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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Chris McGinnis

***

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How we use inflight wi-fi [Infographic]

Locations of Gogo's ground based antenna beaming wifi to planes (Chris McGinnis)

Locations of Gogo’s ground based antenna beaming wifi to planes (Chris McGinnis)

Bay Area Travelers (BATs) are lucky. Since the area’s technocratic elite demand wi-fi access on planes, most airlines offer the service on flights to/from Bay Area airports. Hometown carrier Virgin America offers it on all flights. Delta, the third largest carrier at SFO offers it on all domestic flights. United and American offer it on all their flights between SFO and New York JFK- but it’s hit or miss on other flights.

Southwest now has wi-fi on 75% of its fleet. United says that it should have 300 wi-fi equipped aircraft by the end of this year. JetBlue is talking about adding a newer, faster version of satellite based wi-fi and offering it for free to all passengers.

This week Gogo, the major purveyor of inflight wi-fi produced some interesting numbers around how we use their service- see below for an interesting infographic.

RELATED: Gogo to upgrade inflight wi-fi capacity. 

From Gogo:

When it comes to staying connected at 36,000 feet, tablets and smartphones now make up a whopping 67% of the devices being used to connect to Gogo. Tablets are the most preferred device at 35%, followed closely by laptops (33%) and smartphones (32%).

Apple devices are still reigning above the clouds, following the tablet trend with the iPad being the device of choice. Among all mobile devices being used to connect through Gogo, 84 percent carry Apple’s iOS operating system while 16 percent carry the Android operating system. If you look only at the smartphones our customers are using, the iPhone makes up 73 percent and all Android devices make up 26 percent, with Blackberry and Windows based devices each making up less than 1 percent of devices being used in air.

So, what are our passengers doing once they connect at 30,000 feet? It’s no surprise that general Web surfing ranked as the number one in air, online activity users want to do. Besides Web surfing, passengers spend their time in flight accessing personal email, engaging in social media, checking sports scores and shopping. Business travelers ranked accessing their work email and finalizing reports as the most frequent activity above the clouds. Passengers also utilize Gogo to explore their final destination’s weather, entertainment options and directions upon their arrival.

13GO_005_2013Infographic_v5 (2)

United maintains dominance at SFO

San Francisco International at night (Photo: Trodel / Flickr)

San Francisco International at night (Photo: Trodel / Flickr)

Today San Francisco International released a report card of sorts for 2012 full of interesting stats.

What surprises you most about these numbers? For me, the biggest surprise is that after five years at SFO (and lots of local love and attention), Virgin America still only has a 9% market share at SFO. United clearly dominates at SFO with nearly 50% market share. Any surprises here for you? Please leave your comments below. 

SFO Announces Record Passenger Traffic in 2012

Record of 44.5 million passengers breaks previous milestone

SAN FRANCISCO – February 5, 2013 – The San Francisco International Airport (SFO) announced an all-time record for passenger traffic in 2012, with a total of 44.5 million passengers traveling through SFO. This surpasses the previous record of 41 million passenger set in 2011, and represents an 8.5% increase in traffic year-over-year.

Economic impact
SFO continued to be a vital source for job creation and contribution to local economies. The airport generated a total of 29,555 direct jobs and $1.7 billion in personal income. SFO also generated $469 million in state and local taxes. Construction projects launched during 2012 continue to add jobs to the area.

Market share
SFO offers a wide variety of travel options to passengers, 30 international carriers serving 31 international points, as well as 15 domestic airlines offering nonstop service to 74 cities in the U.S. In the Bay Area, SFO accounts for two-thirds of all domestic flight activity, and continues to serve as the primary international gateway.

