Big storm + Unusual 747 + NYC Helicopters, rail link + Marriott Megabonus + Choose car from plane

Rendering of the modified 747 that will buzz Burning Man this August (Courtesy Lance Powell)

Rendering of the repurposed 747 that will buzz Burning Man this August (Courtesy Lance Powell)

Developing: A potentially crippling winter storm is bearing down on the Northeast and airlines are starting to announce waivers.”We are facing most likely one of the largest snowstorms in the history of this city,” says NYC mayor Bill DiBlasio. By Sunday evening, airlines had pre-emptively canceled over 800 flights.  The key thing to remember in these stormy cancellation situations is that you are entitled to a FULL REFUND if the airline cancels your flight and you decide it’s not worth taking the trip at all. Here’s what Delta’s waiver for Monday-Tuesday (Jan 26-27) states.

Delta waiver

Unusual 747. In an interesting adaptive re-use of a scrapped 747, a group called The Big Imagination Foundation is working on bringing part of a fuselage to the giant Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert this summer. (See rendering above, and read what SFist has learned about it. ) I’m probably to old for Burning Man, but seeing this sure makes me want to go. Have you been? 

CONSOLIDATION

Aer Lingus + British Airways. British newspapers are reporting that British Airways parent IAG’s sweetened offer for Irish carrier Aer Lingus will be accepted and an announcement could come early this week. The Guardian reports: “Aer Lingus is the fourth busiest operator at London’s Heathrow behind British Airways, Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic – with its expanding transatlantic routes a particular attraction to IAG. The Irish airline is well known to IAG boss Willie Walsh, who was chief executive of Aer Lingus between 2001 and 2005 before taking the helm at British Airways.”

Expedia buys Travelocity. Giant online travel agency Expedia, which has been providing services to erstwhile competitor Travelocity for the past couple of years, has now purchased that site from Sabre, the global distribution system, for $280 million. For years, Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity and Priceline have dominated the web-based travel agency game. Could this be a sign of more consolidation to come in an increasingly crowded field of old and new competitors? Readers who have followed my career may recall that I was once a spokesperson and travel trends expert for Expedia. During that time, I would never have dreamed that our arch competitor would end up swallowed up by Expedia. Times sure change! Related: Mergers that make sense

This TravelSkills post 7 last-minute fare deals worth a look! went viral last week, resulting in nearly 500 new readers signing up for our daily or weekly emails! Welcome to TravelSkills, folks! We hope you enjoy the ride! –Chris

AIRPORTS

(Photo: Gotham Air)

(Photo: Gotham Air)

New heli service in NYC. Gotham Air is joining the crowdsourced travel app game in New York City, allowing users to book helicopter flights to Newark or JFK airports. Its partner is Helicopter Flight Services, which does the actual flying from three Manhattan heliports. You can book your own departure time, and “as soon as four seats have been sold, the flight is confirmed. You are never on the hook for anything more than the price of your seat,” the company said. Scheduled flights will begin this spring, and the app should be available at the iTunes store early in February. First time users pay $99 to JFK or EWR; after the first ride, a one way fare is $199 – $219 dependent on departure time. Would you or your company spring for that? 

Here's a before and after look at Oakland Terminal 2's security checkpoint. (Photo: Security Point Media)

Here’s a before and after look at Oakland Terminal 2’s security checkpoint. (Photo: Security Point Media)

Branded airport security. Oakland International is the US airport to get wrapped in SpringHill Suites branding. Terminal Two, home of Southwest Airlines at OAK, offers “a new, relaxing atmosphere before and after the checkpoint with modern furniture, wall art, calming lighting, soothing music, custom video content and displays showing current queue wait times. A post-screening recompose area outfitted with comfortable, soft seating welcomes travelers to gather their belongings in a more relaxed setting.” What do you think about big brands stepping up to improve the airport experience as a means to expose travelers to their brands? Please leave your comments below. 

Rail link for LaGuardia? New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said last week that plans are in the works to build something New York-area travelers have wanted for decades: a rail link to LaGuardia Airport. The plan calls for a dedicated rail link from the airport to the existing Willets Point station a mile and a half away, next to Citi Field (home of the New York Mets). There, travelers could transfer to the Long Island Railroad or to the Number 7 subway line into Manhattan. Don’t hold your breath, though: The $450 million project won’t be finished until 2020.

What are the two best all-around credit cards? Both currently offer 40,000 mile sign up bonuses!

HOTELS

Marriott renews MegaBonus. It’s time for the latest version of Marriott’s popular MegaBonus promotion. Marriott Rewards members who register online by March 25 can earn 2,500 points for every paid stay at the company’s 15 brands from February 1 through April 30, up to a maximum of 25,000 points.

The Westin Market Street has a new name. (Photo: AAA)

The Westin Market Street has a new name. (Photo: AAA)

New name for Westin SF. Last Thursday night, guests went to bed at the Westin San Francisco and woke up at the Park Central hotel. The 36 story hotel at the corner of Third Street and Market Street (frequently confused with the Westin St Francis on Union Square) was previously the Argent Hotel and before that,  the ANA. Hotel staff told TravelSkills that for the time being, the hotel is still a “Starwood affiliated” hotel, so you can still earn Starwood points for stays. But the hotel’s new owners could change that in coming months. In perennially packed San Francisco, a hotel does not have to do much to attract business travelers, but we found a few new deals (like 15% off) on its website. 

CARS

National’s new Virtual Aisle. National Car Rental’s Emerald Club members who book a mid-sized car can bypass the counter and pick any vehicle in the rental lot’s Emerald Aisle at major airports. But we’ve been doing that for years. Here’s what’s new: Now National’s mobile app has a new “Virtual Aisle” feature fulfilling the same function for airports where National doesn’t have a dedicated Emerald Aisle. So as soon as you land, you use the app to pre-select a car from real-time inventory at 19 airport locations, including Tulsa, Richmond, Omaha, Knoxville, Norfolk, Albany, Buffalo, Rochester, Little Rock, Oklahoma City, Huntsville, Greensboro, Long Beach, Honolulu, Tucson, Reno, Baton Rouge, Phoenix (Mesa Gateway) and Savannah.

Look for this instead of the big furry stache (Photo: Lyft)

Look for this instead of the big furry stache (Photo: Lyft)

Lyft lifts the big ‘stache. What was ride-sharing service Lyft thinking when it decided to put a giant furry pink moustache on the front of all its cars? Apparently the powers that be at Lyft have come to their senses– sort of. They’ve decided to remove the Big Pink Fuzz, and instead will give their drivers a little banana-sized pink moustache that sits on the dashboard and glows softly at night. The move is part of a brand re-design brought on in part by Lyft’s new creative director Jesse McMillin, snatched from Virgin America last year. Read our 2011 profile of the very interesting and talented Jesse McMillin here.

At TravelSkills, we are big Uber fans, not only because of their generous $20 off your first ride referral program, but because the service has probably made the most consequential change in our travel habits than just about anything in recent years. But Uber’s reputation has taken a hit lately, so we’re wondering how many readers have considered  or used similar services like Lyft, Sidecar, or even gone back to taxis with apps like FlyWheel. Please leave your comments below.

