Archive for the ‘SJC’ Category

Airport CLEAR program makes a comeback

Remember the CLEAR registered traveler program? Those who shelled out $179 per year got a special bio-metric membership card, which provided access to exclusive, shorter security lines at 21 airports across the country.

While CLEAR won the hearts and wallets of its customers, it struggled with debt and demand and abruptly shut down last June.

In recent months, a new company called Alclear announced an agreement to purchase the assets of the old company (Verified Identity Pass) and crank the operation back up.

Alclear’s first move was to update the www.flyclear.com web site, which had been dormant. The revived site encourages previous, new, or just curious travelers to fill out a form and vote on which airports where they’d like to see the service. (The site updated again on June 25 with more new info.)

CLEAR says that it will be in both Denver and Orlando later this fall. Prior to shut down, CLEAR was at all three Bay Area airports, OAK, SFO and SJC. But don’t get your hopes up for a quick return. The new company has to sign all new airport agreements, a process which could take quite a while. The site says, “We are in discussions with multiple airports to re-introduce CLEAR,” but does not mention any airports by name. Company president Ken Cornick told The BAT that all three Bay Area airports are targeted to get the service back, but he could not offer any more specifics.

(This post appeared first in The BAT blog for Bay Area frequent travelers. Sign up for The BAT today!)

The site’s FAQs also state that the new company will honor previous members’ remaining membership terms as of June 2009. (For example, those who had three months left in their term will get three months free membership.)It also says that old card will still work…so don’t throw them away!

In what appears to a bungled first step, this week Alclear sent out a confusing and unwieldy email (two full pages, 1200 words) to former members. The gist of the tome was to ask those former members who DO NOT want back in to send the new company a letter (via snail mail) asking to “opt-out” of the new program and have their data destroyed. (Here’s the full email.) Cornick told The BAT he was regretful, but said that this communication procedure was mandated by courts and privacy lawyers and they had to maintain a hands off approach.

Anyway… I was a former member of CLEAR and must admit that the service paid for itself, but not because it actually saved me all that much time. As an elite level member of several frequent flyer programs, I already had access to shorter, faster security lines.

What CLEAR did was remove the uncertainty from the airport screening process- here at Bay Area airports as well as in other airports that don’t have special elite lines, or those that have unpredictable wait times. To me, as a frequent business traveler, that kind of peace of mind was worth $179.

So, frequent travelers, what do you think? Would you sign up again or for the first time?

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Airport security full body scanners: up close and personal

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DzRKw567GVo

Remember last Christmas when the “underwear bomber” almost brought down a Delta jumbo-jet over Detroit?

That prompted the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to grab a big pile of federal stimulus money for about 500 more full body scanners- you know, the ones that produce images like the one you see below.

There are currently 97 of the so-called “advanced imaging units” in use at airports across the country, but TSA says that number will soar to around 500 by the end of this year- with nearly 1000 in place by the end of 2011. That means frequent travelers should expect to encounter more of them, and soon.

Here’s what you need to know:

>WHERE ARE THEY? Just last week The BAT was invited down to San Jose Mineta International to check out the four new “backscatter” scanners that are currently being deployed at that airport’s Terminal A. (Four more units should be operational in SJC’s brand new Terminal B when it opens on June 30.) At San Francisco International, you’ll find full body scanners in the international terminal only. Oakland International expects installation of scanners to begin in July (Terminal 1) and August (Terminal 2).

>WHAT ARE THEY? There are two types of full body scanners: “Backscatter” scanners, which are in use at San Jose Airport, and older “millimeter wave” scanners which are in use at the international concourse at SFO. (See video for a look at the new generation units.)

>WHAT DO THEY LOOK LIKE? The newer backscatter machines look like two big blue boxes with a small open alley down the middle. (Millimeter wave units are rounder looking with the passenger surrounded by Plexiglas for the scan.)

>HOW DO I GET SCANNED? You walk into the scanners, turn sideways, place feet in square boxes marked on the rubber floor, hold hands up and wait for the TSA agent to tell you to exit. The whole process takes about five seconds. (See video for a real-life walk through.)

>WHAT IS DIFFERENT? As usual, you must remove shoes and belts and place them with carry-on luggage in bins. But when getting a full body scan, you must also remove your wallet or any other non-metallic objects from pockets.  (Wallet removal is not necessary with the standard magnetometers.)

>WHAT ABOUT RADIATION? The TSA says that the radiation emitted by these machines is equivalent to what you are exposed to during about two minutes aboard at aircraft at altitude, and far less than what the government permits for cell phones.

