CLEAR security lanes return to SFO

CLEAR, which offers expedited access to airport security lines for $179/year, announced today it will launch its service at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) on May 23, just ahead of the Memorial Day weekend travel crush.

CLEAR lanes will be located at every terminal at SFO, allowing every passenger on any airline to use their biometrics to speed through security. “We are thrilled to bring CLEAR’s biometric platform to San Francisco, a city synonymous with innovation and efficiency. SFO joins CLEAR’s growing network of airport partners bringing much needed speed and predictability to the travel experience,” said CLEAR CEO Caryn Seidman-Becker.

CLEAR Lanes are now available only at Orlando and Denver. SFO will be the third airport to join since the company sprang back to life after a hasty retreat in 2009. Dallas-Ft Worth Airport is apparently next on the list, although no formal date has been announced.

CLEAR says it has a base of more than 200,000 members across the U.S., including about 40,000 in San Francisco. San Francisco International is introducing CLEAR says the launch means 85 new private sector jobs, enhanced security, and new revenue for the airport. For more info, see www.CLEARme.com.

Interested? Is predictability at airport security worth $179 per year? Please leave your comments below.

How to use your phone overseas- and not spend a fortune

(Photo: Jorge Quinteros / Flickr)

Did you get a shiny new iPhone or smart phone for Christmas? Are you worried that it might cost you a fortune if you dare to turn it on overseas? In this guest post, longtime BAT reader Jim Braude offers some excellent tips for staying connected when overseas– whether you use an iPhone or an Android device. Braude divides his time between Atlanta and Paris managing a delightful collection of guest apartments in both cities that he rents to travelers.

Learn From My Mistakes!

The first time I came here [to France] with my iPhone I didn’t pay attention to details or warnings, resulting in an $1800.00 bill after just two weeks. Now I’ve learned the tricks and happy to share them with you. — Jim Braude, ourhomeinparis.com

1 – Use the wi-fi! Most hotels and all of our apartments have unlimited wi-fi use. Of course, it makes sense to do as much data transfer as possible using the wi-fi network, as it’s the 3G that nails you if you go over your limit (see next point). More coffee houses are adding wi-fi too as a free perk, but be careful if non secured.

2 – AT&T has three features that greatly reduce the bill:

>Global messaging – 200 international text messages for 30.00

>International roaming – data – 125MB for $49.99 – this is greatly reduced recently. If you use it with ONAVO (see below) it’s more than enough for a once-an-hour check of emails for a full month.

>International roaming – voice – $5.99.   Cheaper long distance to the US.   But I use SKYPE when on wi-fi instead, which is even cheaper.

3 – SKYPE nothing beats Skype to Skype video calls, free and with the newer Macs you get really clear sound and picture.

4 – ONAVO is a free app for iPhone that compresses data and greatly reduces the amount of data transmission– it literally halves your incoming data bill.

5 – PHONE TAG – for $9.99/month.  I forward my incoming voice calls to my phonetag number, it then computer-generates a voice to email message, and sends me an email. This also makes it unnecessary to check voice mail which I prefer. It’s not perfect– occasionally the computer will make some odd choices in its translation from voice to text– but it includes an attachment of the actual voice message that you can listen to if needed as a back up.

6- CHANGE SETTINGS. Change how often your phone checks for email from every fifteen minutes to every hour during the day and change to MANUAL setting at night unless you have wi-fi setting and wi-fi remains on 24/7.

7- WHATSAPP - an almost free app (99 cents) for international texting, works great [across iPhone, Android and Nokia platforms].

8 – GET AN APARTMENT - when a homeowner gets cable service in France, it costs only 5 euros more per month for the owner to add unlimited free calling to the US or Canada from a fixed line.  Warning: some carriers do NOT allow free calls to mobile phones–only to fixed lines–  so confirm that first. And confirm whether the country you are calling is on the free list.  When you install cable (and wi-fi and phone) in your apartment, calls to the US and Canada are almost always free, from both both fixed line and mobile.

9 – PICKPOCKETS – the number one most stolen item in France is the iPhone. DO NOT leave it on a table top at a cafe. A young man covered mine with a newspaper as he asked me a question and took my iphone away in seconds, but I caught him in the act. Avoid using on the subway as you are alerting those around you that you are a prime target. Never leave your iphone in backpack or purse that is behind you rather in front of you.

Do you have any other money-saving or hassle-reducing tips on using your mobile phone overseas? If so, please leave your advice in the comments box below!

United to install fleetwide inflight wi-fi (finally!)

