flights since they tend to “bunny hop” across the country during the day rather than run out-and-back to hubs. There was also a detailed flight timeline — pushback, taxi, take-off, landing. Nothing I couldn’t get from FlightAware, but the UI was so much better, more modern, all on one screen. But of course, all of this information I was liking is part of their Pro, their paid offering. It was all blurred out for the flight home, which I really could’ve used when I woke up to a 1-hour delay notification from Southwest. The only thing I got from Flighty was an upsell notification — “Looks like your flight’s delayed; you should upgrade to Pro for more information.” Not the most helpful, especially after some bug in their system sent me the same notification every couple of minutes until I spelunked far enough into my iPhone’s notification settings to shut them off. And then I opened FlightAware to figure out what was really going on. Our plane was late getting out of BWI, its first hop, and we were another couple of hops down the line. So, net net, the Flighty Pro offering is nice. If I was back to flying every week, I’d pay the $50 to have all that information on a single screen. But Flighty Free can’t replace the free, if slightly clunkier, FlightAware.
- I’ve been noticing a new bunch of deals offering a free year of CLEAR, the biometrically powered security line cut service that lists out at $179/year. I’ve always been ambivalent about CLEAR. I talked about this last fall in episode #179 when I received the first raft of offers — from Amex and United. The time savings over regular TSA PreCheck has never seemed enough to justify the cost of letting them hold my biometric information — especially since the first incarnation of CLEAR had to be sued to stop it from selling customers’ fingerprint and iris scan data before it went bankrupt. Having said that, I’m seeing them at more airports, and if TSA hiring can’t keep up passenger volume growth and those PreCheck lines start to lengthen, it might be enough to get me opening my eyes wide to CLEAR again.
- And if you have any travel stories, questions, comments, tips, rants – the voice of the traveler, send ’em along to email@example.com — you can send a Twitter message to mpeacock, post your thoughts on the TravelCommons’ Facebook page or the Instagram account at travelcommons — or you can post comments on the web site at TravelCommons.com.
- Bridge Music — Black Rainbow by Pitx (c) copyright 2009 Licensed under a Creative Commons Sampling Plus license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/Pitx/19513 Ft: ERH, acclivity
Mask Mandate Scramble
- We talked in the last episode about the CDC kicking can containing in-flight mask mandate down the road a month — from March 18th to this past Monday, April 18th. And so last week, anticipation began to build in travel circles about what the CDC would do. On our flight home from ABQ, the Southwest flight attendant said during her pre-take-off announcements “Hopefully the in-flight mask mandate ends next week, but until then…” and then ran through the standard mask instructions. I wasn’t surprised since, as we mentioned in the last episode, their union had been asking for the mandate to end. However, I was surprised that the instruction announcement included “if oxygen masks fall during the flight, please take off your mask before putting the oxygen mask on.” That would seem a bit obvious to me, but maybe I think about these things more than the average passenger.
- The next day, after finishing my interview with Joanne Magley of Daytona Beach Int’l Airport — which you’ll hear in the next segment — we got talking about the mask mandate; what’s going to happen on Monday. Joanne’s cut — I hope we know something by Sunday so we’re prepared for Monday. Which happened — the next day, word began to leak out that the CDC was going to extend the mandate again, for 2 weeks this time.
- Almost two years ago, in 2020, soon after the lockdowns and travel bans started and passenger volumes plummeted, the airlines themselves started requiring in-flight masks in an attempt to coax people back into what were seen as modern-day plague ships. In episode #165, I talked about my first post-lockdown flight that June saying back then “it felt like mask usage was about 80%. I see kids ripping their masks off as soon as they get off the jetway. A sizable minority of mask wearers were just covering their mouths, leaving their noses uncovered — pilots, cleaning crew, passengers, wheelchair people.” It wasn’t until Joe Biden’s inauguration day, January 2021, that it became a federal mandate. That initial mandate was through mid-May, 5 months, but a few weeks before it expired, it was extended for 4 months, to mid-September, then another 4 months to mid-January 2022, then 2 months to mid-March, then 1 month to mid-April, then a half-month (2 weeks), to May. And with indoor mask mandates dropping everywhere else, each of these last extensions of this last remaining mandate generated more and more pushback.
