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Virgin America CEO David Cush: Why San Jose?

(Phoot: Drewski2112 / Flickr)

(Photo: Drewski 2112 / Flickr)

This morning, Virgin America announced that it will add four daily nonstops between San Jose International (SJC) and Los Angeles (LAX) starting May 1.

Virgin CEO David Cush told The BAT that he has been actively engaged in talks with San Jose airport and civic leaders for the last 18 months. He said that while San Jose was more interested in Virgin adding long haul flights to the east coast, he wanted to test the waters at SJC with new flights to LA first. “With high fuel costs, adding new flights from San Jose to east coast cities is just too risky for us right now,” he said.

Virgin will be entering the very crowded San Jose-LAX run, which is already served by four carriers: Low fare leader Southwest (which has pushed Virgin off routes such as SFO-Orange County), United (which dominates the Bay Area) as well as American and Alaska Airlines. Southwest flies a one-class 737 on the hour-or-so long route, United and American fly one-class regional jets, and Alaska uses a turbo-prop.

Cush told The BAT that Virgin is already competing well with those carriers on the SFO-LAX run, where it offers eight flights per day. “We will be the only carrier on the route to offer first class, wi-fi and satellite TV on a mainline, two-class jet (Airbus A320). Plus, we have a nice new lounge at LAX to attract business travelers.”

Virgin America CEO David Cush

Virgin America CEO David Cush

Another plus for business travelers: Virgin’s flights will depart from gates adjacent to the nice, new, $35-per-visit Club at SJC. Cush said that he would investigate how Virgin might team up with the lounge to offer special access elite-level members of the Elevate program.

Another reason frequent travelers might consider driving down to San Jose to catch a plane to LAX: weather. “For example, this morning our flights at SFO are delayed at least an hour due to low visibility, but flights are running on time in San Jose. I think that many of our customers in the indifferent zone around Palo Alto are likely to opt for San Jose on days like today,” said Cush.

He said that his market research shows that Virgin customers in the South Bay are willing to drive to SFO for its long haul flights to the east coast, but not so much for short hop flights to points along the west coast. For this reason, Cush decided it was time to “dip our toe into the market and see what happens.”

This marks the first time Virgin has ventured south to the San Jose International, which its leaders have said suffers from “the Virgin effect”—referring to the popularity of SFO compared to airports in San Jose or Oakland due Virgin’s low fares—and those of its competitors.

Current mid-week fares on the route are at about $178 round trip. Virgin will post its fares on the route tomorrow morning. Cush said he expected fares on SJC-LAX and SFO-LAX would end up on par with each other. Here’s the schedule:

Screen shot 2013-02-04 at 10.46.49 AM

To entice Virgin into this fray, San Jose is waiving landing fees at the airport for one year- a savings of about $490,000 according to airport officials. San Jose Airport spokesperson Rosemary Barnes said, “We will realize increased revenue from more passengers who park on-Airport, spend at restaurants and shops, and increased  passenger facilities charges (PFCs) which go back to reinvesting in our infrastructure.” San Jose offered similar enticements to ANA to snag its (currently mothballed) 787 Dreamliner flights to Tokyo.

“We are delighted to welcome Virgin America as our newest airline partner and I’m confident they will receive a very warm welcome in San Jose,” said SJC’s Director of Aviation Bill Sherry. “Silicon Valley includes the world’s most tech-savvy frequent fliers who we know will love and embrace Virgin America’s unique product and branding; this is a winning combination.”

What do YOU think will happen? If you live on the peninsula or in the South Bay, will you choose Virgin to fly to LA from San Jose? Please leave your comments below.

Virgin Press Release

-Chris McGinnis

Flying to New Orleans for Super Bowl

Southwest nonstops between SFO and New Orleans. Get /em while they are hot! They will not last.

Southwest nonstops between SFO and New Orleans. Get /em while they are hot! They will not last.