>WHAT DO SCANNERS SCAN? Body scanners only expose what’s between your skin and the clothes you are wearing. They are NOT like x-rays, which penetrate your skin and show internal organs and bone. (This is a plus for travelers with artificial joints or other metallic implants who’ve been slowed down and forced to submit to pat downs at traditional magnetometers.)

Dummy image provided by TSA

>WHO SEES MY PRIVATES? The TSA agent directing you into the full body scanner never sees your image.  This officer is wearing an earpiece and is in radio contact with another TSA officer viewing your image in a remote area. Once your image has been checked, this officer then tells the attending officer to allow you to pass, or to subject you to secondary screening if he/she sees any anomalies.  (See video for a behind the scenes look at the remote viewing room.)

>WHAT HAPPENS TO THE IMAGES? The TSA emphasizes that these images cannot be stored, saved or transmitted. In addition, they do no allow officers to bring cameras, cell phones or PDA’s in rooms where images are viewed. (Except for ours, of course, but that was just for the media…)

>WHAT ABOUT ADULT DIAPERS OR SANITARY PADS? Citing confidentiality, the TSA officer at San Jose Airport would not tell me how or if the machines can tell the difference between a sanitary pad and contraband placed in the crotch area.

>WHO IS PAYING FOR ALL THIS? You are. The units cost about $150,000 a pop, which means that the TSA spent nearly $75 million on this latest round of full body scanners. (Check out how the stock of OSI Systems, parent of scanner manufacturer Rapiscan, has soared since Christmas when this order was placed)

So, what do you think, folks? Is this an invasion of your privacy, or a necessary evil for safety’s sake?

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San Jose Airport version 2.0: Wow! (video)

photo: Sherman Takata

(scroll down two view my two-minute video tour of the new terminals)

The sleek new look of Mineta-San Jose’s new airport terminal reminds me of my iPod. Or a space ship. Or a museum. In any case, it’s cutting edge design is now a much more befitting symbol of the Silicon Valley than the version 1.0, which sort of reminded me of my 60’s-era elementary school. (Take my two-minute video tour of SJC)

[The BAT is now on SFgate! Check it out here.]

Last month, the Silicon Valley Business Travel Association invited me to their monthly meeting, which was hosted by airport officials. The SVBTA is a 240+ person organization that represents the interests of corporate travel buyers in the South Bay region—to the tune of just over $1 billion per year. (see svbta.org)

San Jose airport authorities brought in SVBTA members for a look-see because they are eager to get support from the business community necessary to attract more flights and more airlines to its fancy new digs. Why? Because the new digs cost a whopping $1.3 billion, and that mortgage will be repaid in large part by the fees airlines pay to fly in and out of SJC. (The airport is self-sustaining and does not rely on local tax funds.)

Despite its location in largest city in the Bay Area and adjacency to some of the world’s largest tech companies that spend billions of dollars each year on travel, San Jose airport handles less than 20% of all commercial flights in the region.

(Take my two-minute video tour of SJC)

The tech bubble burst and recession have had a severe impact on the airport. For example, the number of daily flights at SJC has fallen from 232 in 2001 to just 125 in 2010—that’s a 42 percent decline. The number of destinations served nonstop has declined from 39 to 28 in the same period. International flights to Tokyo and Paris were scrubbed long ago. Passenger numbers have declined nearly 40 percent.

Airport authorities blame a lot of this decline on what they call the “Virgin Effect.” They say that when Virgin America cranked up operations at San Francisco International in 2007, airlines quickly “herded” around the new entrant, concentrating their Bay Area flying at SFO and slashing prices to protect their market share. That means SFO added 83 new flights since 2007 while OAK and SJC have experienced losses in flights and passenger numbers.

However, there are some notable new flights at SJC: Alaska starts flights to Maui and Kona in March; Horizon just added new flights to Mammoth Mountain and will add flights to Spokane next month. In May, JetBlue adds nonstops to Boston.

(Take my two-minute video tour of SJC)

Airport Primer:

If you find your way to San Jose for a flight in the near future, here’s what you need to know:

>All that’s left of the old structure is the current Terminal C, which will be demolished by this summer. Currently, if you fly into Terminal C (Alaska/Horizon, Delta, Frontier, US Airways), your bags will actually arrive at Terminal B due to construction. (This will change in June 2010 when all airlines move to A or B.)

>Terminal A (16 gates), originally opened in 1990 but has gotten a complete makeover, with a brand new ticketing area, concessions, and a big, bright new security screening area which opened last November. Terminal A handles American, Continental, JetBlue, Hawaiian, Mexicana and United flights.