Did you see Saturday’s TravelSkills Weekend Edition?

WeekendEdition

 

Best photo + United meals + Bid for Virgin upgrades + Delta downgrade + New Asian nonstop for SJC

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>>Take a peek at what you may have missed on TravelSkills.com this week! <<
What are the two best all-around credit cards? Both currently offer 40,000 mile sign up bonuses!

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6 tips for better plane pics

(Photo: Jim Glab)

Always be ready for the opportunity to grab a perfect shot out the plane window, from your gate, or a nearby parking lot (Photo: Jim Glab)

If you’ve ever wished for a pastime that could make your hours at the airport or on the plane more endurable, how about aircraft photography?

No matter how jaded you’ve become from your travels over the years, you might still think — as I do — that seeing a big commercial jet lift itself into the air is a pretty majestic sight. Since so much of your business life is spent in and around aircraft, you might like to document it — for posterity, for your office wall, social media posts, or just for your own enjoyment — with photography.

I’ve been taking pictures of jet aircraft for decades. I’m not a “planespotter” — I don’t sit outside the airport fence in a folding chair waiting for some action — but I’ve found that you can get good aircraft pictures from inside some terminals, from inside the plane, or from areas just outside the airport.

First, a word about equipment: For the best results, don’t rely on your phone’s camera — carry a real camera, preferably a DSLR with good resolution. And equip it with a medium-range zoom lens. Even from a good vantage point, you’re probably not going to get too close to the planes when they’re taking off and landing (to my mind, those are the best shots — but not the only ones). In any case, a zoom will bring you in closer. I keep an 18-135 mm. lens on my camera, and it seems to be great for most situations.

UPDATE: BEST photo submitted here

Here are six things I’ve learned about capturing great aircraft shots:

(Photo: Jim Glab)

San Diego’s airport offers some excellent views from the terminal (Photo: Jim Glab)

  1. Your results depend largely on opportunity and luck. Airport configurations vary considerably, and even at the same airport, takeoff and landing runways can change from day to day, so you can rarely be sure that you’ll get good views from the terminal. But sometimes you can. Once you’re checked in at the airport, walk around your concourse to see what’s going on outside the windows. If it’s a linear concourse, walk down to the big windows at the end. I’ve had some great luck at LaGuardia’s main terminal and more recently at San Diego (both airports have runways fairly close to the terminals, since they are surrounded by their cities with no room for expansion).

You can boost your chances if you happen to be at an airport that offers an outdoor terrace or observation deck. These are making a comeback at a number of locations; here’s a list of possibilities worldwide.

  1. Keep your camera ready for action. If you do find a spot with good views of the runways, you’ll only have a few seconds to get zoom in and get shots of an aircraft as it takes off or lands — no time to fiddle with camera settings. Don’t be shy — stand right up next to the window. As far as I know, there are no rules prohibiting photography at airports, and the ACLU seems to agree. (Even taking photos of TSA checkpoints shouldn’t present a problem, according to the agency’s blog.)
(Photo: Jim Glab)

Consider using silhouetted travelers to humanize photos of the big metal birds (Photo: Jim Glab)

  1. Watch for good views of aircraft taxiing up to the gate, or parked at the gate. Consider a photo with the aircraft in the background, and waiting travelers in the foreground — a little tricky from an exposure standpoint, but you can keep the travelers in silhouette.
What are the two best all-around credit cards? Both currently offer 40,000 mile sign up bonuses!
(Photo: Jim Glab)

Be prepared to grab some great shots out the plane window like this one (Photo: Jim Glab)

  1. You might not like the next tip, since business travelers seem to be addicted to aisle seats. But if you’re in a window seat, you can sometimes catch good shots through the aircraft window as the plane makes its way from the gate to takeoff. Again, keep that camera ready because any opportunity that presents itself will be fleeting. Shooting from a window seat is about the only way to get a nice photo of aircraft all lined up waiting for takeoff during a busy period.

Do you have a great photo of an plane? Hit us with your best shots and we’ll post the BEST ones here or on our Facebook page! Send them (with caption and attribution) to: chris@travelskills.com 

UPDATE: BEST photo submitted here

(Photo: Jim Glab)

This fantastic shot was taken from a rental car lot near LAX (Photo: Jim Glab)

  1. Don’t put your camera away once you arrive at your destination and start to leave the airport. Some of the best vantage points for landing and departing aircraft are from the rental car lots. I waited years for the chance to photograph a 747 in the air from a reasonably close vantage point, and I finally got my chance while I was standing outside in the Hertz lot at LAX, when a Korean Air 747 came in for a landing almost directly overhead. I also got some great shots of inbound planes from the parking lot of a Whole Foods near the Las Vegas airport.
(Photo: Jim Glab)

Photo editing software can help produce unusual photos like this (Photo: Jim Glab)

(Photo: Jim Glab)

Photo editing software makes for some amusing possibilities! (Photo: Jim Glab)

  1. If you’re semi-serious about this kind of photography, buy some photo editing software and learn how to use it. At the very least, you can crop and enlarge your plane shots. If you have photos of aircraft against a plain blue sky, it’s pretty easy to cut-and-paste, removing the plane from the original photo and then inserting it into another one; that can make for some amusing or interesting possibilities.

–by Jim Glab

Do you have a great photo of an plane? Hit us with your best shots and we’ll post the BEST ones here or on our Facebook page! Send them (with caption and attribution) to: chris@travelskills.com 

UPDATE: BEST photo submitted here

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>>Take a peek at what you may have missed on TravelSkills.com this week! <<

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HOW TO GET A $400 AIRLINE TICKET FOR $89…and help out TravelSkills?: Want to snag an easy 40,000 bonus miles? Earn 2x miles on all purchases? Avoid obnoxious foreign transaction fees? Get TripIt Pro for free? Easy peasy! Get the new Barclaycard Arrival Plus card. With the Barclaycard, you simply use your points to pay off travel related charges on your bill– so the 40K sign up bonus alone pays for a $400 airline ticket, rental car or hotel bill. We earn a small commission when readers sign up, so if you are in the market for a new card, help us out and get one! It’s quick and easy. 

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What are the two best all-around credit cards? Both currently offer 40,000 mile sign up bonuses!

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Delta at JFK + First Virgin Hotel opens + Cuba + Free parking at Oakland + Marriott backs down

Delta's Terminal 4 at New York JFK (Photo: Delta)

Delta’s Terminal 4 at New York JFK (Photo: Delta)

AIRPORTS

Delta expands at JFK. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and Delta Air Lines have cut the ribbon on a $175 million expansion of Terminal 4 at New York JFK. The 11-gate, 75,000-square-foot extension of T4’s B Concourse allows Delta to move most of its regional Delta Connection flights there from Terminal 2. Delta said the expansion will make for easier connections and improved access to amenities in both its terminals. The facility features a new JFK jitney bus stop in addition to those at Gate B18 in T4 and Gate C60 in T2. All the new gates provide enclosed jet bridges for boarding regional aircraft. New facilities are great… but have have you walked the length of Delta’s T4 at JFK? It’s way out there. Way.

