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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.

WE NEED YOUR HELP! Dearest Bay Area Travelers: The BAT needs more readers. Can you help us out? Please forward this link to frequent traveling friends, travel agents, travel managers, travel bloggers and tell them why you love The BAT and encourage them to sign up! THANKS!

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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Q&A with SAS CEO Rickard Gustafson

SAS CEO Rickard Gustafson chats with crew in the galley. (Photo: SAS)

SAS CEO Rickard Gustafson chats with crew in the galley. (Photo: SAS)

Last week SAS inaugurated flights to San Francisco International Airport  from its main hub in Copenhagen.  A large Scandinavian contingent included SAS CEO Rickard Gustafson, who agreed to a lively Q&A with The Bay Area Traveler-The BAT!

Our warm spring weather was a big hit for the shivering Scandos, who have endured a longer-and-colder-than-normal winter. SFO welcomed the first SAS A340 with a water cannon salute on a bright warm Monday afternoon.

There was also an elegant dinner at the Asian Art Museum where former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown offered his frisky and fun perspective to a crowd of consular and international business types. Word at the dinner was that the active Gustafson (with his  teenage kids in tow) took several sweaty morning runs to soak up the sun and scenery.

The BAT: Why did SAS decide to come to San Francisco? What is it about our city that drew you here? 

Gustafson: SAS has for almost two years experienced increasing interest from our clients towards this destination. Thus, opening this route is obviously a response to the demand from our customers. Then, taking a closer look at the city and the possibilities of the region, we realized that this was a good opportunity to return to the West Coast. [SAS had previously flown to Seattle and Los Angeles, but no more.] When you look at topics like innovation, ambience and the spirit of this large – and somewhat small at the same time – West Coast city it’s clear that San Francisco has plenty to offer.

The BAT: Why should a business traveler from San Francisco choose SAS over United or Lufthansa when traveling to Europe- all are Star Alliance, so what’s the difference? 

Gustafson: There are many good reasons for flying with SAS. We offer a convenient and time saving solution with good connections in our Copenhagen hub. [SAS departs SFO at 5:35pm and arrives in Copenhagen-CPH at 1:15pm. At around 2-3 pm, a large bank of SAS flights departs CPH for major cities in Northern Europe] SAS is renowned for our high service level and also the authentic Scandinavian product and experience on board.

The BAT: Why did SAS choose SFO over the other gateways (like LAX or SEA)? Because it’s a big hub for Star Alliance partner United? Were incentives involved?

Gustafson: We chose SFO primarily due to good connections with United. Then it turns out that we have a really good time slot at SFO which makes both transfer and customs extremely smooth compared to what our customers can experience in other US airports. Avoiding two-hour lines in immigration is definitely a good selling point. Regarding incentives. SFO offered SAS the normal incentives such as marketing support and reduced landing fees.

Copenhagen Airport has gorgeous, functional stained wood flooring throughout. Nice! (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Copenhagen Airport has gorgeous, functional stained wood flooring throughout. Nice! (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

The BAT: How is Copenhagen as a connecting hub? 

Gustafson: The airport offers fantastic connection times and close proximity from intercontinental gates to European gates. Furthermore, SAS has many connecting routes out of Copenhagen to Scandinavia and Europe making it seamless and easy for the traveler.

In business class, SAS offers an "angled lie flat" seat. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

In business class, SAS offers an “angled lie flat” seat. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

The BAT: SAS currently has “angled lie flat” business class seats compared to other airlines like United with true lie-flat seats- are there any plans to change this? 

Gustafson: We are looking at new solutions for upgrading our cabin on long haul, but we can’t be more specific than that.

SAS economy extra offers larger coach seats with more legroom (Photo: SAS)

SAS economy extra offers larger coach seats with more legroom (Photo: SAS)

The BAT: Does SAS offer a premium economy product? How is that? How does it compare to business… and to regular economy? 

Gustafson: Yes on long haul we have economy extra, which will be renamed SAS Plus starting this June, where are changing our service concept completely on short haul flights. As a matter of fact our premium economy product was awarded as the best in 2012. On long haul we’ll rename our premium economy and regular economy to SAS Plus and SAS Go. With SAS Plus we offer better seats and legroom, an upgraded service concept and two meal servings. Passengers get access to SAS lounges and fast track immigration lines. In SAS Go we also offer two meal servings, free luggage and all our online check-in services. We say that SAS Go is for those who want much, and Plus is for those who want even more. [SAS adds that there are three meal services on longer hauls, such as CPH-SFO]

During business class meal service, flight attendants done chef uniforms, which adds to the flight's "hygge" (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

During business class meal service, flight attendants don chef uniforms, which adds to the flight’s “hygge” (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

The BAT: What is inflight service like in business class on SAS? How does it differ from what a traveler would get on a US carrier? Is it Scandinavian-style service? What does that mean? 

