New SFO flights + United fee hike + SFO Terminal video + 787

Catching up on Bay Area Travel news: New flights to France & China; United hikes fees; video inside new SFO Terminal; flirt on Virgin America flights from San Jose; 787 Dreamliner update, new Routehappy booking site; FlightCar is back.

China Eastern's A330-200 at SFO (Photo Peter Biaggi)

China Eastern’s A330-200 at SFO (Photo Peter Biaggi)

HUANYING AND BON VOYAGE. Last Friday (April 26) was a busy day at San Francisco International.

At 9:30 am, the first China Eastern A330-200 arrived from Shanghai to a water cannon salute and a welcome celebration at the airport. For now, here’s what we know: The Airbus A330 departs SFO at 11:30 am and arrives at Shanghai Pudong airport (PVG) the following day at 4 pm. On the return, the flight departs Shanghai at 1 pm and arrives at SFO at 9:30 am. Three days a week, the flight offers continuing service to Wuhan (pop 10 million), a central Chinese city many refer to as “the Chicago of China.” At the festive inaugural dinner at the Westin St Francis, I learned that China Eastern offers two types of business class seats on its Airbus A330-200—one type is the angled lie flight, the other is a true lie flat (180 degrees flat). China Eastern’s San Francisco manager Charlie Gu assured me that the San Francisco flight will always get the newer plane with the true lie-flat seats. It has to, if it plans on competing for business travelers with United since the deployment of its excellent new business class product on SFO-PVG nonstops. Every seat on China Eastern’s A330 (coach and business) has personal seatback entertainment systems and access to AC plugs. China Eastern is the second largest carrier in China (after Air China), and flies a relatively young fleet—with an average age of just seven years. SFO joins New York, Los Angeles and Honolulu as the fourth US city served by China Eastern—although, oddly, the airline does not have a US website. China Eastern is a member of the SkyTeam alliance, which offers Delta flyers a new way to earn and burn points on flights to burgeoning China. We’ll provide an in depth look at the new China Eastern flight to Shanghai in a future post.

Passengers on United's inaugural Paris flight greet by a 12-ft Eiffel Tower & free French inspired food & drink. (Photo: United)

Passengers on United’s inaugural Paris flight greeted by a 12-ft Eiffel Tower & free French inspired food & drink. (Photo: United)

On Friday afternoon, United recommenced nonstop service between SFO and Paris-CDG. (United discontinued SFO-CDG nonstops in Oct 2005.) Flight 990 departs San Francisco daily at 2:45 p.m. and arrives at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport at 10:45 a.m. the next day. For the return, flight 991 departs Paris at 10:05 a.m. and arrives in San Francisco at 1 p.m. the same day. United operates this new service with Boeing 767-300 aircraft, which offer 30 flat-bed business class seats, 49 seats in Economy Plus and 135 seats in standard economy. The BusinessFirst cabin (configured 2-1-2) includes 15.4-inch touchscreen monitors for personal on-demand entertainment, electrical and USB outlets, iPod jacks and five-course meals. Each seat in Economy features a 9-inch touchscreen with personal on-demand entertainment, and all rows (configured 2-3-2) include access to electrical outlets. Book and fly United to Paris by May 31, and you’ll earn some tidy Mileage Plus bonuses. Air France is currently the only other carrier offering nonstops between SFO and Paris. Paris-based XL Airways offers summer season SFO-CDG flights.

UNITED HIKES CHANGE FEE TO $200. In what appears to be a poorly timed slap in the face to customers just coming off a year a dismal performance by United, the carrier has increased its fee to make changes to nonrefundable tickets by a whopping $50. That means if you want to change a domestic ticket, you’ll now pay $200 (plus any change in fare) for the honor. Want to change an international ticket? That will now be $300, thank you. Shortly after United hiked its fees, US Airways matched, which likely means its future merger partner American will follow suit. That leaves Delta as the hold out, but it’s probably waiting a bit to hike fees after taking so much heat for changing its same-day change fee last week. As we all know, Southwest does not charge change fees at all, but passengers do have to pay any difference in fare if it has increased from the time of purchase. Alaska Airlines and Virgin America still charge a much more reasonable $100 change fee. Is the $200 fee enough to make you switch away from United? Please leave your comments below.