Free parking at Oakland. Bay area travelers who fly to Texas out of Oakland International can get up to three days of free parking in the airport’s Daily Lot. They just have to show a copy of their e-ticket itinerary (to any airport in Texas) along with a printable coupon available at www.OaklandAirport.com/ParkFree.

WeekendEdition

A 747 to Honolulu! Starting May 15, Delta is re-introducing Boeing 747-400 operations on Atlanta – Honolulu route, for the first time since October 2009. The 747-400 will operate daily, replacing Airbus A330-300. (Airline Route)

Reader question: TravelSkills reader A.S. has a question. Can anyone answer this one? Why don’t the airlines in the US onload and offload passengers from both ends of the plane, like they do in Europe? Please leave your answer below.

CUBA

Vamos a Cuba! In case you’ve been under a rock all week, you should know that new relaxed rules about travel to Cuba went into effect on Friday. NBC sent a crew out to TravelSkills World HQ to interview Chris about the new rules. While the interview lasted about 20 minutes, The TODAY Show used only about 20 seconds. (You can see it in the clip above at about 1:30 mins). What else did I say? I agree that this is a smart move– it’s time to abandon a 54 year old policy that is not working. AND, I think that it’s a GOOD thing that congress is going to stall on full repeal of the current embargo with Cuba, because once that is lifted, swarms of American’s kept away from this forbidden fruit of the Caribbean are going to invade and Cuba simply cannot accommodate them right now. Cuba simply does not have the infrastructure (hotels, roads, buses, airport gates) to deal with millions of Americans eager to get there. Once the embargo does come down and Americans have easy (and cheap) access to the island, the tourist economies of Florida and many Caribbean islands are going to take a hit– that’s probably a hidden reason there is so much opposition in Florida to relaxing travel restrictions. Also, many Canadians and Europeans have long favored vacations in Cuba because of the lack of Americans. That of course is going to change. Prices will rise, crowding will be an issue. In the near term, I also think we’ll see much more business travel to the island as US companies are eager to tap into this market of 11 million people and US hotel companies, cruise lines, airlines jump into the market. How do you feel about Cuba? Are you eager to see it? When might you go? Leave your comments below.  

 

bonus2-for-1 travel for a year on Southwest: Last week the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Card doubled its sign up bonus to a whopping 50,000 points (enough for TWO roundtrip flights) after spending just $2,000 in first three months, plus a 6,000 point bump every year on your cardmember anniversary. In addition, it does not charge foreign transaction fees, and offers two points per dollar spent on Southwest flights. What’s best about this offer is that the 50K bonus points get you almost halfway toward Southwest’s coveted Companion Pass status, which requires 110,000 points. Details

 

HOTELS

virgin hotel chicago

The first Virgin hotel in the US has opened in Chicago and here’s a peek inside (Photo: Virgin Hotels)

Dead week hotel deals abound. Except for this MLK weekend, we are still in the depths of the “dead weeks” when travel prices plummet and last minute deals abound. This means that it makes good sense to wait around for last minute deals by trolling sites such as Hotwire or apps such as HotelTonight for deep discounts. New York Hotel Week will conclude shortly with super low rates ($100 to $200 per night) at some of the best known and most trendy properties in town (details here).  This month, hotel prices in key European cities have fallen to their lowest in the past four years, according to the Trivago Hotel Price Index (tHPI)– and a strong dollar is making Europe an even better bargain for US travelers this year.

Virgin’s first property debuts. Sir Richard Branson’s latest travel venture, Virgin Hotels, has opened its first property in downtown Chicago. The 250-room hotel — in the Old Dearborn Bank Building at 203 N. Wabash — offers free high-speed Internet, an absence of many traditional fees, and a social space called The Commons Club for dining, drinking and mingling. Virgin Hotels also introduced a downloadable app called Lucy that can be used to request hotel services, control guest room TVs and thermostats, find local restaurant suggestions and play music and movies.

Marriott revises Wi-Fi blocking policy. To re-clarify its position on guests’ personal Wi-Fi hotspots, Marriott said last week that because it “listens to our customers,” it will not block guests’ personal Wi-Fi “at any of our managed hotels.” (Note: Lots of Marriott-branded and affiliated hotels are not managed by Marriott.) A few weeks ago, the company said it would never block such activity in guest rooms or public areas, but it hedged on meeting rooms. Marriott and the American Hotel and Lodging Association have petitioned the FCC for a rules interpretation that would allow hoteliers to “detect and contain rogue and impostor Wi-Fi hotspsots” in conference rooms. Hotspots at meetings might be safe for now, but Marriott said it will continue to pursue the effort at the FCC “to clarify appropriate security measures network operators can take to protect customer data.”

In Case You Missed It…

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>>Take a peek at what you may have missed on TravelSkills.com this week! <<

HOW TO GET A $400 AIRLINE TICKET FOR $89…and help out TravelSkills?: Want to snag an easy 40,000 bonus miles? Earn 2x miles on all purchases? Avoid obnoxious foreign transaction fees? Get TripIt Pro for free? Easy peasy! Get the new Barclaycard Arrival Plus card. With the Barclaycard, you simply use your points to pay off travel related charges on your bill– so the 40K sign up bonus alone pays for a $400 airline ticket, rental car or hotel bill. We earn a small commission when readers sign up, so if you are in the market for a new card, help us out and get one! It’s quick and easy. 

What are the two best all-around credit cards? Both currently offer 40,000 mile sign up bonuses!

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Like what you just read? Then say so! Scroll back up to the top and LIKE the post on Facebook, post it on Linked In and/or tweet it!

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United bonus miles + Delta to Shanghai + Beware mileage thieves + Chris speaks Russian

united

(Photo: Jim Glab)

AIRLINES

United offers bonus miles to elites. Matching a similar move by American Airlines, United has come out with its own offer of bonus miles for MileagePlus members who buy tickets in premium cabins. The longer the flight and the higher one’s elite status, the more bonus miles United piles on, up to 12,000 for Premier 1Ks on long-haul flights of more than 3,000 miles (and p.s. transcontinental flights). Unlike American’s promotion, which is good all through 2015, United’s only applies through the end of February. That’s because on March 1, MileagePlus switches over to a new regime of earning based on money spent rather than distance flown. Delta made that same switch January 1, which is why it felt no need to match American’s premium-cabin mileage bonuses. For details on United’s plan, go to www.united.com/newyearbonus.

United bonus

JetBlue’s double miles. JetBlue has come out with its own seasonal bonus promotion for members of its TrueBlue loyalty program. The carrier is offering double base flight points on all flights booked and flown by March 8. The promotion requires online registration.