Gustafson: Obviously, it’s an experience that one needs to acquire personally. We offer individual service with a warm, friendly and charming Scandinavian atmosphere. We serve modern Scandinavian food and our staff act sincere and true in their relation with the travelers onboard. [See “hygge” below]

The BAT: Is SAS owned or supported by Scandinavian governments? How does that work? 

Gustafson: SAS is listed on Stockholm, Oslo and Copenhagen stock exchanges. The Swedish government owns 24% of shares, the Danish government owns 14%, the Norwegians own 14%, and 7% is owned by the Knut och Alice Wallenberg Stiftelse Foundation. The other 41% is on the open market.

The BAT: If I have a three-day business trip to Copenhagen with a little free time on my hands, what are the TWO things I must do when I’m there? 

Gustafson: Experience the concept of Danish “hygge” (means have a good and cozy time) by visiting different town parts: Nyhavn, Tivoli, the Carlsberg grounds as well as parks and places around the town. And going to Copenhagen you must try many different restaurants – the city is known for premium food (new Nordic cuisine) with the world’s best restaurant Noma and several Michelin restaurants.

-Chris McGinnis

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Travel Q&A re: Boston bombing

Today SFO>Boston flights unaffected by bombs (Photo: Barkley Dean)

Today SFO>Boston flights unaffected by bombs (Photo: Barkley Dean)

What’s the situation at local Bay Area airports?

At 4 pm today, my contacts at the airports as well as readers surprised me with NO reports of longer lines, increased scrutiny, etc. Boston had a brief “ground stop” which lasted only about an hour, and apparently operations are back to normal there and elsewhere… FAA airport delay map shows green dots only across the country.

How early people should arrive at the airport?

As always, people should arrive 1-2 hours early– However, if delays increase at airport security due to more intense scrutiny, this is a great time to utilize what I call the “No hassle travel trifecta” 

What you should do if you’re traveling to Boston this week? 

Some Boston hotels are already offering no-questions-asked refunds. If you have a reservation downtown near site of bombing, I would cancel and ask for refund. If you are stuck with a non-refundable hotel reservation from a third party site (like Expedia, Travelocity, Hotwire), I would call the online agency and ask to be moved to another nearby hotel at the same rate. Virgin America is waiving change fees for those traveling to/from Boston April 15-17.

Will airport security become more strict in coming days? 

No sign yet of increased airport security or more intense scrutiny of passengers. I’m monitoring this now. If you have noticed more intense scrutiny at security checkpoints, please leave your comments below. Best news is that we are currently in a relatively slow travel season… spring break has just concluded, so airports are relatively uncrowded and quiet. Expect to see a very visible police presence in most major downtown areas and famous, popular sites, as well as airports.

NOTE: The situation is still very fluid and subject to change.

 

Chris McGinnis

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SAS arrival + Fight over Jersey + Taipei Delei + United woes

The first SAS A340 arrives at SFO to a water cannon salute (Photo: Joe D'Alessandro)

The first SAS A340 arrives at SFO to a water cannon salute (Photo: Joe D’Alessandro)

SKAL TO SAS. SAS touched down at SFO last Monday at around 2:30pm. While the BAT was unable to attend the airport arrival celebration, reader Joe D’Alessandro sent along the above photo of the first SAS A340-300 getting a water cannon salute. Within 10 minutes, we posted the photo on The BAT Facebook page and our sister column on SFgate. D’Alessandro is the head of San Francisco Travel, and was at SFO to give a welcome speech, during which he mentioned the quickly posted photo as an example of the power and reach of social media in the Bay Area! Cool! (The BAT’s onboard SAS this week bound for Copenhagen, so stay tuned for our review!)

Pete Cashmore (Mashable) and Richard Branson on the Virgin America Inaugural LAX-EWR flight.

Pete Cashmore (Mashable) and Richard Branson on the Virgin America Inaugural LAX-EWR flight.