- And so when the federal judge struck down the mask mandate on this Monday, the speed at which everyone ditched their mask rules was amazing. Within hours of the ruling, the TSA and all the major US airlines announced they were no longer requiring masks. There were reports of flight attendants announcing the decision in-flight and walking down the aisle with trash bags to collect unwanted and now-unneeded face masks. On Tuesday morning, I got emails from Uber and Lyft dropping their mask requirements. On Tuesday afternoon, Illinois’ governor dropped the state’s masking requirements on regional trains, buses, and Chicago’s airports. The rush of announcements; it was almost like everyone was working to make it a fait accompli, a done deal that couldn’t be reversed.
- Because amidst all this activity was an undertone, an unknown — would the Biden Administration, the CDC appeal the judge’s ruling. Nothing on Monday, or Tuesday, but then yesterday, Wednesday afternoon, the CDC asked the Dept of Justice to file an appeal, which it did but without a request to stay the judge’s ruling, to reinstate the mandate — at least as of mid-day today. I can’t figure out what their plan is — or if there is one. As I said in the last episode, without a mask mandate, I’ll probably ride the pragmatic middle — probably skipping the mask while turning the air jet on full blast on half-full planes but then pulling out a KN-95 when I’m sitting there’s someone in the middle seat sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with me, like on our full flight down to ABQ last week. I really didn’t mind wearing a mask for that 3½ hours. It’s not just a COVID thing. I haven’t had a bad cold since this all started and I’d kinda like to keep it this way.
- Bridge Music — Awel by stefsax (c) copyright 2006 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/stefsax/7785
Small Airport Survival
- American Airlines made news a couple of weeks back when they, in industry lingo down-gauged flights to Allentown, PA and Atlantic City, NJ from their Philadelphia hub. Up-gauging and down-gauging — changing the size of the plane on the route — happens all the time. What made this change news was that American down-gauged from a regional jet to a bus. But I guess it could’ve been worse. US airline execs have been talking for a while now about the need to reduce, even eliminate service to small, regional airports; pinning the blame first on crew shortages, and most recently on fuel costs.
- Like many frequent travelers, I’ve traveled through a lot of smaller, regional airports. I’ve appreciated the ability to skip the 2-hr rental car drive and fly directly into Allentown, PA; Charlottesville, VA; Appletown, WI; and Sioux City, IA (not a bad place, in spite of its airport code SUX). So to check in on what it’s like to run a regional airport today, I fired up Zoom for a chat with Joanne Magley, the Director of Air Service, Marketing and Customer Experience for Daytona Beach International Airport
- Mark: Joanne, back last June on the TravelCommons podcast in episode #176, we talked with Dr Janet Bednarek of University of Dayton about the history of airports. So how did Daytona Beach International Airport get started?
- Joanne: We started as a naval base and then from there it was given to the city and then somehow it was given back to the county
- Mark: Daytona Beach International Airport is about an hour from Orlando, and about an hour and a half from Jacksonville. What types of travelers are choosing Daytona Beach over those two bigger airports?
- Joanne: Orlando might be an hour, maybe an hour and 10 minutes. But then you have to add in the time to go from where you’re parking back to the terminal, and the time it takes to get through the security checkpoints. So really that hour or so drive becomes two plus hours of just trying to get to your gate. The people that use Daytona Beach International Airport love the convenience factor of walking five minutes from the parking spot, maybe spending five minutes at the TSA checkpoints. And also, we pride ourselves on really high customer service. Many times, when you go through TSA security, you forget that you might have packed an item on your carry-on that is not allowed — something as simple as a wine opener or your heirloom pocket knife from your grandfather. Well, you can’t take these things through the checkpoint.