Delta’s Asian Situation. Could it be a coincidence? Just days after American Airlines asked the Transportation Department to take away Delta’s Seattle-Tokyo Haneda authority and give it to AA to launch Los Angeles-Haneda service, Delta filed for approval to operate Los Angeles-Shanghai Pudong flights starting July 9 — a route already served by American as well as United and China Eastern. Delta said LAX-Shanghai was the route “most requested by our corporate customers.” The airline will use a 777-200LR with BusinessElite, Economy Comfort and regular economy seating.

Cathay Pacific

Taking a lean back in Cathay Pacific’s premium economy seat on a B777-300

Cathay Pacific will expand San Francisco-Hong Kong service effective June 12 from twice-daily departures to 17 non-stop B777 flights a week. These new planes are outfitted with Cathay’s new(ish) premium economy cabin (pictured above), business class and regular economy class– no first. The third flight will depart SFO at 1:40 a.m. on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays with an early-morning arrival in Hong Kong. Check out Chris’s SFGate.com post about a unique Cathay Pacific “delivery flight” from the Boeing factory in Seattle to Hong Kong. And check out the plane’s roomy crew rest area in this short video. 

Miles stolen at AA, UA. Cyberthieves have used stolen usernames and passwords to access AAdvantage and MileagePlus customer accounts, in some cases securing free flights or upgrades, according to the Associated Press. The airlines reportedly notified affected customers in recent weeks — just a few dozen at United, but some 10,000 at American, the report said — and have frozen their accounts. The airlines noted that their own systems were not hacked, and that no customer credit card information was obtained. Readers: Do you take any special steps to keep your frequent flyer account access secure? Post comments below.

HOW TO GET A $400 AIRLINE TICKET FOR $89…and help out TravelSkills?: Want to snag an easy 40,000 bonus miles? Earn 2x miles on all purchases? Avoid obnoxious foreign transaction fees? Get TripIt Pro for free? Easy peasy! Get the new Barclaycard Arrival Plus card. With the Barclaycard, you simply use your points to pay off travel related charges on your bill– so the 40K sign up bonus alone pays for a $400 airline ticket, rental car or hotel bill. We earn a small commission when readers sign up, so if you are in the market for a new card, help us out and get one! It’s quick and easy.

WeekendEdition

INTERNATIONAL

Google Translate uses you phones camera to translate signs.

What language problem? Do you get frustrated on overseas trips because you can’t read the local signs or understand conversations? With the newly updated Google Translate app, you can simply point your phone’s camera at printed words (as long as they’re in French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian or Russian) and see the English translation on the screen. The app will also translate spoken words into English (and vice versa), and with the new update it can automatically detect which foreign language it is hearing. Since I’m usually more baffled by signage in Japan or China than in Europe, I’m looking forward to the day that Google makes it work across the Pacific! In the meantime, the app does a nice job with Russian– watch me speak it in the video below.

In Case You Missed It…

–Chris McGinnis

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>>Take a peek at what you may have missed on TravelSkills.com this week! <<

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bonusBest bonus for travelers who love Southwest‘s no frills approach to travel: The Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Card has doubled its sign up bonus to a whopping 50,000 points (enough for TWO roundtrip flights) after spending just $2,000 in first three months, plus a 6,000 point bump every year on your cardmember anniversary. In addition, it does not charge foreign transaction fees, and offers two points per dollar spent on Southwest flights. What’s best about this offer is that the 50K bonus points get you almost halfway toward Southwest’s coveted Companion Pass status, which requires 110,000 points.

What are the two best all-around credit cards? Both currently offer 40,000 mile sign up bonuses!

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Like what you just read? Then say so! Scroll back up to the top and LIKE the post on Facebook, post it on Linked In and/or tweet it!

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New SFO competition + Delta fights for Love + United Wi-Fi + Air China’s 747-8s + Bag woes at Denver

The new terminal at Dallas Love Field feels a lot like SFO's Terminal 2- light, airy, modern with a broad selection of dining & shopping options. Were impressed! (Photo: Chris McGinnis(

The new terminal at Dallas Love Field feels a lot like SFO’s Terminal 2- light, airy, modern with a broad selection of dining & shopping options. We’re impressed! (Photo: Chris McGinnis(


AIRLINES

New SFO routes for Southwest, JetBlue. Virgin America got some new competition on a couple of key routes last week as Southwest kicked off new daily service between San Francisco and Dallas Love Field, and JetBlue started two daily flights between SFO and Las Vegas. Southwest also added daily flights between Love Field and Oakland, completing its initial expansion at the close-in Dallas airport following the end of Wright Amendment restrictions last fall. That rule basically restricted service out of Love Field to states bordering Texas, and when it ended Virgin America moved its Dallas operations from DFW to Love Field. As a result of all this, November 2014 passenger traffic at Love Field jumped by 37 percent over the same month a year earlier. Meanwhile, Delta executives last week were in talks with Dallas airport officials trying to find a way to maintain the airline’s presence at Love Field for its DAL-Atlanta flights. As of this weekend, Delta negotiated a deal allowing it to stick around Love Field for the next 180 days. Have you flown into Love Field yet? Thoughts? On a recent stopover there, we were very impressed (See photo above).

American will cluster DFW schedules. In a few months, American Airlines plans to overhaul schedules at its Dallas/Ft. Worth hub, bringing groups of arrivals and departures closer together into clusters or “banks” instead of spreading them out evenly over the course of the day. The change will mean shorter connecting times for many travelers. AA did the same thing at its Miami hub last year, and plans a similar change at Chicago O’Hare in 2015.

WeekendEdition

Wi-Fi launched in United regional jets. United announced that it has started to roll out in-flight Wi-Fi in its United Express fleet. The project, slated for completion by the middle of this year, will bring Internet service to more than 200 United Express E175s, E170s and CRJ700s, using Gogo’s ATG-4 air-to-ground technology. “Additionally, the company will begin providing Personal Device Entertainment on regional jets this year, offering customers hundreds of complimentary movies and television shows to view on their Wi-Fi-enabled iOS and Android devices using United’s mobile app, as well as on laptop computers,” the company said. Interesting: United has chosen to use Gogo for these aircraft instead of its own United Wi-fi system rolling out on larger aircraft. Which system to you think is better? Please leave your comments below. 

Carriers battle for Tokyo Haneda. American Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines last week filed for new rights to fly to Tokyo’s close-in Haneda Airport (HND), as the Transportation Department studies whether Delta should forfeit its existing route authority in the Seattle-Haneda market. The U.S. only has access to four daily slots at HND; the others are used by United from San Francisco, Hawaiian from Honolulu and Delta from Los Angeles. American, which wants to use the slot for daily LAX-Haneda service, is arguing that Delta is underutilizing the Seattle authority, operating just a handful of flights through the slow winter season. Delta maintains it will resume regular service in March when business picks up. Hawaiian wants the slot for Kona-Tokyo service.