>The bright new Terminal B Concourse (see video) partially opened last summer with six gates for Southwest Airlines flights. However, until Concourse B is complete this summer, Southwest passengers must enter security at Terminal A and take a rather long walk to their gates. (Take my two-minute video tour of SJC)

>Eventually, an entirely new south Concourse will rise from the site of the current Concourse C, but that depends on when  airport traffic levels recover enough to justify the expansion.

>A new consolidated car rental center and parking deck (the building with the exterior skin featuring giant hands, which can be seen for miles) should open in June.

For more information on airport changes, maps, and services, go to www.flysanjose.com.

(Take my two-minute video tour of SJC)

[The BAT is now on SFgate! Check it out here.]

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A Mixed Bag of Newsy Nuggets: United VERY On-Time, Big New Plane Order, Vegas Packed for CES and more

Boeing's New "Dreamliner." Squint and look at that coach section at the back. Familiar?

UNITED ORDERS NEW PLANES. While they won’t be touching down at SFO until at least 2016, United recently announced that it’s placed orders for 50 new wide-body aircraft. It split the order 50/50 between the Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” and the Airbus A350. Both are about the size of current Boeing 767 or 777 aircraft and will eventually replace them.

NOT SO DREAMY. We’ve got an issue with the whole “Dreamliner” name… and get irritated when we see reporters get all wistful and dreamy-eyed thinking that everyone’s going to get a massage and a flat bed for sleeping (and dreaming) on every flight. Sorry folks—the plane is a dream to the airline, because it purportedly uses about 20% less fuel. But it’s not so dreamy for passengers sitting in coach- it’s just another twin-aisle, wide-body plane…okay, with bigger windows, maybe, but still…. (See photo above. Look beyond those dreamy first class seats!)

LOOK RIGHT>>> AND CHECK OUT OUR NEW ADVERTISER! Cavallo Point, located next to the Golden Gate Bridge (down and to the right if you are headed north) has been on our list of must-see Bay Area hotspots since it opened last year. While it’s a gorgeous, historic and luxurious resort, locals should visit to sit in the winter sun on the veranda at it’s Farley’s Bar, soak in the rays and the views, have a great meal and a bottle of wine….and look for your BAT editor! I’ll be there! Really, folks, if you like what you are reading on The BAT, please support our advertisers! It helps us help you! -cjm

UAL: BEST ON TIME PERFORMANCE—EVER? Yep, it’s true. According to the DOT, United was on time 91% of the time this past November, its best performance since the government starting tracking it in 1987. How did this happen? It’s all about the money according to gadling.com. Since last winter, United has offered all employees a $100 bonus each month the airline tops the DOT on-time ranking. They get $65 for second place.

MORE JETBLUE TO THE BAY. Starting May 13, JetBlue will add new nonstop flights between San Jose and Boston. (Introductory fares start at $99 each way.) JetBlue already offers nonstops from San Jose to New York-JFK. It also offers nonstops between Boston and SFO and Oakland.

CONNECT IN THE BART TUNNEL…EVENTUALLY. If you take BART to/from the airport or to/from work, you’re gonna like this: AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint/Nextel and Verizon flipped the switch on their wireless networks in the Transbay Tube on Dec 20. However, the Chronicle reports that despite the announcement, the service did not work as well as expected, so seamless use of mobile devices in the tunnel could take a while…

FLOWN LOW COST LATELY? Did you know that just 10 years ago, 90% of all air travel in the U.S. was on so-called “legacy carriers” like United, Continental, Delta, etc. Only 10% was on low cost carriers such as Southwest, AirTran or JetBlue. Well, what a difference a decade makes. Legacy dominance has declined to just 74% of the market this year…low-cost carriers have 26% of the market and low-cost giant Southwest owns 64% of that market.

NO MORE THAN THREE. Lengthy tarmac delays are a rarity at Bay Area airports, thank goodness! But they do happen (but mostly back east and most often due to snow and ice or de-icing.) Nonetheless, the feds have enacted new rules (effective later this winter) that will force airlines to provide food and water after two hours on the tarmac and a mandated return to the gate if they’ve been on the tarmac for more than three hours. If they don’t, they are fined $27,000 per passenger (that’s $5.5 million for a planeload of 200 pissed off passengers). Ouch! While the airlines are saying that the new rule will do more harm than good, the reality is that when faced with a fine like that, they will be forced to make operational changes that, in the long run, will prevent the horror stories we’ve all heard about folks stuck in stinky planes for hours on end. Your BAT editor has a comment about the whole brouhaha in this ABCNews.com article.