To me, the introduction of in-flight wi-fi is the best thing to happen to air travel since the introduction of the jet engine. I love it. It makes me more productive. It makes the flight go by much faster. I now choose my flight based on whether or not it has wi-fi. And relatively speaking, it does not cost that much at $6 to $15 per flight.

While SF-based Virgin America has had inflight wi-fi since it first took off in 2007 and Delta Air Lines and AirTran completed fleetwide installations last year, United, the largest carrier at SFO, has only offered it on flights to or from New York.

That’s about to change.

Today United has officially announced that it has selected Panasonic Avionics Corporation to provide Wi-Fi connectivity on more than 300 United Airlines and Continental Airlines mainline aircraft beginning in mid-2012.

And the wait might have been worth it…. That’s because the Panasonic Ku-band system that UAL has chosen will work on flights WORLDWIDE! Across oceans! That’s because the Panasonic system utilizes a satellite based network to provide connectivity. The biggest drawback to the Gogo system used by Virgin, Delta and AirTran is that it’s dependent on a ground based system of antenna, so it only works when flying over the US—once you fly overseas, the service quits. (Gogo does have plans to eventually adopt a satellite-based system; Row 44, which supplies wi-fi to Southwest Airlines, also uses a satellite-based system).

Jim Compton, United’s executive vice president and chief revenue officer said, “As a global carrier, we selected satellite-based Ku-band technology to enable customers to stay connected on long-haul overseas flights, something no other U.S.-based international carrier currently offers.”

United expects to install the Panasonic system on Airbus 319 and 320 and Boeing 747, 757, 767, 777 and 787 aircraft. Customers will be able to use their wireless devices such as laptops, smart phones and tablets onboard those aircraft to connect with internet service using the in-flight hotspot.

United’s entire mainline fleet will be equipped with Wi-Fi by 2015. Details regarding the installation schedule and pricing are not yet available.

This is super exciting news for United devotees who have felt left behind when nearly every other carrier was offering inflight wi-fi.

How do you feel about this announcement? Will it impact your decision to fly United instead of another carrier? What’s the most you’d pay to be connected to the internet for a flight from SFO to Tokyo…or Frankfurt? Please leave your comments!

Google unveils flight search tool (Video)


Today Google unveiled its long awaited new flight search tool. Take a look at the video and a spin through the tool and share your thoughts…do you like it better than your favorite online booking tool? Is this a game changer?

I like what I see…in typical Google style, its super fast, clean and simple, easy to understand, and unbiased. Right now it’s a work in progress, so there are no international flights, or options for one way travel. It also only displays Southwest flight times, but not fares.

What do you think? Please leave your comments below.

New Google travel tool leads to new discoveries

Have you had a chance to check out Google’s new travel tool? Last Friday the Internet giant quietly announced a new search tool that helps travelers quickly see which airlines serve a specific route and when they fly.

For example, having written about new competition on the SFO-Chicago O’Hare route last week, I was curious to use the tool to see exactly how many flights per day there are between the two cities.

So I went to the Google search field and entered “flights from San Francisco to Chicago.”

On the results page I got this:

The results perplexed me. Why? Because it displayed the airlines on the route as “United, American, Virgin America, and 2 more.”

TWO more? I knew that Southwest also served the route via Midway. . . But what was the other carrier?

So I clicked on the drop-down “schedule of nonstop flights” and scanned down the list and learned something new (as is often the case with any Google tool. . .). I learned that Continental Airlines now offers a single daily nonstop on the SFO-ORD run using a nice new B737-900.

How did I miss that one? First, I went to my blog post and updated the info, including Continental.

Then I called on SF-based travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt and asked, “Huh?”

He said: “This actually illustrates the benefits of the United-Continental merger: Allowing the airline to deploy capacity in markets where there is strong demand, or a need to defend key markets by enhancing the schedule. Having shrunk itself over the past few years. . .United has a relatively small domestic mainline fleet so Continental can help fill in aircraft capacity gaps.”

So I’m already hooked on this new Google travel tool. This is the first move Google has made in the travel space since its recent acquisition of ITA Software, the company that provides the backbone for most airfare searches. It’s going to be interesting to see what else the brains down in Mountain View come up with when it comes to travel search. . . Stay tuned!

Inflight mobile phone calls coming soon. Thoughts?

Passengers on this gorgeous Air New Zealand A320 can now make cell phone calls in flight. (Photo: Air New Zealand)

Passengers on this gorgeous Air New Zealand A320 can now make cell phone calls in flight. (Photo: Air New Zealand)

Whether you like it or not, in-flight mobile calls may soon be coming to an airline near you.