Air China brings 747-8s to New York, San Francisco (Photo: Air China

Air China brings 747-8s to New York, San Francisco (Photo: Air China)

Route news: Air China, Delta, JetBlue, etc. Star Alliance member Air China is bringing new four-class (including premium economy) 747-8 Intercontinentals to its non-stop Beijing-New York JFK and Beijing-San Francisco routes. Last week, the airline put a 747-8 onto one of its two daily JFK flights, replacing a 777-300ER; the SFO service starts May 1 … Delta will revive seasonal summer service between Pittsburgh and Paris CDG May 10 with five flights a week, increasing to daily in June …… JetBlue will expand at Ft. Lauderdale April 30, adding daily flights to Cleveland and Detroit; JetBlue also announced plans to fly from Portland, Oregon to Anchorage from June 18 to September 8 … On April 16, Spirit Airlines will launch regular daily flights from Boston to Las Vegas, and seasonal service from BOS to Detroit and Cleveland … Effective March 13, Frontier Airlines will add new daily service from Philadelphia to Atlanta, Charlotte and Chicago O’Hare.

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United’s having baggage problems at its Denver International hub (Photo: Jim Glab)


AIRPORTS

Baggage woes at Denver. United Airlines last month brought in a new company at its Denver International Airport hub to handle baggage on United Express flights, and the changeover has been traumatic. According to the Denver Post, United and its passengers at Denver in the past few weeks have been facing problems of “lost luggage, delayed flights and a chaotic baggage claim area, with bags tossed everywhere.” Some travelers have waited up to two hours to see their bags on the belt, only to be told to go home and wait for delivery, the newspaper reported. The problems extend not only to arriving DEN travelers, but to bag transfers onto connecting flights. Readers: What’s the longest you’ve ever had to wait to get your checked bag back? Do you believe bag delivery problems are worse at some airlines/airports than others? Which ones?

Carmel

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Airport lounge app debuts in U.S. LoungeBuddy, a smartphone app that lets users find and buy access to airport lounges, has expanded to the U.S. Previously available only in the U.K., the app is initially working with Alaska Airlines Board Room lounges as well as Minute Suites. “No memberships, elite statuses or premium seat purchases are required,” the company said. “As of today, instant lounge access will be available in 16 of the busiest airports throughout the world, including major hubs in the United States like Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW), Atlanta (ATL), Seattle (SEA), Philadelphia (PHL) and Los Angeles (LAX). LoungeBuddy will continue to roll this functionality out to more partner lounges within the US, Europe, Canada, Asia and Australia.” Download the free app here.

maseratighibli

Avis adds the 2015 Maserati Ghibli to its fleet (Photo: Maserati)

CARS

Avis’ hot new car. If you think an expensive, sporty vehicle will really impress your clients and colleagues, Avis has a new option for you. The rental giant has added the 2015 Maserati Ghibli to its Avis Signature Series; it’s available at locations in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, Orlando, Las Vegas, Phoenix and south Florida. The car’s 3.0 litre twin-turbo V6 engine cranks out 345 horsepower. What’s the rental rate? If you have to ask… Other Avis Signature Series cars include the Chevrolet Corvette, Lincoln Navigator, Infiniti QX60, Mercedes GL450, BMW X5, the BMW 3 Series Sedan and the BMW 5 Series Sedan.

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AirTran is over + SkyTeam priority perks + Hotel wi-fi standards + AMEX lounge for SYD

It's all Southwest, all the time at ATL these days. AirTran is no longer visible (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

It’s all Southwest, all the time at ATL’s North Terminal these days. AirTran is no longer visible (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

AIRLINES

AirTran’s legacy for Southwest. With Southwest subsidiary AirTran Airways due to fly off into the pages of aviation history this week as its last remnants are fully absorbed into its parent airline, Forbes takes a look at just what AirTran has brought to the larger carrier. Besides making Southwest the largest U.S. airline (in passengers flown), AirTran has given it international routes, a bastion in Delta’s fortress hub at ATL, and set the stage for new domestic growth. The magazine also notes that Southwest’s integration of AirTran was one of the smoothest mergers of the past several years. Here’s a good WABE/NPR report on AirTran’s final flightWhat do you remember most about AirTran? What will you miss most? Please leave your comments below.

More summer Europe routes: UA, DL. United and Delta have both announced additional seasonal summer service to Europe. United plans to fly from Chicago O’Hare to Rome from June 3 to September 23, using a three-class 777. Delta will begin 767-300 flights from Atlanta to Dublin five days a week on March 29, increasing to daily June 1; 757-200 service from New York JFK to Stockholm four times a week as of June 5, increasing to five a week June 15; and 757-200 flights from JFK to Malaga, Spain beginning with five weekly frequencies June 4 and increasing to daily on June 29. Good news: More summer flights to Europe usually means better award seat availability.

WeekendEdition

BUS_P002

Guest using Wi-fi at Hyatt Regency Chicago (Photo: Hyatt)

HOTELS

Hyatt’s free Wi-Fi: Everyone, everywhere. Just days after Starwood Hotels matched Marriott by saying it would offer free standard Wi-Fi systemwide to members of its Preferred Guest program who book directly through a Starwood channel, Hyatt has upped the ante on those two lodging giants. Starting in February, Hyatt said, it will offer free Internet in all guest rooms and public spaces of all its brands worldwide — and you don’t have to book through a Hyatt channel or even be a member of Gold Plus Rewards to get it. “Internet connectivity is no longer an amenity. It has become an integral part of travelers’ daily lives and a basic expectation,” said Kristine Rose, Hyatt’s VP for brands. “Travelers shouldn’t have to remember which brands or locations offer it for free or the strings attached to get it.” Currently, free Wi-Fi at Hyatt is limited to certain brands and to elite Gold Passport members. The company noted that where it is available, Gold Passport Diamonds and Platinums will get a free upgrade to premium Wi-Fi service.

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Lounge at Marriott’s AC Hotel New Orleans Bourbon (Photo:: Marriott)

Free hotel Wi-Fi: Great perk or gimmick? Now that Marriott, Starwood and Hyatt have all announced plans to offer free Wi-Fi systemwide in the weeks ahead — launching a bandwagon that other chains are likely to jump on — travelers will have to judge whether the free version is fast and reliable enough. In each case, the three hotel companies will also provide “premium” Internet access for free to the top elite members of their loyalty programs. As Starwood defines it, “Standard Internet access is sufficient for web browsing and emailing. Premium Internet access allows for streaming content and downloading large files.” But those are fairly vague definitions. With increasing numbers of travelers carrying more and more devices, all siphoning data through that same “standard” Wi-Fi pipe, will current hotel systems be sufficient for the demand? Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association, suggested in a USA Today column last week that it’s time for the lodging industry to develop common standards for the levels of Wi-Fi connectivity hotels offer their guests, with clear guidelines as to who gets what, and for what cost (if any). In our own reader poll, conducted after Marriott started the free standard Wi-Fi ball rolling in October, only 28 percent were happy with a basic Wi-Fi connection, while 54 percent said they would use it, but it was “frustrating,” and 18 percent preferred to pay for a faster link. What’s your opinion on this issue? Share your comments below.