VIRGIN AMERICA IN JERSEY. Another inaugural this week: Virgin America jets touched down in Newark, New Jersey, with Richard Branson and Mashable’s Pete Cashmore onboard in a Google+ Hangout, in which Branson shared that fares between California and Newark are down 40% since Virgin’s entry into the market. In later interviews, Branson talked about the possibility of filing an antitrust complaint against United for its overwhelming buildup of flights in response to Virgin’s entry into the market, which The BAT pointed out in early March.  United was quick to point out that its response was nothing more than business as usual. What do you think?

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TAIPEI DELEI. United has postponed the start of its nonstops between SFO and Taipei for a full YEAR- until March 2014. Originally, flights were to have started this month, but that was then pushed until June. Routes Online reports that the delay is due to “market seasonality and the availability of wide body aircraft as a result of the ongoing Boeing 787 delays…. Due to the 787 issue, the Boeing 777 that we would use on the SFO-TPE route is now needed to support other existing routes that we planned to transition to Boeing 787s.” Speaking of United’s 787’s, the currently grounded plane is now back on United’s schedule starting May 31, flying between Denver and Houston. However, the FAA has not yet given airline the green light to fly 787s, but it’s expected soon. (United’s new flights to Paris, announced at the same time as Taipei, crank up on April 26.)

United CEO Jeff Smisek

UNITED CEO PAY CUT. The Miami Herald reports that CEO of United Airlines saw his total 2012 compensation shrink 41 percent last year after stumbles in the airline’s merger with Continental. Compensation for Chairman and CEO Jeff Smisek was $7.9 million last year, down from $13.4 million after a cut in his incentive payments.

MEGA-MILEAGE BONUSES. Did you check out our post this week on two new sites offering big bonuses for hotel stays… how about 15,000 United Mileage Plus miles for a three night stay in NYC or Chicago? Not bad. But not for everyone. Read about it here.

Virgin America's newest A320's have sharklets on the wings. Seen em? (Photo: Virgin America)

Virgin America’s newest A320′s have sharklets on the wings. Seen em? (Photo: Virgin America)

BEST AND WORST OF TIMES. Interesting to note that the much-ballyhooed (but generally ignored by consumers) “2012 Airline Quality Rankings” came out this week with the Bay Area’s two largest airlines at opposite ends. Virgin America ranked #1… and United ranked dead last at #14. Virgins’ win was attributed to its smaller, more manageable size, newer planes, wi-fi, fun crews, etc. Most of the blame for United’s dismal showing was based on its computer switchover and consolidation with Continental woes. Do these survey results make you MORE likely to choose Virgin and LESS likely to fly United? Please leave your comments below.

Here’s how the airlines ranked in 2012, as well as their position the previous year.

1) Virgin America (new to the ranking this year*)
2) JetBlue (3)
3) AirTran (1)
4) Delta (6)
5) Hawaiian (2)
6) Alaska (5)
7) Frontier (4)
8) Southwest (7)
9) US Airways (8)
10) American (10)
11) American Eagle (15)
12) SkyWest (9)
13) ExpressJet (new to the ranking this year*)
14) United (12)
*In order to qualify for inclusion in the report, an airline must carry at least 1 percent of domestic passengers.

ELEGANT EVENING. On Tuesday, SAS threw an elegant dinner party for about 150 at the Asian Art Museum. Among the dignitaries on the dais,  SAS CEO Rickard Gustafson and ex-SF-mayor Willie Brown, who’s energetic and spot on speech brought the relatively buttoned up house down. What a show! Bay Area Traveler editor Chris McGinnis was honored to be among the attendees.

photo

-Chris McGinnis

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Mega mileage earning bonuses proliferate

A room at the Andaz Wall Street in NYC nets 15K Mileage Plus miles (Photo: Andaz)

A room at the Andaz Wall Street in NYC nets 15K Mileage Plus miles (Photo: Andaz)

Word about two new travel websites, RocketMiles and PointsHound, which woo frequent travelers with massive mileage bonuses for hotel bookings, is starting to leak out.

A quick scan of RocketMiles today shows that it is currently offering 15,000 Mileage Plus miles for a three-night stay (@ $493/night) at the swank Andaz Wall Street in New York City in late April. On Pointshound, book three nights at the trendy James Chicago hotel at $254/night, and you earn 6,600 Virgin America Elevate points.

Sounds to good to be true, right?