Air New Zealand recently signed up with Geneva-based OnAir, an onboard system that allows airline passengers to use mobile phones, laptops and other portable devices to communicate with the ground using voice and/or data connections.

While some carriers, such as British Airways and Qatar Airways, use OnAir to allow only data communications (text, e-mail), Air New Zealand joins several other airlines, such as Emirates, Malaysia Airlines, Royal Jordanian and TAP Air Portugal, that use the technology to allow mobile voice calls on certain flights. It’s a highly controversial notion in the US, where lawmakers have proposed laws that would ban in-flight voice calls.

OnAir and other companies such as Aeromobile employ picocell technology, deemed safe by aviation authorities. With the flip of a switch, any airline using OnAir can set the system to offer both data and voice calls on any flight. (Voice calling is available to anyone with a GSM phone and an international roaming agreement- calls typically run $2-$3 per minute)

To read the rest of this post and learn which other airlines could be offering cell phone service, click here and read it on my BBC.com Travel Blog

Top 10 predictions for BATs in 2011

(Photo: Garry Knight / Flickr)

It’s that time of year again…when travel pundits and prognosticators do their best to gaze into the future and predict what may or may not happen in the big wide world of travel in the coming year.

Here are my top ten predictions for frequent travelers in 2011:

1-RISING PRICES. Business travel prices will continue to rise, but not enough to dampen renewed demand.

2-AIRFARE. Fares will continue to rise sharply, especially for flights between cities where only one or two legacy carriers operate. From the Bay Area, all you have to do is follow the route maps of Virgin America, Southwest and JetBlue to know where the deals are (or aren’t). Also, prepare for more fuel surcharges if oil hits $100 per barrel- it’s currently about $89 and rising.

3-TRAVEL DEALS. In terms of travel deals, there will be a wider gap between peak season and off-season prices. Those with flexibility to travel outside the peak travel dates will continue to find good deals and more short-term “flash” type sales. Those who must travel during peak periods will face sticker shock.

4-HOTEL RATES. Due to continued overcapacity, hotel rates should remain about the same or slightly up, on average, over the next year. Hotel rates in New York City will rise, but a steady supply of new hotels opening there should keep rate inflation to acceptable levels, especially among mid-tier properties.

5-FREE WI-FI. More upscale hotel chains will join their midscale counterparts to offer free in-room Wi-Fi. We’ll also see hoteliers pay more attention to bandwidth issues on their existing systems. What good is free Wi-Fi if it doesn’t work? In-flight Wi-Fi prices could moderate as Southwest’s $5 flat fee for inflight Wi-Fi expands to more flights.

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6-LONGER STAYS. Hotel chains will offer more loyalty program promotions designed to get travelers to increase the duration of their stays. (Such as “buy two nights, get the third free.”)

7-DRIVING VS. FLYING. Due to recent changes in security screening, the airport hassle factor could return, and more frequent travelers will consider driving instead of flying. The “five hour rule” might change to the “six hour rule.”

8-MOBILE DEVICES. We’ll see more focus on business travelers’ smart phones, which will soon be used to open hotel room doors and will be accepted as payment instead of credit cards. There will be more promotions designed to encourage the use of mobile devices to book and manage travel reservations

Old school Airfone

9-IN-FLIGHT PHONING. In-flight phone calling, now available on several non-U.S. airlines will become more prevalent and might even be considered by a domestic carrier. High per-call rates and peer pressure should keep abuse in check- remember those pricey GTE Airfones that no one ever used because they were too expensive? I expect the same with in-flight cell phone use.

10-MEETINGS & CONVENTIONS. More of us will attend large annual trade shows and conventions this year as pent up demand is released. Many companies banned non-essential travel over the last two years and business travelers are eager to get out of the office and re-establish face-to-face contact with customers and colleagues. However, I think small and medium-sized meetings will face more competition from virtual alternatives.

5 tips for navigating the “new” airport security

(Photo: USWGO / Flickr)

The peak holiday travel season is upon us. At the same time, the media frenzy surrounding new airport security measures has hit a peak. I’ve cut through the hype and come up with five tips (and pics!) travelers need to know about airport screening:

1) RELAX! Despite the media hullabaloo, chances are that you won’t face a full body scan or pat down at all in coming weeks. Full body scanners are currently deployed at only 70 of 450 airports across the country. At those 70 airports, most security lanes are using more good old-fashioned magnetometers (metal detectors) than the newer (and more controversial) full body scanners. Also, know that every single passenger does NOT get the new enhanced pat down. Only those who set off the metal detector, appear to have an anomaly on their body during a full body scan, or those who refuse a full body scan are subject to a pat down.