Openings, rebrandings: Marriott, Starwood, Four Seasons, etc. The first U.S. property in the AC Hotels by Marriott brand — which has 75 locations in Europe — opened this month in New Orleans. The AC Hotel New Orleans Bourbon is in the old cotton exchange building on Carondelet Street at the edge of the French Quarter … Also newly opened in The Big Easy is Starwood’s 410-room Le Meridien New Orleans, a remaking of the former W Hotel … There’s a second new Le Meridien in the South: Le Meridien Charlotte, close to that city’s Uptown Business District, is a transformation of the hotel previously known as the Sheraton Charlotte and the Charlotte City Center Hotel … Philadelphia will lose its Four Seasons Hotel in June, when the property is due to close for renovations before reopening under an as-yet-unnamed brand … Newly opened in the heart of downtown Miami is the YVE Hotel Miami, an upscale concept property that will, for instance, offer its guests bikes, scooters and Car2Go vehicles to get around town … Outside the U.S., the former Four Seasons Hotel in Dublin, Ireland, will become the InterContinental Dublin on January 1 … In Colombia, Starwood has cut the ribbon on the 168-room W Bogota in the center of town, its third W property in Latin America.

Resolve to get more out of your good credit score in 2015 with a new credit card! Here are our picks for the two best all-around cards– Both currently offer 40,000 mile sign up bonuses!

AIRPORTS

SkyPriorityatTokyoNarita

SkyTeam aligns priority perks. Delta’s SkyTeam global alliance — which includes Air France, KLM and 17 other carriers — said last week it has become the first alliance “to deliver aligned priority services worldwide” for Elite Plus, first and business class customers at some 1,000 airports. And at the world’s top 60 airports, SkyTeam said, it is currently rolling out SkyPriority Fast Track lanes at security checkpoints (already at 39 locations) and immigration (now available at 21 airports) for its premium flyers. The global program offers premium customers priority check-in areas and baggage drop-off, priority service at ticketing and transfer desks, and priority boarding and baggage handling. Readers: What’s your experience with finding common procedures and policies in place when you connect across global alliance partners? Any problems?

Sydney gets two new lounges. The International Terminal at Sydney, Australia’s airport has added two new lounges for weary travelers. American Express has cut the ribbon on a new Lounge that seats 60 and offers Wi-Fi, power outlets, food and beverages and more. It’s open to AmEx Platinum and Centurion cardholders for free, and to other AmEx cardholders for $55. Meanwhile, Delta’s SkyTeam alliance also has a new lounge at SYD, with seating for 150 travelers as well as showers, massage chairs, food and beverage service and Wi-Fi. It’s available for business class passengers on SkyTeam carriers, and for elite members of their loyalty programs.

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Faster Virgin Wi-Fi + Hertz status for SkyMiles + Kimpton purchase + Free Internet at Starwood

VirginAmericaWiFiservice

Virgin America Wi-Fi service (Photo: Virgin America)

 AIRLINES

Virgin speeds up in-flight Wi-Fi. Flyers on Virgin America who use in-flight Wi-Fi should notice an improvement in download speeds now that the airline has completed the deployment of Gogo’s ATG-4 Wi-Fi service on all 53 of its Airbus A320s. With speeds topping out at 9.8 Mbps, the ATG-4 service is more than three times faster than the first generation of in-flight Internet. To promote the enhancement, Virgin and Gogo are offering a chance to win roundtrip flights, a new iPad or free Wi-Fi service for a year to persons who “share their best ‘office in the sky’ moment on Twitter and Instagram with the hashtag #OfficeInTheSky.” Readers, what’s your experience with in-flight Wi-Fi? Too slow? Too expensive? Or just right? Post comments below.

Gogo Wi-Fi Tip: Did you know that you can buy Gogo day passes online before your flight for just $16 vs the $35+ fee you’ll pay for connecting on the plane? This saves the most money for longer transcon flights. Get your passes ahead of time here: Gogo $16 day pass

SkyMiles offers Hertz status. Delta has bolstered its partnership with Hertz by offering SkyMiles Medallion members elite status in the car rental company’s Gold Plus Rewards program, which will give them expedited service and car upgrade eligibility. Gold Medallions can join Hertz’s Five Star Program, while Platinums and Diamonds are eligible for the Gold Plus Rewards President’s Circle. Delta set up a web page with a link to the registration process for Hertz status enrollment. Medallions can also scan Hertz’s summary of benefits for the Gold Plus Rewards status levels.

Alaska debuts new in-flight perks. Streaming in-flight entertainment to personal electronic devices is just one of the perks Alaska Airlines is rolling out as part of its new “Alaska Beyond” in-flight improvements. The company said entertainment streaming — currently available on 50 of its 737s, and coming on the rest by April — will be free through January 31; after that, movies and TV shows start at $1.99. The improvements also include new Recaro leather seats with power outlets and USB ports at every seat (currently on 95 percent of its aircraft) and new in-flight service that offers “locally-sourced, artisan food and beverage from iconic Northwest brands.” Later in 2015, Alaska is due to begin installing new overhead bins that provide 48 percent more storage space.

WeekendEdition

Routes: Southwest, JetBlue, AA. Southwest will add new service next year on several routes: On June 7, it will begin twice-daily Los Angeles-Portland, Ore. flights as well as new daily service between LAX-Indianapolis, Oakland-Nashville and Oakland-New Orleans. On June 28, it will add twice-daily Indianapolis-Boston flights and daily service between Austin-St. Louis and Austin-Orange County, Calif. … JetBlue last week inaugurated three new Florida routes from Washington Reagan National, including twice-daily service to Jacksonville and daily flights to Ft. Myers and West Palm Beach … American Airlines has filed for government approval to start code-sharing with Mexican carrier Interjet, with plans to put the AA code onto Interjet flights from Mexico City to Huatulco, Villahermosa, Merida, Tuxla Gutierrez and Oaxaca.

China connections: United, Virgin. United Airlines plans to boost seasonal capacity from San Francisco to China in 2015. The carrier said that from May 6 to October 24, it will double its SFO-Shanghai service to two flights a day, and from June 4 to September 1 it will increase SFO-Chengdu frequencies from three a week to daily. Meanwhile, Virgin America said that starting in 2015, it will offer members of its Elevate program reciprocal benefits with China Eastern, so they can earn and burn miles on the Chinese carrier’s flights. Virgin will also add the Shanghai-based airline’s code to a number of its U.S. routes.

Why not let holiday spending help you snag big credit card mileage bonusesCheck out our recommendations here and get your 40,000 miles! 

AIRPORTS

qantasloungelax

Qantas First lounge at LAX (Photo: Qantas)

New Qantas First lounge at LAX. Qantas has cut the ribbon on a new Qantas First lounge at Los Angeles International Airport that’s more than three times the size of its predecessor. The new Qantas First facility — open to first class customers, Qantas Platinum and Platinum One frequent flyers, and Oneworld Emerald and international first class flyers — can seat more than 200 guests. It has a 74-seat restaurant with cuisine from Australian celebrity chef Neil Perry, as well as enhanced services like faster Wi-Fi, wireless printing, cable TV, a pair of private work suites and seven shower suites. Meanwhile, Qantas last week increased service on it s LAX-Melbourne route from seven flights a week to 10.