Let’s take a look and see if they are right for you.

First off, these sites are likely appeal to the type of traveler who is more focused on earning miles than saving money. That’s because the rates they offer are close, but not always as low as those found on more conventional booking sites.

They are set up to appeal to so-called “rogue” or “unmanaged” travelers—those who are not required (or choose not) to book hotels through a central corporate travel department or agency.

Screenshot from RocketMiles

Screenshot from RocketMiles

Pointshound founder Peter Van Dorn told The BAT that a light bulb went off when research showed that 61% of all business travelers book hotels wherever they want, regardless of company policy (and without penalty). He added, “The other related data we found encouraging was the size of this  market: ~8 million elite-level frequent travelers in the US make 13 hotel bookings a year on average. At ~$300 per stay, this gets to a market size of $30 billion just in the US.”

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Earn 8,000 Mileage Plus miles at the Westin Michigan Ave in Chicago (Photo: Westin)

Earn 8,000 Mileage Plus miles at the Westin Michigan Ave in Chicago (Photo: Westin)

How do they do it? Generally, the sites buy distressed hotel room inventory (unsold rooms) at a discount, then mark the rate up to the average online travel agency price, and take that spread. Then, they buy miles from airline programs to provide members with the incentive to book through their sites.

“Every property is selected and screened by our staff of experienced business travelers. RocketMiles attracts the type of frequent travelers that our hotel providers are trying to reach, which is why they offer us rates with enough margin to bundle the rooms with incredible amounts of airline miles. It’s a win-win for everybody,” said RocketMiles founder Bjorn Larsen in an interview with The BAT from Chicago.

Both sites are free. And both offer the promise of big mileage bonuses, but there are some differences worth noting.

Pointshound, with offices in downtown San Francisco, was first to market with the concept (Oct 2012), and partners with more than 150,000 hotels around the world.  It offers mileage bonuses on three different tiers based on rate—the cheapest rates net the fewest bonus miles. Pay a bit more, and your bonus-earning blossoms, or you can pay a rate that allows you to earn both miles and hotel points. Members earn miles with United Mileage Plus, Virgin America Elevate, Delta SkyMiles, American AAdvantage among others.

RocketMiles is just coming off beta this month, and its hotel inventory is limited—on purpose. The site states, “We don’t want to bother you with unremarkable offers…We only offer a handful of hotels in cities and neighborhoods where our customers travel the most.” When you book via RocketMiles, you are unable to earn hotel program points. But the mileage bonuses it offers are tough to resist. RocketMiles works with United Mileage Plus, Delta, American, US Airways, and Hawaiian.

Sounds great, but not everyone is completely sold on the idea yet. Seth Miller, who writes the popular and pithy Wandering Aramean Boarding Area blog told The BAT,  “I’m not entirely convinced that either product is going to be universally better for travelers. There are so many booking portals now, each with their own hook trying to get a share of the booking market…In many ways the proliferation of these sites makes it harder for consumers to compare the total value proposition. That’s not to say that they’re bad; it just means a bit more work to truly maximize your travel dollar.”

Note: These sites have “refer a friend” offers which The BAT signed up for (and you can, too).  So if you make a booking from links posted here, we get 250-1000 miles. Come on and help us out! 

When it comes to hotels, are you a price shopper or a points shopper? Are the big bonuses worth shopping yet another travel site? Please leave your comments below.

-Chris McGinnis

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Ridesharing unwelcome at SFO + Virgin matches SW elite + New arrival from Europe

In this issue: Ridesharing unwelcome at SFO, Virgin expands elite matching, SAS nonstops from Copenhagen land at SFO, United upgrades IAH terminal, Presidential visit, 787 flying (empty), $100K a year to travel and blog?

No more pink moustaches at SFO (Photo: Lyftstagrams)

No more pink moustaches at SFO (Photo: Soy_Fans - Lyftstagrams)

RIDESHARING UNWELCOME AT SFO. San Francisco International has issued cease and desist letters to six car/ride sharing services picking up or dropping off customers at the airport. Uber’s licensed, chauffeured town cars are allowed at SFO, but UberX “community drivers” are not. Sidecar, Lyft, InstantCab and FlightCar (recently included in The BAT) all received the letters. Do you use ridesharing services? What do you think about this? Leave your comments below. 