As soon and the 49ers defeated the Atlanta Falcons yesterday, I checked in with United to see how much it would cost to fly nonstop to New Orleans for the Super Bowl on Feb 3. At that time, nonstops were running a cool $2166 round trip. Ouch! And United is the only airline that offers regularly scheduled nonstop flights between the Bay Area and New Orleans. Update: Most UAL nonstops are now sold out on or around Super Bowl weekend.

Then, this afternoon (Monday), Southwest Airlines announced that it was adding special nonstop flights between SFO and New Orleans (MSY) for Superbowl weekend. It’s adding two nonstops on Thurs, Jan 31 from SFO to New Orleans… and two return nonstops MSY>SFO on Monday Feb 4. Round trip fares are not cheap- right now they are $1270.00. Southwest’s 737s only hold about 150 passengers (depending on which type they use) so you can bet these seats will go fast!

One stop flights between Bay Area airports and New Orleans on a variety of airlines are now going for about $1500 round trip.

Hotel prices are, as expected, rapacious. Super 8′s going for $400+ per night! See this. Willing to bunk up in someone’s house or extra room? Non-hotel lodging options are somewhat plentiful on Airbnb.com, Couchsurfing.org or Craigslist.

Oh, and then you’ll have to buy tickets for the game, too. Right? They are now going for about $2000 each. 

I’m hearing that United or other airlines may step in with more special flights from the Bay… I will update with new info on this page if they do…

Are you going to go?

-Chris McGinnis

Catching up on travel news 1-19

American Airlines bright new look. What do you think? (Photo: American Airlines)

American Airlines bright new look. What do you think? (Photo: American Airlines)

If you’ve been following The BAT this week, you know that I’ve been buried in the Boeing 787-ANA debacle- interesting times in Tokyo! Hope you enjoyed the coverage.

Thanks to ANA for inviting The BAT along for what turned out to be a very bumpy ride. All 787′s are currently grounded, and new San Jose - Tokyo flights are in limbo for the near future. Currently, it appears that the crux of the issue is the overcharging of the plane’s highly volatile lithium ion batteries.

Now I’m reviewing all the news I missed on this side of the Pacific last week. Lots happened here that will have an impact on Bay Area Travelers- BATs!

>American Airlines rolled out a new livery for its planes (see above). So long to its polished silvery birds. As usual, pundits have generally panned the new paint-job, but at The BAT, we like it. What do you think? Too bad that American’s presence continues to dwindle in the Bay Area as it focuses on other key hubs.

>The movement to re-name SFO for Harvey Milk is stirring up controversy- some city leaders and gay rights advocates embraced the idea early on, but the tide seems to be shifting away a name change, at least according to the letters to the editor in the San Francisco Chronicle. In any case, it appears that San Francisco voters will likely be seeing this on a November referendum. Let’s go ahead and vote on it now! How do you feel?

How do you feel about renaming San Francisco International Airport?

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Please leave any additional comments you have about renaming SFO in the comments box below. 

>The TSA has decided to remove all “backscatter” screening machines that use low-dose X-rays made by Rapiscan. Instead it will be using only the L3 millimeter wave machines (that use radio waves) nationwide. At SFO, only millimeter wave machines are in use. However, in San Jose, backscatter machines are still in use. Millimeter wave machines are circular, glassed-in units. Backscatter machines require passengers to stand between to large blue boxes.

>United has changed its boarding process, reducing boarding groups from an unwieldy seven to six. “Preboarding” is for Global services, uniformed military and passengers requiring assistance. Group 1 will now be for paid first/business class, Premier 1K and Platinum. Group 2 is for Premier and Star Alliance silver, gold, Mileage Plus Awards and Explorer card holders (good luck!). Groups 3-5 will be for everyone else. Will this help or hurt the boarding process?

>United has installed satellite based wi-fi on one 747, which means that passengers on that jet can log on on the long over-water flights. It’s also put it on two A319 flying domestic routes. (Good luck determining which ones and whether you’ll have it on yours…) Too bad you still can’t log on over the good old USA on most UAL flights, as you can on all Delta and Virgin America flights, and most Southwest and American flights. However, United says that the wi-fi access should be available on over 300 mainline aircraft by the end of this year. In an interesting new twist, the price is tiered- standard speed runs between $4 and $15 based on flight duration. For faster speeds, you’ll pay between $6 and $20.