NEW MEMBERSHIP REWARDS PARTNER. Got a big bank of American Express Membership Rewards points that you are aching to redeem? You’ve got a new option: British Airways Executive Club recently became the 17th participating frequent flyer plan in the program. BA flies to 150 destinations worldwide from SFO via its two flights a day to London. (Stay tuned for a first hand BAT report later this winter from the Maldives…BA’s newest, and perhaps sexiest destination ever!)

VEGAS WILL BE PACKED. All indications are showing that this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (Jan 7-10) is going to be full to overflowing. Why? Pent up demand. This time last year we were all in economic shock. Attendees for CES and many other conventions were forced to cancel their plans. With things looking up this year, everyone wants to go back. So expect FULL flights between the Bay and Vegas, full hotels, and the necessity of restaurant reservations. The city is expecting in excess of 100,000 visitors for this, the city’s largest event of the year.

NEW ARRIVALS TAX IN ARGENTINA. Effective immediately, all U.S. citizens arriving at Buenos Aires Ezeiza Airport must pay a one-time “reciprocity fee” of USD $131.00 upon arrival. Why? Because that’s the amount the U.S. charges Argentines applying for entry into the U.S. (Several other South American countries such as Chile, Brazil and Bolivia already require such fees.) While the fee might make travelers wince, the Argentine government stands to pull in a cool $52 million from the 400,000 or so Americans that arrive each year.

REGIONAL UPGRADES ARE BACK FOR 1K’s. United is getting very good at listening to their best customers. After the backlash surrounding the elimination of regional upgrades, this announcement recently appeared on the UAL site: “Sometimes no change is good news. After our last announcement, we heard from our 1K members how much they value their Regional Upgrades. To thank them for their ongoing loyalty, we’ve decided to continue issuing regional upgrades to 1Ks, even after the unlimited domestic upgrades program launches.” Regional upgrades are considered more valuable than the newer “unlimited upgrades” because they can be applied at the time of reservation.

HILTON HHONORS—GOOD AND BAD NEWS. First the good. Members of Virgin America’s Elevate program can now earn miles for stays at Hilton’s family of hotel brands. Now the bad: Hilton is increasing the number of HHonors points required for award redemptions starting on January 14. Most reward categories will require an additional 5000 points for a free night stay. Stays at Hilton’s poshest brand, the Waldorf=Astoria Collection, are now pretty much standardized at 50,000 per night in the low season and 60,000 in high season.

SOUTHWEST BUMPS UP AT OAK—REINSTATES NASHVILLE. In May, Southwest will restore a single daily nonstop service between Oakland and Nashville, Tennessee. It will also add frequency between OAK and the cities of Albuquerque, Denver, and Seattle-Tacoma.

WHICH BAY AREA AIRPORT DO YOU USE? From a VERY interesting article in the San Jose Mercury News: “Among domestic passengers departing or arriving in the Bay Area, 57 percent use SFO, up from 43 percent just three years ago. By contrast, Oakland’s portion of the region’s passengers has dipped from 33 percent in 2006 to 23 percent now, while San Jose’s share dropped from 24 percent to 20 percent during that span. The analysts contend that the turning point arrived in 2007, when SFO landed low-cost carriers Southwest Airlines, JetBlue Airways and Virgin America. Southwest and JetBlue have long been Oakland territory, with nearly six of every seven passengers taking those two airlines, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. About half of San Jose’s passengers fly Southwest. Now, Southwest has quickly become the third-most popular airline at SFO, even though it does not fly international routes.”

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Summer Airline News: Bag fees, AA shrinkage, nerds, Wi-Fi, more

BAG FEES CONTINUE TO RISE. Virgin America has increased its bag fee to $20 for every checked bag. Meanwhile, nearly every major carrier has quietly raised fees for checked bags to $25 for the first, and $30 for the second (that’s an additional $110 round trip if you check two bags…). Some airlines will knock off $5 per bag if you pay the fee online. For international flights, the new custom is one bag free, then $50 for the second bag. (As usual, fees don’t apply to first/business or elite level frequent flyers.) Southwest remains the only major carrier not charging for checked bags.

AA SHRINKS IN THE BAY. American has eliminated the once popular “Nerd Bird” flights between San Jose and Austin, (is the techie crowd switching over to more teleconferencing? Or is it the economy?) It’s also cut its RJ flights between San Jose and San Diego and reduced frequencies between SJC and Orange County.  With Virgin America, Southwest, United and American all offering nonstop flights between SFO and Orange County, you just knew that one of them had to pull the plug. American will stop flying the route on Nov. 18. We think it’s only a matter of time before the great, shrinking United does the same.

HEY NERDS: YOU CAN STILL GET THERE FROM HERE. About the time American announced it was dumping the Nerd Bird flights, Alaska Air swooped in and announced a single new daily nonstop between SJC and Austin. The flight originates in Portland.