HOTELS

Guest room at Kimpton's Hotel Monaco Philadelphia (Photo: Kimpton)

Guest room at Kimpton’s Hotel Monaco Philadelphia (Photo: Kimpton)

InterContinental to acquire Kimpton Hotels. The popular and fast-growing boutique chain Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, with 62 U.S. properties and 16 more in the works, is being acquired by InterContinental Hotels Group for $430 million. Noting that the boutique hotel business is “the fastest growing segment in the industry,” IHG said that Kimpton, with its distinctive designs and decors, will be “highly complementary with IHG’s Hotel Indigo and EVEN Hotels brands.” The purchaser said it would speed up the growth of Kimpton in the U.S. and introduce the brand in foreign destinations, citing a “significant opportunity” for expansion in Europe and Asia. There will be no immediate impact on customers; Kimpton told members of its Karma Rewards plan in an email that its program and the IHG Rewards Club “will continue to run as separate loyalty programs” for the time being.

Starwood expands free Wi-Fi. On the heels of a similar announcement by Marriott two months ago, Starwood Hotels & Resorts said that effective February 2, 2015, members of its Starwood Preferred Guest program who book their rooms directly through a Starwood digital channel including websites and mobile apps will get free standard in-room Wi-Fi access at all the company’s brands. Starwood already offers free Internet at its Aloft, Element, and Four Points by Sheraton brands in North America, and to SPG Platinum members. Starwood’s other brands include St. Regis, The Luxury Collection, W, Westin, Le Meridien and Sheraton.

Hilton digital check-in goes live. Hilton Worldwide announced last week that guests who use its Hilton HHonors app can now check in digitally at more than 4,100 of its properties worldwide in 11 brands, using their own smartphones, tablets or desktops. They can also use the app to select a specific room for their stay. Next year, Hilton said, it will expand the app’s functionality so guests can unlock their room doors with their smartphones, starting with its Conrad, Hilton, Waldorf Astoria and Canopy by Hilton brands. Have you tried digital check-in with any hotels yet? Any problems?

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iPhones on United + Delta backtrack + Holiday first class sale + Uber issues + New hotel for NYC

United's going big with the new iPhone 6 Plus. (Photo: United)

United’s going big with the new iPhone 6 Plus. (Photo: United)

AIRLINES

UA flight attendants get iPhones. Passenger purchases on United flights will soon be processed through an iPhone 6 Plus. The airline said it plans to give the big new iPhones to 23,000 flight attendants in the second quarter of 2015, and they’ll be able to handle most in-flight retail transactions. In the months to come, “United plans to develop a number of customer-focused tools for the device,” a spokesman said.

AmEx-Delta: No point transfer cap after all. American Express and Delta said they have agreed to “a multi-year extension” of their 18-year-old co-branded credit card partnership. And as part of that deal, the companies announced that they have backed off an earlier plan to cap American Express Rewards point transfers into SkyMiles at 250,000 a year. Also, “Platinum Card members from American Express and Delta Reserve Card members can continue to enjoy access to the Delta Sky Club,” the companies said. It was only a couple of months ago that the limit on point transfers, which was supposed to take effect January 1, was announced — and neither AmEx nor Delta offered any hints as to why it is now being dropped. Readers — care to speculate on the reason? Was this a big deal for you or not?

First class holiday sale from Virgin. Act fast (booking deadline is midnight Sunday, December 14) and use promo code MERRY50 and you can save 50 percent off Virgin America’s first class and Main Cabin Select fares for travel December 19-January 2.

Why not let holiday spending help you snag big credit card mileage bonuses? Check out our recommendations here and get your 40,000 miles! 

Here's a rendering of American's new look at the airport

Here’s a rendering of American’s new look at the airport

AA promises big customer improvements. American Airlines marked the one-year anniversary of its merger with US Airways last week by announcing it will spend $2 billion on passenger-oriented improvements in the months ahead. Besides fleet renewal — some 112 new aircraft will be delivered next year, AA said — improvements will bring new seats (including lie-flat, direct aisle access first and business class seats “on nearly every American Airlines widebody jet”); power ports in every row on narrow-bodies and at every seat on newly delivered 777-300ERs and 787s (AA’s first Dreamliner is due in the next few months); new Bose headsets in premium cabins of international and transcon flights; and Wi-Fi on international routes. Airport facilities and Admirals Clubs will also get an overhaul. Another part of the plan: American will install Gogo in-flight Wi-Fi over the next year on 250 of its two-class regional jets. Which passenger enhancement would you most like to see on American? Post comments below.

Cleveland Shuffle: Flights cut, added. United’s big drawdown of service at Cleveland Hopkins isn’t finished yet. The carrier’s latest cutbacks will include the end of Cleveland-Dallas/Ft. Worth service on March 5, followed by termination of flights to Ft. Myers, Ft. Lauderdale and Tampa on April 7. Meanwhile, JetBlue said it will add Cleveland as the 88th destination on its route map starting April 30, when it launches two flights a day to Boston. And low-cost Frontier Airlines plans to pull its service from Cleveland to LaGuardia, Washington Dulles and Chicago O’Hare in the weeks ahead.

International routes: China Southern, Delta, EVA. December 16 is the launch date for China Southern’s new service from San Francisco to Guangzhou, operating via a stop in Wuhan three times a week with a 787 … Delta kicks off new daily service December 20 between its Salt Lake City hub and Mexico City … Taiwan’s EVA Airways plans to begin new service between Taipei and Houston Bush Intercontinental in June 2015, flying three times a week with a 777-300ER.

Lufthansa’s new course. What’s going on at Lufthansa? Pilots have staged disruptive walkouts in recent weeks as the airline moves forward with a plan to compete against low-cost carriers by expanding its budget Eurowings subsidiary on both short and long-haul routes while still maintaining a full-service operation at the parent airline. Lufthansa chief Carsten Spohr explained the strategy in a New York Times interview last week. Have your plans been disrupted by LH pilot strikes? How did you handle it?

Recent: Better hotel deals on these 5 hotel-only sites? 

AIRPORTS

Delta coddles arrivals at Heathrow. Delta premium passengers flying into London Heathrow can now take advantage of a new arrivals lounge the carrier has opened in Terminal 3. Available at no charge to BusinessElite passengers as well as SkyMiles Diamonds and Platinums, the facility has 11 private showers, clothes pressing and shoeshine services, breakfast service, Wi-Fi and a business center. It’s open from 6 a.m. until 2 p.m. daily.

CARS

Uber’s legal ups and downs. It’s a real roller-coaster ride for the lawyers at ride-sharing app Uber these days. On the upside, Uber (and competitor Lyft) just won approval from the Dallas City Council to operate legally in that city effective April 30. On the downside, district attorneys in San Francisco and Los Angeles last week filed suit against Uber alleging violations of various consumer protection statutes (although both cities recently settled a similar case against Lyft). But that’s not Uber’s only difficulty: Web site The Daily Beast last week published a summary of the legal problems facing the company in a number of venues. And then there’s this: Who’s Driving You?