>Starting in 2014, Delta Air Lines will require its elite level members to hit certain spending thresholds (from $2,500 to $12,500) in addition to miles flown to attain or maintain “medallion” status. This is seen by many as the first step in a process that will turn SkyMiles into a program based on how much money passengers spend instead of how many miles they fly. Virgin America and Southwest have already moved to revenue-based plans. Could United be next? Probably not until it has put its operational house in order… but you never know… stay tuned…

>The flu epidemic that has missed California is now hitting the state rather hard. Time to wash hands frequently, travel with a handkerchief and handiwipes, and keep your fingers away from your face. And if you get sick, please cough into your sleeve, collar or a hanky- not into your hand! Or just stay home and off planes…

 

Boeing’s 787 grounded: My report from Tokyo

The view from the 47th floor of the Park Hyatt Tokyo (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

The view from the 47th floor of the Park Hyatt Tokyo (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

(TOKYO, JAPAN) Here I sit at the Park Hyatt, Tokyo (the Lost in Translation hotel) watching the morning sun hit Mt Fuji, and watching the headlines and emails about the FAA’s grounding of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner spew forth from my laptop.

As you may know from previous posts, I flew to Tokyo last Saturday aboard one of the first Dreamliner flights to depart San Jose International airport. While there were operational issues with the aircraft at that time,  passengers I spoke with felt confident about flying the brand new 158-passenger bird across the Pacific. Our 10-hour flight to Tokyo was delightful and without incident.

I was traveling with a group of travel media, and during our interviews with ANA executives on Tuesday, we were assured that these were “teething issues” that fell within the band of normalcy for any new aircraft. They were still very excited about the aircraft with plans to buy several more.

While new at San Jose, ANA has been flying the 787 for a year and a half, with rave reviews from passengers, pilots and the media in general. We had heard US Transportation secretary Ray LaHood state a few days earlier that he’d feel confident flying on a 787.

Then, on Wednesday morning here in Tokyo, we heard that a Dreamliner had made an emergency landing at an airport in western Japan, and that all passengers had been evacuated. Apparently, an indicator light told pilots that there was a battery issue, and that there was an unusual odor in the cockpit. After that incident, ANA immediately grounded its fleet of 17 Dreamliners and launched an investigation into the cause. At that time in the US, the FAA said that it was looking into the incident.

Inspecting ANA's maintenance hangar at Haneda Airport on the day before the 787 was grounded. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Inspecting ANA’s maintenance hangar at Haneda Airport on the day before the 787 was grounded. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Half of our media group had reservations to fly out of Tokyo bound for San Jose on the 787 on Wednesday afternoon. However, thanks to the slower winter travel season and quick action on the part of ANA staff, there was enough room on Wednesday’s ANA flight to San Francisco to accommodate the group and they all got home safely. I was glad I had already booked my return trip to SFO on an ANA Boeing 777 (instead of the 787 into SJC) for later this week.

Last night, I pondered what all this meant as I sat having a meal in the Park Hyatt’s New York Grill & Bar, thinking about Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation drinking Suntory whiskey, listening to a “Sausalito”-like chanteuse croon while the Tokyo skyline twinkled 52 stories below.

I had a great night’s sleep (almost no jet lag on this trip…maybe due to the 787’s new cabin pressurization … or the Park Hyatt’s comfy beds?) and awoke to another bombshell: The US Federal Aviation Administration had grounded the 787 until it could determine the cause of the incident.

With sketchy information and investigations underway, it’s too early to conclude that the aircraft is fundamentally flawed. But the recent rash of incidents and media hype around them are certain to cause concern…

Here’s a list of what is swirling around in my head about this now. Conclusions will come later….

>First, I’m grateful to be safe and sound in a nice hotel in Tokyo, and not stuck at an airport due to a flight cancellation. I’m glad to have the chance to ride on the 787… and equally glad I have a reservation to get back to San Francisco an ANA 777.