JETBLUE: MORE SFO, LESS OAK AND SJC. Hat tip to the fantastic Cranky Flier blog for this tidbit: “JetBlue will kill one JFK and one Washington/Dulles flight from Oakland. Those airplanes will now become a second daily flight from SFO to both JFK and Boston. JetBlue will also add two more daily flights to Long Beach from SFO and a single additional daily flight from Oakland to Long Beach. Those new Long Beach slots are coming from the three daily Long Beach – San Jose flights which are going away.”

MORE CREDIT CARD OFFERS FROM UAL. Chase is now offering United customers some new credit card flavors. The one that tempts me the most (since I lost Premier status) includes access to EconomyPlus seats ($275/yr). Another provides includes membership to the Red Carpet Club ($375/yr). Another gives Mileage Plus bonuses (such as triple miles for United purchases, double miles for everything else), paving the way to faster free flights ($130/yr). Details here.

UNITED CUTS REDEMPTION FEES. United has unilaterally dumped those obnoxious $75 fees for last minute Mileage Plus redemptions. Good move! Seemed mighty unfair to charge a fee for something that did not cost the airline a penny! (Interesting….other airlines have not matched this move.)

MY WI-FI EXPERIENCE. Your BAT editor has used in-flight wi-fi twice so far and was very satisfied with the experiences (The Gogo Inflight Wi-Fi system is now available on all Virgin America and AirTran flights and on about 60% of Delta planes. It’s also on American’s flights between SFO and JFK and should be on United’s PS flights at some point later this year.)  Signing on is simple. The connection is as good as the one I have at my office (except when streaming video.) The only downside is that wi-fi hogs battery power  (and the only carrier that offers in-seat power at ALL seats is Virgin America.) So my laptop shut down a couple hours into the four-hour AirTran flight between SFO and ATL—so I’m not sure I got my three-hour’s worth for $12.95.

ON-TIME PERFORMANCE CONTINUES TO IMPROVE. The DOT says that 76.1% of the flights operated by the nation’s 19 largest airlines arrived on time in June, compared with just 70.8% in June 2008. There’s a combination of factors at play here, including less congestion and more padding of schedules on the part of airlines. HOWEVER, NYC airports are still in the pits. Despite on-time improvements nearly everywhere, New York’s three airports are STILL stuck at the bottom of the list for major airports. JFK, Newark and LaGuardia airports ranked 29th, 30th and 31st, respectively, for on-time arrivals at the nation’s 31 largest airports.

PLANES ARE STILL FULL. Don’t’ think that the down economy means you might find an empty seat next to you on the plane this summer. Airlines are pulling their large planes out of the skies, parking them in the desert, and using smaller planes instead. They are also cutting back on flight frequencies. As a result, most major carrier planes are running 80-90 percent full this summer…about the same as last summer.

HOW MUCH ARE THEY MAKING IN LUGGAGE FEES? According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, airlines are raking in the bucks when it comes to those obnoxious new checked luggage fees. American leads the pack at $108 million. Delta’s earned $103 million in fees. Which airline has made the LEAST on baggage fees (since it does not charge for the first two bags)? Southwest, of course, at just $6 million. And it even managed to turn a profit in the second quarter!

AMEX HONORING CLEAR CARD DISPUTES. If you charged your Clear Card on AMEX and disputed it, it looks like you should be getting your money back. BAT reader D. Cumpston was the first to email us with the good news: “I got a very welcome letter from AMEX last week saying, ‘We would like to advise you that the status of your claim on your account from Verified Identity Pass Inc. We suspended the amount of $179 and advised you we would contact the merchant on your behalf. Outcome: This dispute has been resolved in your favor. The merchant has not yet provided the information necessary to resolve your claim. Therefore we have issued a credit to your account and removed the previously suspended amount…’ NICE!” Thanks, Amex!

SPEAKING OF CLEAR CARD. After several recent Sunday afternoon flights and LOOOONG lines at SFO security (which looked much worse than they ended up being….they actually  moved very fast) your BAT editor is still missing his CLEAR card fast track. It was such a nice insurance policy against security line disaster. Anyway….There are some rumors floating around about the possibility of a resuscitated program. Stay tuned as we sniff these out! But don’t get your hopes up.

NEW TERMINAL B AT SAN JOSE: The new Terminal B at San Jose International opened last month for Southwest Airlines flyers (only) since the carrier has laid claim to its first five gates. Delta and Alaska Airlines will move in when six new gates open in Terminal B next summer. For now, all other airlines use Terminal A, which is also under renovation, part of a much needed $1.3 billion makeover of the Silicon Valley airport.

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