2) BAY AREA AIRPORTS. In the Bay Area, San Jose airport appears to have the most widespread use of full body scanners.

>At SJC Terminals A and B there are 16 security lanes (total) and eight full body scanners, which means one scanner for each pair of lanes- so you’ve got a 50/50 chance.

>SFO uses nine full body scanners scattered across a total of 44 lanes. There’s at least one at each multi-lane checkpoint, except the one near Gate 75 (at the far left end of United’s Terminal 3, which is usually reserved for first, business and elite level frequent flyers only).

>Oakland’s airport has two security checkpoints with a total of 15 security lanes, but airport officials would only tell me that body scanners are in use at both checkpoints- they would not reveal how many there are. (Do you know? Leave a comment below.)

3) PLAN AHEAD. Remember that you now have to remove EVERYTHING from your pockets to get through security. To avoid last minute forgetfulness or hassles (such as the dreaded full-body pat down), prepare for security BEFORE you leave for the airport. Put cell phone, keys, wristwatch, jewelry, pocket change, handkerchief, Kleenex or anything else in your pockets into a Ziploc bag. Your wallet should also go in the Ziploc, but remove your photo ID first and keep that in your pocket, along with your boarding pass for review as you enter the security area. Pack the Ziploc in an easily accessible outer pocket of your carry on. Once you get to your gate, pull out the Ziploc and re-assemble.

4) LOOK AHEAD. When entering the security screening area, look ahead and try to determine which lanes are using magnetometers and which are using full body scanners. Try to aim for a line using a magnetometer. This won’t guarantee that you’ll avoid the full body scanner because TSA agents could ask you to move to a different line at the last minute- but that’s rare.

5) KNOW WHAT TO LOOK FOR. Below are images of a magnetometer, a millimeter wave scanner and a backscatter scanner. Remember, aim for the line with the magnetometer (or metal detector).

This is a magnetometer or metal detector. Try to aim for a security line using this.

This is a magnetometer or metal detector. Try to aim for a security line using this.

Backscatter full-body scanners in use at airports in San Jose and Oakland.

Backscatter full-body scanners in use at airports in San Jose and Oakland.

A millimeter wave scanner similar to those in use at San Francisco International SFO.

A millimeter wave scanner similar to those in use at San Francisco International SFO.

Southwest to charge $5 for Wi-Fi

You'll know you have Wi-Fi when you see the

You’ll know you have Wi-Fi when you see the “internet bubble” on the top of the plane (Photo: gTarded / Flickr)

Southwest Airlines announced this week that it will charge $5 per flight, regardless of length, for in-flight Wi-Fi. (Competitors charge from $6 to $13 depending on flight length.)

Here’s what you need to know now:

>The new satellite-based service from Row 44 is currently on just 32 Southwest aircraft; the airline says it will be on 60 by the end of this year. Southwest plans to have its entire fleet (currently about 550 Boeing 737′s) outfitted by the end of 2013.

>Currently there is no way to know whether or not the Southwest flight you are reserving offers Wi-Fi. You know you have it when see “Wi-Fi Hotspot” stickers onboard, or see the “internet bubble” on the top of the plane.

>Southwest recently announced that it will buy AirTran, which offers the Gogo system from Aircell on 100 percent of its planes. Southwest says that it will keep that service for the time being, honoring current contracts, but will re-evaluate when those contracts expire.

>Interesting: Southwest says that it “will attempt to filter out” access to VoIP services that could allow inflight phone calls. I think that wording is interesting because it leaves the door open…and I’m betting that despite all the howls, in-flight phone calling is coming soon to a flight near you, as it already has in other countries.

>Unlike Virgin America, Southwest does not (and has no plans to) provide in-seat power plugs. This could be an issue because Wi-Fi drains batteries very quickly.

>In other in-flight Wi-Fi news: JetBlue recently announced that it will have full-on inflight Wi-Fi by 2012. (Currently it offers limited connectivity for smartphones only on a single “Beta-Blue” aircraft.) However firm dates for installation and deployment have not been set. Delta recently completed the largest fleet-wide installation to date: Its entire mainline fleet (500+ jets) now has in-flight Wi-Fi from Aircell/Gogo.

I’m a huge fan of in-flight Wi-Fi. As a matter of fact, my buying decision is now based on whether or not my flight will have the service- particularly on those long transcon flights. I don’t mind paying the $13 fee, either.

What about you? How do you feel about in-flight Wi-Fi? Has it changed the way you fly? Would you ever use it to place a VoIP call? Do you feel it’s priced right? Leave your comments below.

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?