>It’s tough to speculate on what this means for ANA’s new 787 flights between Tokyo and San Jose. The 158-passenger Dreamliner is perfect for a “long, thin” route like Tokyo-San Jose. I think it’s unlikely that ANA will substitute another aircraft on the route—such as a Boeing 777 or 767 because they are simply too big—there is not enough demand in the South Bay to keep a 200-300 seat aircraft full. (American Airlines used to have a 777 on the route, but discontinued the flight in 2006.) So if the grounding of the 787 is short term, the outlook for the route should be okay… is it’s a long-term affair, the future of the route is cloudy.

>ANA is handling cancellations on a day-to-day basis- for example, I’ve just learned that Friday’s flight between Tokyo and San Jose has been canceled, but no decision has been made for Saturday’s flight. On ANA alone, Dreamliner cancellations affect the plans of 4,800 passengers per day, according to a spokesperson.

>The impact of the controversy is likely felt most acutely here in Japan- ANA has a fleet of 17 Dreamliners, most of which are used for domestic flying, so re-accommodating passengers is causing some pain. Japan Airlines has grounded seven 787s. In addition, the lithium ion batteries in question are made in Japan. It’s difficult to watch all this come down on the gentle, polite Japanese who feel deeply embarrassed and apologetic about the whole affair.

>The current FAA grounding will affect flights on United’s 6 Dreamliners, however, none of them now fly into the Bay Area, so the local impact is minimal. United is the only US carrier now operating the plane.

>For perspective, I think it’s important to look at a similar incident regarding the giant Airbus A380 last year. If you recall, serious structural and mechanical issues (cracks in wings and an engine fire) forced Australian authorities to ground the plane until remedies were in place. The grounding was temporary, and the A380 was quickly back in the skies. Hopefully, engineers will be able to find a similar fix for the Dreamliner’s lithium-ion batteries, which seem to be the cause of the jet’s most severe problems at the moment.

>Even if the 787 gets back in the skies quickly, some business travelers will likely book away from 787 flights out of fear that future groundings or reliability issues could foul their travel plans.

>Regarding how the airlines might get this fixed, Hudson Crossing aviation analyst Henry Harteveldt told The BAT: “It’s possible the correction may be a multi-step process — a short-term ‘tactical’ fix followed by more in-depth corrections, which may be more complex. Short-term, we may see the FAA recommend airlines limit the types of routes where they operate the 787 — for example, flights that last no longer than a certain number of hours, flights that operate only over land (or close to it), or both. Longer term, the FAA may recommend adding a fire suppression system to the battery bays, replacing the lithium-ion batteries, or something else.”

>The big question remains: Is this plane truly safe to fly? At this point, no one really knows. It’s going to be interesting to watch this pan out.

I’m firmly in the “wait and see” category when it comes to the idea of booking flights on the 787 in the near future. What about you? How do you feel about the 787? Do you trust the airlines, manufacturers and government regulators to keep you safe? Please leave your comments below.

-Chris McGinnis

Inflight: ANA’s Boeing 787 from San Jose to Tokyo [PHOTOS]