MORE ELITE STATUS. Virgin America has expanded and enhanced its elite-level status match promo. Now, Southwest Rapid Rewards elites (in addition to United and American elites) can get bumped up to Elevate elite. Virgin has also extended the deadline to enroll until June 30.

NEW ARRIVAL FROM EUROPE. A water-cannon salute awaits SAS’s first Airbus A340 at SFO when it lands this Monday (April 8) between 2 and 3 pm.  SAS will offer flights between San Francisco and Copenhagen six days per week (no Tuesday flights). The Bay Area Traveler-The BAT will be trying out the new service later this month, so stay tuned for a full report. Skål!

How do you get the presidential helicopters to SF? On a C5 freighter like this (Photo: SFO)

How do you get the presidential helicopters to SF? On a C5 freighter like this (Photo: SFO)

ENTOURAGE. President Obama and entourage arrived at SFO last week for some Bay Area fundraisers. In addition to the bright and shiny Air Force One B747, a giant C5 military cargo jet was also stationed at SFO all week (which transported the presidential helicopters, et al). Did you see it? Obama’s helicopters touched down at Crissy Field for Golden Gate Bridge photo ops, and then buzzed down to Atherton for the events.

OAKLINK. Have you noticed the progress on the 3.2-mile AirBART rail line connecting Oakland Airport to BART’s Coliseum station? There is now a 300-ft span over I-880. The project is now 60% complete…and should be operational in late 2014.  Will you consider Oakland Airport more often when the trains start to run?

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NEW TERMINAL AT IAH. If you fly United via its massive Houston Intercontinental hub a lot, you will be pleased to see the new $152 million Terminal B south concourse opening this month. The new concourse will house operations for all United Express regional flights. It’s about four times larger than the old terminal, with lots of new stores and celeb-chef and regionally inspired eateries.

COOL TRAVEL JOBS. Have you ever dreamed of being a travel blogger? Travel website Jauntaroo (set up to help you decide where to go on vacation) is hiring a “Chief World Explorer” to travel the globe for a year, at $100,000 salary, to blog about their experiences and give back to communities through the site’s “Travel With a Cause” commitment. Details are thin right now, but Jauntaroo says it will open applications later this spring, and has produced this teaser video to build awareness. Tourism Australia has just launched a separate, but similar “Best Jobs in the World” promo, offering six positions at $100,000 each for just six months work. What are you doing reading The BAT? Get that application in now!

DREAMLINER UPDATE. Boeing is now conducting test flights of its beleaguered 787 Dreamliner, and will submit results of those and other tests to the FAA. The New York Times reports that the FAA could approve the changes later this month, and the plane could be flying again in May—just in time for the busy summer travel season. Would YOU jump on a Dreamliner this summer? Please leave your comments below.

IN THE BAT LAST WEEK. United is expanding its operations at SFO’s Terminal 1 while delays have pushed back the completion of Terminal 3 renovations. Also, there are a few new details about United’s new p.s. service to New York.

-Chris McGinnis

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United’s transition to “new” p.s. flights

United's new p.s business class seats on the SFO-JFK run. (Photo: United Airlines)

United’s new p.s business class seats on the SFO-JFK run. (Photo: United Airlines)

Do you jump on United Airlines p.s. service flights to New York much? If so, take a look at this document produced by United that clearly spells out how it plans to make the transition from the current “old” p.s. service to the “new” p.s. service that debuted last month (covered by The Bay Area Traveler- The BAT- right here.)

Some highlights and new information from the document:

>Prepare for “a mix of aircraft configurations” on the SFO-JFK route as aircraft are taken out of service for their revamps- these can include: two-class internationally configured 757, three-class “old p.s.” 757, or “new p.s.” two-class 757. For a while it is going to be tough to determine exactly which aircraft you’ll get (even on United’s website) until a few days before each flight.

>The transition will last through the end of this year, at which time all 13 Boeing 757 aircraft with new p.s. will be in service.

>New configuration will have a newer, faster version of Gogo inflight internet, and 110v power outlets in all seats (no adapter required).

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>In addition to new seats, these old 757′s are getting new lavatories, flooring, sidewalls, galleys, closets.

>Starting June 6, all flights will operate as 2-class cabins (business and economy), even if you fly on an “old p.s.” plane. Former United First seats in rows 1-3 of non-reconfigured aircraft will be sold as United Business.

