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At This Hour

Holiday Travel Heats Up As COVID Cases Surge; Chinese Tennis Star Denies Making Sexual Assault Claim; Closing Arguments Begin In Ghislaine Maxwell Case. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired December 20, 2021 - 12:30   ET



KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: The holiday travel Rush is in full swing despite the new COVID surge and uncertainty with this new Omicron variant, TSA is reporting air travel is nearly double what it was one year ago. CNN's Pete Muntean joining me now with much more on this. Pete, what are you hearing? How are things looking?

PETE MUNTEAN, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: You know, Kate, so many people are having that dreaded go or no discussion right now. What's so interesting is that millions are still going just look at the TSA numbers, 2.12 million people screened at airports across the country just yesterday, the fourth straight day where we have seen numbers above 2 million we've not seen a stretch like this, frankly, since Thanksgiving. In fact, Friday's number got as big as what we saw the Monday after Thanksgiving, clearly a lot of confidence and travel right now. Look no further than the long lines we saw yesterday in L.A., in Atlanta, in Austin, in Boston.

You know, Dr. Anthony Fauci has said, you really just need to weigh the risks right now if you travel, but he's also said if you're vaccinated and boosted you should be good to go, clearly, a lot of people taking that advice to heart right now. The projections from AAA 109 million people in total will travel 50 miles or more for the winter holidays, the TSA just updated its projection saying between now and January 3rd, 30 million people will fly with Thursday being one of the busiest days for air travel, we will see if these numbers hold, Kate, you know, airline said cancellations did go up as the Omicron variant started to make headlines, but really not by all that much.

BOLDUAN: It doesn't seem to be so. It's good to see, Pete, thank you so much. For more on how airlines are handling this holiday travel rush in this strange new world of a new COVID wave and a new variant. Joining me right now is Josh Earnest, Chief Communications Officer for United Airlines. It's good to see you, Josh, thanks for being here. So as Pete lays out, it appears that Omicron, the variant, the concerns over it hasn't really dampened air travel that much or quite yet, do you think that it is going to. How is United planning for this?

JOSH EARNEST, CHIEF COMMUNICATIONS OFFICER, UNITED AIRLINES: Well, Kate, I think what we have seen is that if you sort of compare this holiday season to last year, there's so much more that we know about how to keep people safe when they're traveling. Certainly people have access to vaccines now, which they didn't have last year, we'll people have certainly gotten used to the mask requirement that is in place for airports and on board. And we have also spent the last year slowly building our operation over time.

So we've been able to avoid some of the operational snafus that have plagued some of our competitors. And we actually do have a lot of confidence in our ability to get people safely where they want to go for the holidays. And I think you're certainly listening to the experts. We know what it takes to do that safely.

BOLDUAN: Yes. And on masks, Josh, Southwest CEO made a lot of headlines last week with something he said during congressional testimony. He said it was part of a back and forth and he said I think the case is very strong that masks don't add much if anything in the air cabin environment. It is very safe, very high quality compared to any other indoor setting. And Gary Keller walk that back afterward to clarify that he wasn't trying to imply that he didn't support the mask requirement. But speak for United on this. He said masks don't add much of anything in the air cabin environment do you think they do?

EARNEST: Well, OK, what we do know is that the onboard environment on an airplane is probably the safest place that you can be if you're going to be in a public setting indoors. And that's something that medical professionals verified the Department of Defense actually conducted a landmark study a little over a year ago to evaluate the safety of our military men and women who are traveling. And that's exactly what this study confirmed. So there is a reason that we can project a lot of confidence about the safety of people when they're traveling on board and aircraft.

And it has to do with airflow and HEPA filters and other measures. At the same time, scientists really should be the one who are driving this discussion about mask requirements. And we certainly do understand the degree of safety that masks do provide certainly in the airport. And, you know, we are certainly going to follow the government's directions. And right now it does seem to make sense that if this is something that's going to give people more confidence in the safety of air travel. Then right now that seems like a prudent step.

BOLDUAN: You know, at that same hearing, Josh, United CEO said that there's a real pilot shortage, kind of across the board. The way he put it is nearly 100 regional planes have been grounded because not enough pot -- there were not enough pilots to fly them. And his quote is the country is going to need thousands of pilots. This really caught my attention because what is driving the shortage? And what can you do about it?

EARNEST: Well, there are a couple of things that are driving the shortage. I mean, we certainly know that the military is producing fewer pilots than they used to. There's a mandatory retirement age and if you sort of sync that up with the last big hire Boom among the commercial airlines there are a lot of pilot retirements that are coming. We also saw some pilots in the depths of the COVID pandemic, take early retirement, so there are a lot of things that are contributing to what we expect to be a pilot shortage in the in the relatively near future.