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Checking in at SJC-- 40 minutes south of SFO (without traffic)
Since the 787 holds only 168 passengers, check in is fast and easy
11:45 am departure from San Jose
First stop: SJC's new business class lounge
The lounge had Japanese newspaper and mags, but no miso soup for breakfast
Time to board the shiny new bird
Note the slight curvature of the wing's edge
46 of the plane's 168 seats are in business class-- all full on this flight
Pre-flight champagne or cold green tea
And we are off! Arcing out over Moffett Field, north over SFO and The City
Business class seats are staggered 1-2-1 or 1-1-1-- all on an aisle
If working, the center single seats are best-- look at all that space to spread out
Space is a little tighter on the center aisles in the 1-2-1 rows...but still...fine
This is a window-side aisle seat-- large workspace to the left, and then window
I had a center aisle seat-- with a shelf for in-flight parapernalia
tray tables fold out into enormous work spaces...
My tray table was large enough for my food tray and iPad
Plenty of storage space for reading material, menus, etc
Nice view from a window seat of the wing's elegant bow. See the Japanese red sun out there?
Here's the money shot: lav with a view! See the big Rolls-Royce engine out there?
Japanese-style toilet with seat warmer and sprayer (seriously!)
Sprayer controls! Front or back?
Economy class seats configured 2-4-2
Excellent inflight entertainment options and large screens
Economy seats get a generous 34" of pitch, compared to 31" or 32" on US carriers
In the middle of the middle in economy there are TWO armrests.
Back at the front of the plane, it's time for champagne.
3 types of sake on the menu
I chose a sake Hakkaisan Ginjo, from northern Japan
A nice starter-- chicken salad tart, melon wrapped in prosciutto
I chose from the Japanese menu-- seabream and octopus sashimi
assorted cold fish
excellent miso soup
European style cheese offering
With a robust Selene Cabernet Sauvignon
ice cream, too
All biz class passengers get Sony noise canceling headsets- leave the Bose at home
Plenty of power-- with outlets at every business class seat
For sleeping, seats recline into true lie-flat position
ANA's expansive true lie-flat business class seat on its Boeing 787 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)
Now that's one very flat surface.
I'm 6'1" and fit comfortably-- but found the seat cushion a little hard
Our flight path-- 10 hours in the air
My favorite course: mid-flight bowl of warm udon noodles
Tint can be adjusted electronically on oversized windows- like transitions lenses
Sweet note from flight attendants helping me with key Japanese phrases
Almost there!
Deplaning onto a tarmac bus offered a nice photo opp
Wow! What a flight. I did not want to get off the plane.

(Tokyo, Japan) Wow. I’ve just flown across the Pacific on the world’s most advanced commercial jet- the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. It is the  only 787 currently flying out of the Bay Area (United’s 787 to Houston was only temporary), and the only transoceanic flight out of San Jose International Airport. And despite the recent concerns about the 787, I felt completely safe on this plane, as did all other passengers I spoke with.

Now I’m sitting in a Tokyo hotel loading up some great slideshow photos of the trip and recounting the flight. Some thoughts:

>I live in San Francisco, so I imagined that the 45-60 minute drive (depending on traffic) down to San Jose would be a pain- however, the quick and easy check-in, security and boarding process at SJC made up for time I felt I’d lost on the trip down.

>The windows on the 787 really are bigger (by 20%)- it’s the first thing you notice when stepping on the plane. Instead pulling shades up and down, window seaters can adjust the tint electronically- sort of like Transitions Lenses.

>Lower pressure and higher humidity in the 787 cabin are detectable- for one thing, your eyes and lips don’t dry out as fast. I’m not sure how to describe the feeling other than to say that cabin air just felt softer. And I felt better when I got off the plane.

>I felt slightly more vibration from the engines on this flight, likely due to the plane’s composite structure. Also, seat cushions seemed harder than average.

>The plane exudes spaciousness with higher ceilings and a wider fuselage- there just feels like there is more space, even in economy class. The extra-large business class section (46 seats) seems to take up half the plane.

>Seatback inflight entertainment screens are big- 17 inches in business, 11 inches in economy. Both classes have 160 channels to choose from.

>In business class, the BEST seats are odd numbered window seats, and even numbered center seats- check out the slideshow and you will see how a center seat on this plane is like sitting at the helm of Starship Enterprise. If you can put up with the commotion around the galleys and lavatories, bulkhead seats are the best of the best seats on the plane in terms of personal space.

>Inflight dining in business class blew me away- the food and drink menu is 24 pages long (!), well suited to both western and Japanese palates. (I went native and ordered off the Japanese menu…See the slideshow above to learn which was my favorite dish. Oishii!)

>The Dreamliner is relatively small plane: Only 158 passengers (46 business, 112 economy), which makes it the right size for smaller markets like San Jose. Compare that to a Boeing 747 which holds 350-400 passengers. End result? Boarding is fast and easy- it feels like a less crowded domestic flight.