A LOOK AT TERMINAL 3 PROGRESS. SFO has produced a video providing a virtual hardhat tour of the new Boarding Area E at United’s Terminal 3, which is due to open earlier next year. Some interesting facts picked up in the video: The glassy new terminal should be as nice or nicer than SFO’s award winning Terminal 2 (home to Virgin America and American). Expect very wide corridors, high ceilings, giant picture windows with dramatic ramp views, a new “information terrace” at the entryway, environmentally sustainable design and local food vendors.

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MEGA-MILE BONUS SITES GET FUNDING. Remember when we wrote about mega-miles bonus sites Pointshound and RocketMiles last month? Seems like venture capitalists think the sites are on to something. This morning, The BAT received a note from RocketMiles announcing that the six-month old company raised $2 million in its first round of external financing.

GET FLIRTY ON VIRGIN AMERICA. You see that hottie in the boarding area and try to establish eye contact. Bingo! You got “the look” back! You get onboard and see the object of your desire a few rows ahead of you. Instead of posting a “missed connection”  on Craigslist (and hoping for the best), a new service from Virgin America allows you to send a drink to someone via its seatback entertainment and food ordering system. Locate that hottie on the seatmap, choose a cocktail, and then send it over to them, then follow up with a text message via the system’s seat-to-seat communications platform. (Have a few minutes? Then check out this hilarious Asian animation of the new Virgin service.)

SPEAKING OF VIRGIN AMERICA. South Bay and Peninsula dwellers should be happy to note that Virgin America’s new four-times-daily nonstops between San Jose International and LAX crank up on May 1. Why suffer on another carrier’s cramped RJ when you can jump on Virgin’s mod A320 and send the hottie across the aisle a cocktail? Virgin will be entering the very crowded San Jose-LAX run, which is already served by five carriers: Low fare leader Southwest , United (which dominates the Bay Area) as well as American, Delta and Alaska Airlines. Southwest flies a one-class 737 on the hour-or-so long route, Delta, United and American fly regional jets, and Alaska uses a turbo-prop. Virgin is offering a two-for-one sale on SJC-LAX flights through May 31.

STATUS OF SFO’s LONG TERM PARKING LOT? From BAT reader Damian: Chris, I love the BAT!  Have you written about the SFO Long Term Parking garageIt has had floor closures for a couple years and is now empty.  One parks outside or even gets a pass to go to short term parking at the same rate. Does the garage have structural problems?  Seems like it should be a scandal. Perhaps this is old news but in poking around on the Web I didn’t happen to find anything.” Having noticed the same thing…and wondered, we contacted SFO, and spokesperson Doug Yakel helped clear things up. He said, “The level closures in the Long-Term Garage are part of an ongoing, pre-planned schedule to accomplish routine maintenance. This includes pressure washing, restriping of ground markings and light bulb replacements. Only one floor is closed at a time for this work, and the work is scheduled to ensure all levels are open during peak demand periods such as the holiday travel season. We also monitor occupancy rates to ensure the appropriate match of supply and demand, and modify closure schedules if needed.”

ANA's expansive true lie-flat business class seat on its Boeing 787 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

ANA’s expansive true lie-flat business class seat on its Boeing 787 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

787 UPDATE. As you may recall, ANA’s important new nonstops from San Jose to Tokyo-NRT were waylaid by the Boeing 787 Dreamliner grounding, forcing all passengers to fly via SFO. While the FAA and Japanese authorities have given a conditional green light to new flights, ANA says it will begin by “replacing existing batteries with new batteries, changing to new battery chargers and installing new battery containment boxes and venting system. The improvements will require approximately one week per aircraft, with work on all seventeen aircraft scheduled to be completed by the end of May.” After that will be new crew training and a series of heavily monitored “proving flights.” This week, an ANA spokesperson told The BAT that it should have a firm date for the resumption of SJC-NRT by May 9. How would you feel about flying on a Dreamliner across the Pacific? Please leave your comments below.