- Mark: And rightfully so…
- Joanne: TSA will confiscate…. Well, no, the TSA does not confiscate it; you surrender your items to TSA. Usually you don’t see your item ever again. But at our airport, the TSA agents will give you an envelope. You can put the item in the envelope, put your address on the envelope, and then TSA will put it into a little locker. And then every day, our operations team comes and unloads that locker. And then every morning, we mail it back to the passengers free of charge. It’s simple on our part. It really is. It’s just mailing an item and the cost of mailing an item is very small compared to the reward that we get for having happy people come through the terminal. And we can do it because we’re smaller.
- Mark: How difficult was it to get the local TSA to agree to that program?
- Joanne: Not difficult at all. They’re a great partner with us and they are some of the friendliest TSA agents you will ever come across.
- Mark: Well, that’s nice to hear because certainly myself and a lot of travelers step up to the TSA kiosk with, let’s call it, a mixed set of experiences. One of the things that I think we’ve seen recently is US airlines talking about having to park smaller jets, the regional jets and having to reduce some and even ending some service to smaller airports because of pilot shortages. Have you seen any of this?
- Joanne: Sure, Sure. Like a lot of smaller regional airports, we used to have dozens of airlines and then deregulation which consolidated a lot of airlines and then the great recession. And so, through the years, we’ve landed with two main carriers, Delta and American. We are very fortunate that we had not lost any service with our two main carriers. In fact, we gained a few extra routes starting with December 2020. American Airlines started seasonal service to Philadelphia and Dallas-Fort Worth. So we gained some service. But one thing that we are noticing — typically when they would bring in a larger plane, they haven’t done that yet. We’ve seen some cancellations due to maybe crew shortages. Again, not a lot, but where we know that it’s affecting us is the opportunity to get more new destinations because at this point, it’s difficult for the airlines to say, “OK, we’ll add new service here and here,” even though the airlines know that it could be a profitable flight. They don’t have the crew; they don’t necessarily have the pilots to add a new flight. They would have to stop service from somewhere else in order to start up new and actually starting up new comes with all sorts of new costs as well.
- Mark: Joanne, how do you pitch a new airline for new service and a new airline?
- Joanne: What it takes to at least be high on the consideration. First, you have to show that there is a demand for service, and the airlines can see where passengers are coming and going from so that part’s kind of easy. But then the part where there is the cost for the startup… What we’re seeing is a lot of communities are coming together to put in an air service support program. It can’t come from the airport. The airport incentives have to be separate. So, the community is coming forth with an air service development program which is in the form of a minimum revenue guarantee. That minimum revenue guarantee will only kick in if they’re not meeting what their expected revenues are supposed to be. So, let’s say, a community gathers $2 million dollars from their economic development fund and from businesses and corporations. And it’s, it’s more of a pledge. It’s not like they’re giving these $2 million dollars to an airline. It’s like a pledge.
- Mark: It sounds like the local community is looking to take the risk out of the business case for the new service.
- Joanne: That’s exactly what it is. It’s risk mitigation. The economic impact of a new airline coming in with twice-a-week daily flights to multiple destinations, that’s a good investment. But that’s what the airlines are looking for, especially the new ones. There’s a number of Canadian airlines that are just kind of chomping at the bit to get back. So if everything kind of stays where we’re at and the border stays open, we will see our Canadian visitors coming back.
- Mark: Joanne. I really want to thank you for joining us on the TravelCommons podcast. It’s been a great conversation; I’ve really enjoyed it. Joanne Magley, Director of Air Service, Marketing and Customer Experience for Daytona Beach International Airport. Having a lot better weather in April than what we have in Chicago. Thanks again for joining us, Joanne.
- Joanne: You’re welcome, Mark. Thank you.
- Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
- OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #186
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