>ANA’s roundtrip coach fares between SJC and NRT are about $1,500… Business class fares are in the $4,000 range,  pretty much the same as Tokyo fares out of SFO. ANA is a Star Alliance partner, which means opportunities for earning and burning Mileage Plus miles on these flights.

>Finally, there’s a window in the lavatory- and the Toto toilet has a heated seat with sprayer-  you’ve got to flip through the slideshow above to see it!

So whaddya think? Would you be willing to drive down to San Jose to give ANA’s 787 a try? If you live in the South Bay, will you be able to break out of your habit of driving to SFO to fly to Asia? Would you consider flying ANA to points beyond Tokyo? Please leave your comments below! 

Disclosure: ANA covered the cost of my trip to Tokyo.

 

ANA’s B-787 Dreamliner at San Jose Airport [PHOTOS]

A water cannon salute for the arrival of ANA’s first flight from Tokyo (Photo: San Jose Int’l Airport)

ANA’s B787 Dreamliner unloading at San Jose International Airport. (Photo: San Jose Int’l Airport)

ANA’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner prepares for takeoff as media look on. (Photo: San Jose Int’l Airport)

Sayonara to ANA’s first departure from San Jose at 11:45 am. Plane arrives Tokyo tomorrow at 4:10 pm. (Photo: San Jose International Airport)

Here’s the press release from San Jose Airport about the arrival of ANA’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner today.

I’ll soon be on this big bird across the Pacific, and then return on an ANA Boeing 777  into SFO…and I’ll compare the ride. Which one do you think I’ll prefer??

 

New business class lounge at San Jose Airport [PHOTOS]

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To enter The Club, take the stairs by gate 15
Welcome to The Club at SJC
Priority pass regular and select members get free access
A fun and friendly bar area
Seats for socializing
A nice lipstick pop of color here and there
A fun communal table (with electrical outlets, natch) in the bar area
The single shower feels a little cold and sterile
Classy wood stained work carrels
Enough plugs for an army of business travelers (US style only)
Access to two PCs and a printer
Mostly cold buffet items
The view from the club overlooking Gate 15-- boarding area for ANA's flight to Tokyo
Several works from local artists on display... and for sale
Seating on the quieter "business side" of the club
Inside the private meeting room

 

To coincide with the launch of ANA’s new nonstops to Tokyo, San Jose International Airport opened a big, bright, world-class, $1.6 million business class lounge this week.  And The BAT was there with a camera! (so please click through the slideshow above!)

A big, bright room for socializing

A big, bright room for socializing

The Club at SJC” is located across and upstairs from gate 15 (Terminal A) and is only accessible to those inside airport security. While ANA business class passengers can use the lounge for free, anyone can enter by paying the $35 fee for day use. Priority Pass cardholders (both regular and select) have access, too.

The lounge will be busiest during the hour or two prior to ANA’s departure at 11:45 am, but the club is open daily from 5 a.m. until 10 p.m.

Once inside, everyone gets:

  • Snacks and beverages, including beer, wine and well-brand booze. You pay a premium for call brands like Patron or Grey Goose.
  • Free Wi-fi access
  • Access to a single shower room (towels, shampoo and soap provided)
  • Business center with access to two PCs and a printer
  • One private conference room

The 7,400 square foot club consists of two large rooms separated by the bar/buffet area. The eastern side is for socializing, with a bar, a large communal table and plenty of comfortable seating arranged in conversation nooks. It’s also the bright side,with views east over parking lots toward downtown San Jose.

ANA crews are ready to welcome business travelers to the new Club at San Jose

ANA crews are ready to welcome business travelers to the new Club at SJC

The western side is the business side—where you’ll find handsome stained wood work carrels with electrical outlets, and seats for those who need to sit and relax or get some work done. Windows look out at the airport concourse below, and beyond to runways. (See slideshow above)

In between the two rooms is the buffet, which will offer mostly cold snacks such as sandwiches, cheeses, vegetable crudités and chips. However, the lounge will offer hot breakfast items from 9:30 to 11:30 each morning prior to ANA’s 11:45 a.m. departure.