>Who gets those first class seats at a business class price? The doc below says, “Seats will be available for advance assignment for the following Mileage Plus Premier members, confirmed in United Business: Global services, Premier 1K, Premier Platinum, Premier Gold at any time after booking.” Premier Silver members can ask for one at time of check in.

Here’s a PDF of the United document:

UnitedAirlinesNewPSclass

Have you flown on a newly configured p.s. 757 yet? How was it? If not, what do you think about the new configuration? How will it compare to Virgin, Delta, JetBlue and American? Which one do you prefer on the SFO-JFK run? Please leave your comments below. 

-Chris McGinnis

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United to remain in Terminal 1 at SFO until 2014

Construction progress on Boarding Area E at United's Terminal 3 at SFO. (Photo: SFO)

Construction progress on Boarding Area E at United’s Terminal 3 at SFO as of March 14. (Photo: SFO)

Have you flown United Express out of San Francisco International Airport (SFO) lately?

If so, you likely know that most (but not all) United Express flights now use Terminal 1 instead of United’s Terminal 3.

Passengers who don’t know- and enter the airport at United’s T3- must descend a metal stairway and into a small shuttle bus that moves through the bowels of the airport and then deposits them on the ramp by Terminal 1.

Since The BAT broke this news last June, United has been using Terminal 1 for its Express flights while it waits for reconstruction of Boarding Area E (the old American gates) to be completed, allowing it to consolidate its operations in Terminal 3.

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Originally, the reconstruction of Boarding Area E was to be complete in October 2013. This week SFO spokesperson Doug Yakel told The BAT that completion of Boarding Area E has been pushed back “until late January 2014.”

Yakel explained that the delay is due to, “the addition of items in the project scope, including additional airline and concession space as well as expanded wayfinding. The biggest single item was the addition of another elevator, which required the creation of a new elevator shaft.”

Yakel also confirmed a rumor we reported last week that is only going to add more to the confusion: SFO has allocated Gate 47 in Terminal 1, Boarding Area C (the Delta terminal) to United starting July 1. But, he said, “It remains to be see how United ends up using it.”

So far, our requests to United for more information have not been answered.

Have you experienced United’s musical gates at SFO? Please leave a comment about your experience(s) below.

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Screen shot 2013-03-24 at 10.10.48 AM

-Chris McGinnis

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Catching up on Bay Area Travel News - March 24 2013

 

Inaugural Hawaiian Airlines A330 gets a water cannon salute upon arrival in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo: Hawaiian Air)

Inaugural Hawaiian Airlines A330 gets a water cannon salute upon arrival in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo: Hawaiian Air)

A NEW WAY TO AUCKLAND. On Wednesday, Hawaiian Airlines added yet another new international route from Bay Area airports via its Honolulu hub: Auckland. Flights operate Monday, Wednesday and Friday only using a 294-seat Airbus A330. We checked on roundtrips in mid April and found fares as low as $766 round trip including all taxes and fees. (That is a remarkably good deal.) Business class is in the $5,000 to $6,000 range. Only Air New Zealand offers nonstops to Auckland from SFO. The New Zealand city is the seventh new international destination Hawaiian has added since 2010, which include Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka, and Sapporo, Seoul, and Brisbane. Flights from Honolulu to Sendai, Japan start in June service to Taipei cranks up in July. Hawaiian has also launched a Facebook promo campaign for two free tickets. Would you consider flying Hawaiian to New Zealand or Asia? Why or why not?

Screenshot of Hawaiian Air booking

Screenshot of Hawaiian Air booking

NEW UNITED APP. This week United introduced a new app for Windows Phone 8 that allows users to book flights (including award travel), check in, get mobile boarding passes, monitor flight status and view Mileage Plus accounts. The United Windows Phone 8 app is available from the Windows Phone Store. Since the Bay Area seems to be Apple country, I have a question: Do you or anyone you know have a Windows phone? How is it?

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Knee room in an "Even More Space" seat on a recent JetBlue flight SFO-BAS. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Knee room in an “Even More Space” seat on my recent JetBlue flight SFO-BOS. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

JETBLUE ADDING PREMIUM FLIGHTS? JetBlue is hinting around that it might add some sort of premium seating on its transcon flights from Bay Area airports, according to AP. Have you flown JetBlue back east? What did you think of the product? From my experience, the JetBlue coach seat is quite comfortable, but without wi-fi for those 5-6 hour flights, it’s a tough sell for wired travelers. However, JetBlue says it is getting new satellite-based wi-fi this year.