And we need to start planning now given all the training requirements to make sure that we've got a supply of pilots that we can draw from the industry. So United has actually taken an extraordinary step here. We're the only major U.S. airline that recently purchased our own pilot training facility. And what we are planning to do is to train about 500 pilots a year for the next 10 years, that is not going to meet the requirements that we have for all the pilots that we need to hire. But it will actually help that pipeline and get it flowing.

The other thing that we have committed to doing, Kate, is using that as an opportunity to diversify the cockpit. And we know that when we're facing this kind of pilot shortage, we can't just go back to the same groups of students that we've hired from before, we should expand the pool and consider people who may not have considered a career as an airline pilot before. This is a lucrative career where people can enjoy a long lucrative career and be able to save for retirement get good access to health care, they're good union jobs, they can travel the world. This is a really good career opportunity.

And these are careers that pilots that the airline industry is creating right now. And United certainly has our own unique strategy to really capitalize on this opportunity and really invest in our economy in a meaningful way.

BOLDUAN: That's interesting. You know, we've talked about United lead the way in terms of making it a requirement for all workers to get the COVID vaccine. We've heard Anthony Fauci just yesterday saying that flying is safe, you can be safe, especially if you are vaccinated and boosted is what he emphasized and made me wonder is United going to require booster shots for workers as well?

EARNEST: Well, Kate, as you point out, we are the -- we were the first major U.S. airline to successfully implement a vaccine requirement for our employees. And really, it's a testament to the commitment of our employees to the safety of their colleagues and to the safety of our customers. And so we're really proud of the success that we've had in implementing that policy. We are at the stage right now of encouraging people to get booster shots because of the impact that you are describing and the safety that it provides, particularly as it relates to the growing risk of the of the Omicron variant. But right now, that is not a requirement for us.

But you know, look, it is a shame the extent to which this questions around vaccines have gotten politicized. The decision that United Airlines made was driven entirely by safety. And we spent a lot of time talking about how safety is the number one priority of our airline. That was true pre COVID. It's certainly been true in the midst of a pandemic. And you know, what our CEO has talked about is that early in the pandemic, he was writing letters to the families of United employees who died as a result of COVID.

And he made a decision over the summer where he basically concluded he didn't want any more families of United employees to receive those letters. And we put in place that requirement, we know that it is saving lives. And, you know, it's something that we're really proud of.

BOLDUAN: Yes, and if that is the definition of what fully vaccinated, what the definition of what fully vaccinated means changes that may also lead to more changes with what's required to work for United. We will see. I'll check back in. Thank you so much, Josh. I appreciate it.

EARNEST: Good to see you, Kate, take care.

BOLDUAN: Thank you.


Coming up for us, Chinese tennis star, Peng Shuai, appearing on camera in a new video her first comments international media since she raised allegations of sexual assault, and then quickly disappeared from public view, more on that ahead.


BOLDUAN: Developing at this hour, Chinese tennis star. Peng Shuai, issues a new statement denying that she made sexual assault accusations. This comes after she publicly accused a top Chinese government official of assault in early November and then essentially disappeared from public view. CNN's Will Ripley is live in Hong Kong with more. Will, what does Peng Shuai say in this new video?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So this is a new twist here, Kate. This is a video that was taken on a cell phone by an international media reporter from a newspaper in Singapore, which incidentally has a very pro-Beijing stance and facts it's the only Chinese language newspaper that you can see in the mainland from overseas. So keep that in mind as context here but Peng Shuai, you know, she walks up to this reporter who's rolling on her phone and she says we take the video, reporter says yes. And then she asked her, you know, are you being monitored right now? Are you able to freely move around and Peng Shuai says of course I'm free. I've always been free. I'm at my home in Beijing. Everything's great.

And then she talked about this explosive social media post that she made on November 2nd, where she accused a former Communist Party leader of sexual assault, but now Peng Shuai is echoing what Chinese state media has been arguing that in fact, she didn't say it was sexual assault. Let me read you this quote. OK. It says from Peng Shuai to this reporter from Singapore, in Shanghai at the ski tournament. I've never spoken or written about anyone sexually assaulting me. It's my personal privacy. There possibly has been a lot of misunderstanding. Therefore, there should not be such distorted interpretation here.

Chinese state media has been calling this a distortion by the Western media for weeks now. This is part of an ongoing propaganda campaign. Peng Shuai is essentially saying the same thing that state media propagandists have been saying in English on Twitter was the platform that's blocked inside China because inside China, state media is ignoring this story. But outside they've been tweeting furiously about this trying to salvage China's reputation ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Games.


So now we have Peng Shuai saying the exact same thing. People who've been detained in China, people who have been forced to make confessions on camera in China say that they are coached. They practice for these sorts of things. So even though this video, Kate, appears to be all spontaneous, you can't necessarily take it at face value here.