The lounge has a maximum capacity of 128. There are enough electrical outlets (US-style only) throughout the club for an army of business travelers. The interior design is modern and comfortable, with mostly neutral tones, but occasional pops of color, such as lime green. (See slideshow above.)

The San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art has partnered with the lounge, and is exhibiting eye-catching and unusual travel-related works from local artists that are also available for sale. (See slideshow above for a look at the art.)

San Jose’s lounge is the fifth “common use” business class airport lounge opened by The Club Airport Lounges. It has recent opened two lounges at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas, one in Dallas Ft Worth, and another at the new terminal at Raleigh-Durham.

Do you like what you see? Is an airport lounge enough to get you to give SJC a try? Why or why not? Please take a look at the slideshow above, and leave your comments below.

-Chris McGinnis

 

Singapore Airlines giant Airbus A380 arrives at SFO

Singapore Airlines’ giant Airbus A380-800 on a rainy Friday night at SFO preparing to depart for a midnight departure for Hong Kong (Photo: SFO)

Last  Friday (Dec 28), a giant double-decker Singapore Airlines Airbus A380 arrived at San Francisco International from Hong Kong at 7:10pm, marking the first A380 flights between SFO and Asia. (SFO has seen A380s from Lufthansa and Air France previously.) Singapore Airlines is offering this “pop-up” service on the San Francisco>Hong Kong>Singapore route between now and March 24 only- and will switch back to standard Boeing 777 service after that.)

To mark the occasion, Singapore held a reception at the gate for its flight SQ 1, departing at 11:48pm for Hong Kong and then continuing on to Singapore.  There were 438 passengers on the departing flight, with eight in the jumbo’s well-known luxury suites (first class); 45 in business class, and 385 in economy class.

The big bird departs from gate 101 at SFO’s international terminal- specially designed to accommodate passengers entering the upper and lower levels. When boarding, economy class passengers take an escalator down to the lower level for boarding. Business and first class passengers board from the terminal’s main level via a third jetway connected to the plane’s upper deck. (See photo)

Unlike other carriers, Singapore’s seat configuration on the A380-800 has its 12 first class suites at the front end of the lower deck, with 311 economy class seats behind. Upstairs, there are 60 business class seats in the front end of the deck,  then 88 economy class seats behind that. (Here’s a link to the configuration.) There are staircases at both the front and the rear of the aircraft.

**Would you be interested in a private tour of Singapore Airlines’ giant Airbus A380 double-decker? Click here for details! **

One of three jetways help speed boarding the giant aircraft which carried 438 passengers on its first flight from SFO. (Photo: SFO)

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Passengers onboard Singapore’s first A380 flight from SFO saw special signage at check in and were treated to a special reception at the gate. (Photo: SFO)

 

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SFO spent millions to accomodate the A380 with three separate jetways- two for economy passengers who enter on a lower level, and one for business and first class passengers who enter from the main level. (Photo: SFO)

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The tail of this big bird soars 80 feet in the air. It’s 238 feet long, and its wings span a whopping 262 feet. (Photo: SFO)

*****

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More United 747′s coming to SFO

A United 747 (Photo: United Airlines)

Starting in April of 2013, United plans to turn its San Francisco International Airport base into a 747 hub of sorts.

In an internal memo obtained by The BAT, United tells employees it’s doing this to concentrate all the 747 parts, tools and spares at one hub, resulting in a more reliable 747 fleet. Maintenance for United’s internationally configured 767s and 777s will be consolidated at Chicago, O’Hare.

This means in addition to current 747 flights from SFO to places like Sydney, Hong Kong or Tokyo, it will soon be all-747s-all-the-time between SFO and Frankfurt, Heathrow, Osaka and Taipei (starting in Oct). United’s new flights to Paris, which begin April 11, will use a B767.