Screen shot 2013-03-24 at 10.10.48 AM

MUSICAL GATES AT SFO. Here’s an interesting email from a dumbfounded reader who wasn’t warned about the fiasco of flying on United Express out of SFO. “So weird. We came to the United terminal at SFO to fly to Burbank but now we have to take this weird shuttle to another terminal. Had to go thru an ‘employee only!’ Entry down some rickety stairs and on to a tiny little bus thing.  So odd!!!” It could get even more confusing…we hear from SFO insiders that United will soon start using gates in the Delta gates (C) at Terminal 1, too. Stay tuned…

ON-TIME PERFORMANCE AT SFO. When you hear Virgin America and United chest beating about their stellar on-time performance at SFO in January, don’t forget this important fact: January 2013 was the third driest January in SF history! Just wait til the fog rolls in!

Dramatic rooftop pool at the brand new Okura Prestige hotel in Bangkok (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Dramatic rooftop pool at the brand new Okura Prestige hotel in Bangkok (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

BUSINESS TRIP: BANGKOK. Are you headed to Bangkok…or do you just dream about going there? Check out the advice and photos in Chris McGinnis’s latest BBC Business Trip: Bangkok- read up on the rash of new luxury hotels, where to get great Thai food, where to get a suit made, and why you should NOT ask for chopsticks.

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A special charter to London for Bay Area techies

A screenshot from BA's UnGrounded campaign.

A screenshot from BA’s UnGrounded campaign.

When airlines hold press conferences, they usually want to show off how passengers can get a good night’s rest in a business class seat that converts to cozy flat bed. Or they will announce their latest celebrity chef-inspired meals or big seat back video screens to keep travelers entertained on long haul flights.

That was definitely not the case at a British Airways presser in downtown San Francisco last night.

In a total about face, BA’s press conference was all about how they are going to ask 100 big shot Bay Area and Silicon Valley innovators to work during an 11-hour, chartered Boeing 747 flight from SFO to London.

And as soon as they arrive, they’ll have to present their findings to a like-minded group of global thought leaders.

Huh?

BA called the presser at to announce UnGrounded a new “innovation lab in the sky” that is designed to get Silicon Valley thought leaders, entrepreneurs, VCs and academics together in the confines of a jumbo jet to help solve global problems.

UnGrounded is the evolution of a business networking concept BA launched during the dark days of 2009 called Face-to-Face, which brought together hundreds of entrepreneurs hoping to expand their businesses overseas on free networking flights to London. (See The BAT report about BA’s Face-to-Face flights here Below is a video shot during that 2009 flight).

“Great innovation only happens face-to-face and our airline facilitates that,” said BA’s EVP, Simon Talling-Smith.

The first UnGrounded flight will depart SFO on June 12. The 100 industry leaders onboard will be tasked with coming up with a platform to help match tech talent with tech opportunities around the world.

“The talent crunch is a real issue for companies in major tech hubs around the world. We need to give more people the opportunity to discover and be discovered,” said Amir Dossal, a special representative from the UN on hand at the event. He said the gap between tech talent and tech opportunity is widest in the “STEM” fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

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BA 747 at SFO (Photo: AngeloAngelo / Flickr)

BA 747 at SFO (Photo: AngeloAngelo / Flickr)

To come up with an innovative way to solve that problem, 100 thought leaders will be holed up on a big 747 that can hold up to 345 passengers. BA has hired Palo Alto’s well-known design firm IDEO to help orchestrate this very special flight—and get the job done.

To help them find and invite those 100 bright minds, BA tapped into the networks of several Bay Area big shots such as Leor Stern of Google, Gerald Brady of the Silicon Valley Bank, Celestine Johnson of Innovation Endeavors, Marguerite Gong Hancock of Stanford, Rhonda Abrams of The Planning Shop, Duncan Logan of RocketSpace, and Todd Lutwak at Andreesen Horowitz. BA has also partnered with the UN and the Decide Now Act (DNA) Summit in London.

I asked if there was any way my readers could apply to be one of the chosen few for this flight. The response was sort of a “don’t call us, we’ll call you.” The special 100 will be “hand selected and curated” by the UnGrounded Advisory Board. Or you could try explaining why you’d be perfect for this flight by sending an email to: ba.ungrounded@ba.com

Interested? Here’s more.

-Chris McGinnis

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