Bay Area Market Share (Domestic Flights)
66% SFO
19% OAK
15% SJC

Bay Area Market Share (International Flights)
97% SFO
2%   SJC
1%   OAK

Airline Market Share at SFO
46%  United Airlines
9%     Virgin America
8%     (tie) Delta, Southwest/AirTran

Total landings by operator
29%  United Airlines
28%  SkyWest [United]
9%     Virgin America

New routes launched at SFO in 2012

• May – Reagan National Airport (DCA) via United Airlines
• June – additional service to Paris (CDG) via XL Airways-France
• Aug – Raleigh-Durham (RDU) via United Airlines
• Aug – Reagan National Airport (DCA) via Virgin America

 

 

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

7 things BAT readers need to know this month

Those tired old "Mobile Lounges" are history! (Photo: Kumokasumi/Flickr

1>DULLES AEROTRAIN IS OPEN. R.I.P. “MOBILE LOUNGES.” Finally, those awful, awkward “mobile lounges” that travelers to and from Washington, DC’s Dulles Airport had to endure to get to their gate…are history! The airport’s new underground AeroTrain system commenced service last month. Every two minutes, shiny new trains whisk passengers along a central spine connecting the main terminal with distant concourses. (Sorta similar to train systems at airports in Atlanta and Denver…) Note: For the time being, international travelers still have to board the mobile lounges to get to the airport’s “D” gates. Now, if they could just add a high-speed rail line to get from Dulles to the District. That 45-minute slog is a tough on after a 5-hour flight from the Bay.

2>NEW YORK-JFK IS A MESS. This week the NY/NJ Port Authority closed JFK’s main runway for four months of repairs. While the airport and airlines say that they’ve been able to plan around this without any major issues, I remain skeptical. So stay tuned and be prepared. In the midst of all this airport angst, a story broke this week revealing that an air traffic controller at the JFK tower brought his child into work one day and allowed him to talk via radio to aircraft under his control. (Controller was subsequently put on leave…)

3>SKIP HOTEL HOUSEKEEPING FOR POINTS OR DOLLARS? Guests at many Westin and Sheraton hotels can opt out of daily housekeeping in exchange for a $5 credit or 500 Starpoints. That seems like a good idea to me since my room remains mostly tidy when I’m traveling on business. It also has environmental benefits since less water and chemicals are used to clean the room. The Wall Street Journal points out that an average high-end hotel saves about $22 per room if the guest opts out of housekeeping. What do you think? Would you take a hotel up on an offer like this?

4>CREDIT CARD ACT NOW IN EFFECT. The Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act took effect on February 22, will force more consumer-friendly practices on card issuers. But it will also increase competition among banks for lucrative affluent customers with good credit ratings (i.e. frequent travelers) according to an interesting article in Business Week. Customers with credit ratings of 750+ should expect to receive more bonus rewards, solicitations and promotional offers. Speaking of affluent customers, here’s another newsy nugget from the BW article: “American Express dominates the market for affluent users, with individual card purchases averaging $9,342 in 2008 compared with $2,672 for Visa and $2,300 for MasterCard. Its cardholders have average credit scores of 754 compared with 722 forthe rest of the industry.” (Disclosure: I engage in occasional consulting work for American Express.)

New room at the recently re-done Best Western President Hotel in Manhattan

5>BEST WESTERN MATCHING ELITE STATUS. Everyone knows about how airlines will match elite level status to poach frequent travelers from competitors. Now hotels are getting into the act as well. Just this week, Best Western announced that it would give elite status in the Best Western Rewards program to anyone who sends them their elite level credentials from another chain. Elite membership in the BW program offers members room upgrades, early/late check in/out, and earning bonuses. Details here

6>NYC BOUND? SHERATON MANHATTAN NO LONGER SHERATON. Starwood has announced that the Sheraton Manhattan in midtown will loose its brand affiliation this spring due to its deteriorating quality. However, the Sheraton New York (across the street on the EAST side of 7th Ave) will keep its brand flag. (It always seemed a little weird to me to have two Sheratons so close to each other anyway.)

7>ARE YOU A TRAVEL SOCIAL MEDIA MAVEN? Or do you want to be one? Later this month a “who’s who” in the burgeoning realm of travel social media will meet in Fisherman’s Wharf to talk shop at the “Social Media Strategies for Travel” conference (Mar. 24-25). From the looks of the agenda, there will be a mix of global social media superstars (think Trip Advisor or Facebook), big time travel names (Expedia, InterContinental, Virgin America) and a lot of consultants and content providers. Plenty of local startup firms in the travel space will share the limelight, too, such as NileGuide and TravelMuse, both of which help travelers imagine and then plan their trips. I’ll be there, too!