It also means using 747′s on its Honolulu-Tokyo NRT flight. The 747s on the LAX-Sydney route will remain in place.

Cozy, updated United business class upstairs on a 747. (Photo: TransWorldProductions / Flickr)

United has 26 747s in its fleet, with an average age of 17 years.

While some fliers may consider the 747 the “Queen of the Skies,” many airlines have begun to dump the plane recently in favor of the more fuel efficient Boeing 777 and 787. For example, Singapore Airlines, which at one time operated more 747′s (37) than any other airline, retired the big bird last Spring.

Japan Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Korean Air and Malaysian have already or will soon phase the 747 out of their fleets. British Airways is now the largest 747 operator, with 55 in its fleet. Among US carriers, only United and Delta operate the 747. Delta recently did a nice job re-doing interiors (business and coach) on its fleet of 16 747′s.

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At an average age of 17 years, United’s 747 fleet is getting a little long in the tooth. For business and first class passengers, seats have been upgraded to true lie-flat seats — and it does not get much better than a nice lie-flat seat upstairs on a 747 (see photo above).

Back of the plane on United’s 747-400′s (Photo: Flikr / Altair78)

But the situation is a bit different at the back of the plane- Unlike its revamped 777s and 767s, there is no seatback entertainment in economy or premium economy classes on United’s 747s. Even United CEO Jeff Smisek has said that economy class on United’s 747s is “unacceptable.”

Brett Snyder, who runs the Cranky Concierge service told The BAT: “The good news is that having the 747 operation focused on SFO where maintenance is will help improve reliability.  The 747 fleet isn’t exactly the best operational performer for United, and I assume that’s why they’re making this change.  The bad news is that coach still sucks.  They still have overhead video screens back there and the 3-4-3 configuration isn’t going to be a favorite for many.  They say they are putting in some wireless streaming video that people can use on their own devices, but good luck finding a device with a battery that will last all the way to Hong Kong.”

What do YOU think about United’s fleet of 747s? Is a 747 base at SFO a good thing…or not? What’s your preferred bird for transoceanic flights? Why? Please leave your comments below.

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Virgin America’s new lounge at LAX

Virgin America’s new Loft lounge at LAX (Photo: Virgin America)

At San Francisco International, Virgin America’s digs at the bright-n-sassy new Terminal 2 are so nice that the whole thing feels like an airport club.

However, those who have flown Virgin to Los Angeles know that’s not the case at LAX- despite upgrades, facilities at Terminal 3 are sub-par- and frequently crowded.

But if you have elite status with Virgin’s Elevate program,  or an extra $40, all that changed today with the opening of Virgin America’s new 4,500 sq ft Loft lounge. It’s located inside security on the second floor of Terminal 3- occupying the space previously used by Alaska Airlines.

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The space was designed by Jesse McMillin, creative director at Virgin America, and from the video below, the mod furnishings and red, white and black color palette and mood lighting look very similar to… the inside of a Virgin A320, or our very on T2 at SFO. (The BAT profiled McMillin’s “Cool Travel Job”  last year.)

The Loft has a maximum capacity of 90. Elevate silver members get two free passes per year; Gold members get three. Once you have used those up, day passes are available for $40. It’s open from 6 am until 11:30 pm daily.

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Sponsor:  

For a limited period, San Francisco passengers will have the opportunity to experience spacious luxury onboard the world’s largest commercial aircraft, the Airbus A380 on flights to Asia.  Between December 28, 2012 and March 24, 2013, Singapore Airlines will pop into town with daily “Pop-Up” A380 flights between San Francisco and Singapore via Hong Kong.  Flip through this slideshow to see its famous Suites and the widest Business Class seats in the sky.

SQ1 departs SFO at 10:50 pm and arrives in Hong Kong at 5:50 am two days later. Flight time is about 13 hours to Hong Kong, and with another 3.5 hours to Singapore, you’ll have plenty of time to soak up the luxury and explore the 1000+ onboard entertainment options.  SQ2 arrives daily in SFO at 7:45 pm on the same day it departs from Singapore and Hong Kong.

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