Screen shot 2013-04-29 at 9.41.54 AMARE YOU A HAPPY FLYER? Just fiddling around with the new Routehappy website makes us feel happy. Why? After a year of  researching, analyzing, and grading aircraft types and amenities, Routehappy applies “happiness factors” most business travelers care about such as seat pitch, width and layout, entertainment, Wi-Fi, in-seat power, plane quality, and trip duration to help you pick the option flight. In addition, it manually gathers complex information about flights from sources like the airline’s website, press releases, staff, industry analysts & influencers, blogs, forums, news stories and reviews from road warriors and “route experts.” It then applies a “happiness score” to each flight to help make the best decision. For example, I’ve always known that Delta’s roomy, jumbo B767 flights between SFO and Atlanta are much more comfortable than those long, narrow torture tubes known as Boeing 757’s. Routehappy exposes that. This sounded very similar to Hipmunk’s “Agony” index, which uses an algorithm to rank flights based on price, duration and stopovers. Routehappy seems to have taken flight ranking a step beyond that with more robust information that includes human input. Take a look at Routehappy and let us know what you think. Leave your comments below.

GET AROUND SFO CEASE & DESIST. The smart guys at FlightCar have found a way around the airport’s recent cease and desist order pushing it and other new-fangled airport transport options such as Lyft off airport property. Now, instead of dropping your car off with a FlightCar attendant at the airport, you drop your car at its off-airport lot, and then a licensed black car brings you to your terminal. When you land, you call FlightCar and the black car is sent to pick you up and brings you back to your car. Have you tried FlightCar? Should unlicensed transportation serviced be allowed at SFO? Leave your comments below. 

Chris McGinnis

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  • crunchy

    “sidegrading” is not a word.

  • joe flyer

    United in primarily interested in two things: flying International passengers and freight, because both are very profitable right now. They are maintaining domestic routes primarily to give feeder access to us to their International routes. Domestic passenger service is a hobby to United, not a business. I’ve been a 1K flyer on United for seven years running, with about 2M miles lifetime with United, but since most of my flying is domestic, I’ve had to change to SWA , even in the Bay Area market. I swore I would hang in there with United, but they prove time and time again that they don’t want domestic flyers to be able to flourish in their business model. Just listen to Smisek’s onboard video about how the B787 and lie-flat seats are changing life for United’s customers; he is basically saying “we want folks who can pay for full-fare business class International flights, who cares about everyone else”. I coulldn’t wait for Tilton to retire, now I can’t wait for Smisek to go.

  • John R. Grout

    United has legroom for sale on almost all its flights. I am 6’3″ and have legs as long as a typical person of 6’7″ or greater, so I need the legroom. Between Southwest’s sale of their FF program to business travelers and their move to even lower seat pitches, they’ve lost my business for good.

  • bob

    Fly Virgin, Nonstop to London.

  • bob

    You must be an employee of the airlines?

  • bob

    I agree. I use to fly United a lot. Then they change their mileage plus program. And now this? Adios United. I no longer fly you. I have to fly to Minneapolis a lot and I now fly Sun Country, yep. Sun Country. Nice airline, great employees and they seem to enjoy their jobs unlike the burntout oldsters on United!

  • http://www.facebook.com/kim.williams.9256 Kim Williams

    You know Chris, it would be really cool if readers posted major deals that they stumbled upon, i.e., first class from SFO to SJO for $1,000.

  • Barry

    Now if Virgin would only do a SJC/SAN flight!