BOLDUAN: And so it continues. Thank you so much Will for reporting on this, I really appreciate it. So we have also some new reporting into CNN this morning, that when President Biden first learned that Russia was building up its military presence on the Ukraine border, he directed his national security team to move quickly, one reason being, he didn't want to repeat mistakes, made in 2014 by the Obama administration. CNN's Natasha Bertrand joins me now with more. That, of course, is when he was vice president, Natasha. Tell us more about what you're learning?

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: That's exactly right, Kate. So in 2014, when Biden was vice president, he was encouraging President Obama to act stronger to send more weapon weapons to Ukraine to impose very, very tough sanctions in response to this Russian incursion of Crimea and their support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. So now that he is in charge, he's wanted to do things very differently. When he first started noticing and his intel community first started noticing this Russian buildup along the border of Ukraine, they wanted to act really fast. They sent CIA Director Bill Burns to Russia to deliver a message directly to Vladimir Putin, saying we know what you're doing, we see this back off, or there will be consequences.

And then this diplomacy kind of continued over the next several months. And it culminated in these very stark warnings when Russia did not, in fact, back off by the Biden administration, saying we will impose very, very harsh sanctions stronger than anything that was imposed in 2014 if you do move to invade Ukraine. Now, what we're seeing now is kind of the next phase of that, the Biden administration is weighing sending additional military equipment to the Ukrainians to kind of fend off a potential invasion. Those weapons that the Ukrainians want, though, are things that the Biden administration might not be prepared to provide right now, because they're still trying to work out this diplomacy with Russia.

So things like air defense systems, stinger missiles, et cetera. So it remains to be seen where this is going to go. The administration is still trying to work this out diplomatically with Russia.

BOLDUAN: Thanks for the reporting, really appreciate Natasha.

So coming up still for us right now, a jury is hearing closing arguments in the case against Jeffrey Epstein's associate Ghislaine Maxwell. We're going to get an update live from the courtroom next.



BOLDUAN: Right now in a New York courtroom closing arguments are underway in the sex trafficking trial of Ghislaine Maxwell. She's the longtime companion of Jeffrey Epstein, a convicted sex offender who died in jail in 2019. Now the jury is expected to get this case and begin deliberating today. CNN's Kara Scannell has more.

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: First up is the prosecution, they will try to tie together the testimony of the 24 witnesses that they called at the trial. Four of them are accusers, women who say that they were sexually assaulted by Epstein when they were giving him massages. These women testified that Ghislaine Maxwell helped recruit them, helped arrange their travel and their massage appointments, and at times participated in the alleged sexual assault.

Then Maxwell's attorneys will have a turn to address the jury. They say that she has been scapegoated that the only reason why she is on trial is because Jeffrey Epstein isn't. He died by suicide while awaiting trial. They're also expected to attack the credibility of these accusers, saying that they were motivated by money and that their memory of these events that took place more than 20 years ago is faulty. Maxwell faces six charges and as much as 70 years in prison if convicted of all counts.

BOLDUAN: Kara, thank you so much for that.

And moments ago, the jury and another courtroom just began deliberating in the fraud trial against Elizabeth Holmes. The jury must decide whether the one time billionaire and celebrity startup founder knowingly misled investors, doctors, and patients. CNN's Natasha Chen is tracking this one for us. She joins us now. Natasha, what's the very latest?

NATASHA CHEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, eight men, four women are now deliberating a pretty wide age range here. They've been listening for three months to 32 witnesses in a case that's drawn such public interest that dozens of people every morning at 3:00 a.m. were lining up outside the courthouse for a seat in that room. Remember, Elizabeth Holmes is billed as the next Steve Jobs. She had promised her tech could be groundbreaking and testing for more than 200 health conditions with just a few drops of blood with a prick of a finger.

Instead, in 2015, the "Wall Street Journal" broke the story that Theranos, her company, actually could only test for a few things and that they were using third party machines for all the other tests. Now the defense painted a picture of Holmes as someone who really believed in her company never intended for her investors to lose their money. And keep in mind, there were very high profile investors including two former secretaries of state including Henry Kissinger, and former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who also testified during this trial.

The prosecution pushed back on any idea of Holmes perhaps keeping trade secret saying that hiding that your product doesn't work isn't a trade secret. That's just a secret. Saying that a trade secret is like the recipe for Coca Cola. Prosecution said if Theranos were a soda company it would have made only a few flavors and repackaged other people's soda as its own so now the jury has to decide whether Holmes willingly misled investors, doctors, patients, she is being tried on nine counts of federal wire fraud, two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. And if she's found guilty, she could face up to 20 years in prison, $250,000 plus restitution on each of those counts. Kate?


BOLDUAN: Wow. Natasha, thank you so much for that update. Really appreciate it. A lot to watch there, thank you so much for joining us today everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. "CNN NEWSROOM" with Ana Cabrera starts after the break.