  • thinker

    FWIW, AA, US, and DL have all matched the higher change fees.

  • biggiggles

    Seems obvious enough to me; if there were no $ disincentive to change flights then people would constantly be changing around their itineraries. Yield management would be a nightmare. The airline needs to be able to plan on having actual passengers in the seats that they have sold, with some degree of confidence, in order to calculate pricing, load factors, staffing, catering, revenue flows etc. Revenue from the fees is a bonus, sure, but there are other reasons for these fees.

    Besides, the non-flexible fares and change fees pre-date the current era of charging-for-everything, so to say that it’s “another revenue-generating tactic” as if it were the same as checked-baggage fees or IFE fees (which broadly were not assessed fees until recently) seems too simplistic an analysis.

  • biggiggles

    Agreed. I also fly home to LHR regularly, and BA is a complete joke, I would NEVER fly on BA. At least with UA I get miles, global and regional upgrades etc. UA may be crap, but there’s no better option from SFO for nonstop flights. We have to face it, SFO fliers are essentially captured (unless you’re lucky enough to be flying to destinations that completely fall within the VX network).

  • biggiggles

    That seems like a mistake: American’s merger hell is only just beginning!

    We have to be honest – if you value nonstop flying then SF fliers don’t have many alternatives.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tbayens Tom Bayens

    I’ve used up my Delta miles, and am doing much the same with United. Goodbye, Delta. Hard not to fly UA out of SFO, but Virgin will be my new alternate.

  • Nat

    Now that United actually has seatback entertainment in economy for the CDG route, I might consider it. United is usually last on my list for international long haul for that reason.

  • Chris McGinnis

    I believe a change fee is fair– you are giving up a seat that the airline may not be able to sell again, so there is a cost involved. So if you make a change with little time for the airline to re-sell the seat, it seems reasonable. However, I think $200 to make a small change on a flight booked three or four months out, which likely costs the airline the time it takes to make a few keystrokes, is egregious. — chris

  • Former UA frequent flyer

    The real question is….in this age of online booking, why is there a fee change anyway? It’s not like anyone at the airline carrier’s end is being impacted. You’ve already paid for the ticket and it’s not about getting a refund. It’s just about changing the flight time.
    Let’s be real about the reason…this is another revenue-generating tactic by an increasingly non-customer service oriented industry.

  • Former UA frequent flyer

    I made a decision several years ago to never, ever fly on United again. Too many bad experiences followed by United’s apathetic, half-measured “resolutions.” This $50 hike is just another example of a bloated airline squeezing another fee from the hapless traveler. I just purchased tickets to Japan, and even though United and Delta were lower in price, I chose to go with Malaysia Air. Customer service on American air carriers will just continue to go downhill unless we vote with our wallets.

    BTW, allegiance to an airlines due to frequent flyer membership is becoming less and less important. You save up enough miles, but try to redeem them, especially on United. I tried to book from SFO to LAX once using FF miles….only free flights available were via Salt Lake City! When I checked for paid flights…surprise! Plenty direct flights available.

  • Spysea

    adios United … crap planes , crap service …… last on a customer service list … lost my business !

  • robertlbritton

    I always end up on United despite their ranking as worst. Why? I only fly non-stop, SFO-EWR, SFO-LHR, SFO-CDG. Plus, Economy Plus. Give me those non-stop routes & extra legroom for same $ and other airlines will have my business. Yes, I know AirFrance non-stop to CDG, but more $$.

  • http://twitter.com/lhertz leba hertz

    For some flights the change fee might be more than the flight itself –how crazy is this? At least give your premier members a break

  • StBernard

    Bye Bye United…. Hello Virgin

  • http://www.startupcv.com Tim Dick

    $200 for a domestic flight change / $300 for international is egregious. As a 1K / 2M mile flyer, I’m starting to think of sidegrading to OneWorld now American is getting sorted out.

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