Have you entered the contest to win a $200 Amex gift card plus one year of National Executive status? All you have to do is offer one great travel tip! 

HOTELS

A big new Virgin hotel for NYC...but why not SF? (Photo: Virgin Hotels)

A big new Virgin hotel for NYC…but why not SF? (Photo: Virgin Hotels)

Virgin America adds sister hotel firm to Elevate. The newest participant in Virgin America’s Elevate loyalty program is its new sister company Virgin Hotels. Its first property is due to open in Chicago in mid-January; Elevate members will get 1,000 points per stay (doubled from January 15-March 31), and Gold members will receive free breakfasts and room upgrades. A Nashville property is expected to open in 2016, followed by a New York City hotel in 2017. The developer of the Manhattan property, at Broadway and 29th Street, last week revealed some details about the 38-story, 475-room hotel, including a rooftop bar, outdoor pool and spa. (We wish they’d build a new one in in San Francisco!)

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Tip: Stormy weather slowing you down? Here’s why…

(Photo: SlightlyNorth / Flickr)

Flight delays at San Francisco International Airport regularly exceed two hours when it’s rainy, windy or foggy, while airports in San Jose and Oakland report few if any delays. As I write this, the FAA is reporting delays averaging 3 hours 40 minutes at SFO.

Here’s why:

As most frequent travelers know, delays mount at SFO almost every time a storm blows in off the Pacific. Just look at these sad numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics: SFO ranked 27th out of 29 major airports in on-time arrivals in the first 10 months of 2014. It ranked 18th out of 29 in on-time departures (an improvement over 2013 when it ranked 23rd).

Why does SFO seem to suffer so many more weather-related delays than other airports in the Bay Area?

Of course, the answer is endlessly complicated, but for the most part, the main reason is capacity. SFO’s runways are too close together to allow simultaneous operations during wet weather. Due to environmental concerns, there are no current plans to further separate the runways, which would require expansion into the Bay.

SFO Plan West

The West Plan at SFO allows up to 60 aircraft arrivals per hour (Illustration provided by SFO. Yes, we know about the “SJO” mistake on this image.)

SFO runways are designed to handle up to 60 aircraft arrivals per hour in dry weather. That’s because the airport operates two sets of parallel runways– one set for takeoffs, the other for landings. These parallel runways intersect at their midpoint forming a giant “X.” (See figureDuring dry weather, two streams of planes can land and take off from these parallel runways.

The problem is that planes are only allowed to take off and land simultaneously on these parallel runways during clear, dry weather.

When storms blow in, air traffic control changes up the formation in which planes land, from the dry weather “West Plan” (with aircraft arriving on runways 28L or 28R and departing on runways 01L or 01R– see above) to the stormy weather “Southeast” plan (when aircraft arrive on 19L & 19R and depart on 10L & 10R– see below).

When air traffic controllers switch to the Southeast plan, simultaneous operations on parallel runways is forbidden, which cuts the airport’s arrivals capacity in half– from 60 down to 30 or 38 per hour, depending on the severity of conditions. All planes must land in single file, which causes delays when there are 60 planes scheduled to land, but air traffic control only allows 35. And when planes arrive late, it’s likely that they will also depart late.

Related: Is this the best flight of the year? 

During rainy weather, SFO switches to the Southeast plan, which slows down operations

During rainy weather, SFO switches to the Southeast plan, which slows down operations (Illustration provided by SFO. Yes, we know about the “SJO” mistake on this image )

If you live in San Francisco, you can tell when planes switch to the Southeast Plan because arriving aircraft whistle and moan as they descend through the clouds over the city as they approach SFO.

What can you do to avoid this? Fly early during storm season. Before 9 a.m., arrival volume at SFO is below 30 per hour. But after 9 a.m., just over 30 aircraft are scheduled to land. The arrivals rate peaks between 12 noon and 2 pm when 40+ aircraft per hour are scheduled to land at SFO. The situation usually does not improve until later in the afternoon when arrival volume falls below 30 per hour.

What are the two best all-around credit cards? Both currently offer 40,000 mile sign up bonuses!

The main reason that airports in Oakland and San Jose don’t face such on-time performance issues– even when it’s raining–  is that their volume is low. They rarely exceed their capacity for arrivals in good or bad weather. (For example, neither airport is included in the BTS’s top 29 airports cited above.)

Late last year, SFO announced that new landing procedures could help reduce delays– but those new procedures only apply during periods of low ceilings (fog) but not rain.

Would you consider switching your flying to Oakland or San Jose due to delays at SFO? Why or why not? Please leave your comments below. 

– Chris McGinnis

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Is this the best flight of the year?

It's not every day you board a 747, destination: North Pole.

It’s not every day you board a 747, destination: North Pole.

By Nancy Branka

By the time December rolls around each year, the last thing I want to do is to get on a plane. I am, by now, a jaded, tired business traveler. I am just plain done with TSA agents, done with vying for position in boarding groups, done with heaving my carry-on over my head.

But on Saturday I had the privilege of experiencing the joy of air travel again, on what was pretty much the best flight ever. Of course, this was no standard trip. It was the “Fantasy Flight,” staged by 120 United Airlines San Francisco-based employees for children recovering from serious illnesses.

The flight was to embark from SFO’s Gate 82, where the 54 families would board a 747, fly for approximately one hour, then land at the North Pole—AKA Gate 86. From check-in at a specially decorated ticket counter to arrival where kids, most dressed in their Christmas finest, received gifts and sat on Santa’s lap, smiles abounded. (OK, maybe they were punctuated with the occasional crying toddler sibling.) I eavesdropped on a conversation with one family, parents and two children, eager to board the plane because the kids had never flown before. What a way to spend a Saturday.

Have you ever seen an airport gate look like this?

Have you ever seen an airport gate look like this?

Normally bland gate areas were transformed to holiday wonderlands thanks to myriad blow-up decorations—life-sized Christmas trees, clusters of snowmen, Santa in a hot air balloon. A Lionel train ran the length of the departure gate. Meanwhile, choirs sang Christmas carols, elves offered refreshments, fairies painted children’s faces and Mike Hanna, United’s SFO station manager, introduced a cadre of special guests, including former 49er football players and 13 Olympians.

The SFO-based United employees have staged this event for 20 years running, and similar events are held at other United hubs. The effort requires months of fundraising to reach the $20,000 required to put on such an event: Employees generated $3,000 from a silent auction and food sales, United donated the use of the plane, and Chevron provided the fuel. From what I could hear, many of the employees—all of whom donated their time–had participated in the event before and looked forward to it each year.

Meanwhile, the frequent traveler in me wondered about the logistics of an unscheduled “fantasy flight.” As I pondered these questions, a series of conversations shed light on my musings. Here’s what I learned.

It's hard not to smile when you share beautiful views of San Francisco, with candy canes and gingerbread men.

It’s hard not to smile when you share beautiful views of San Francisco, with candy canes and gingerbread men.

How do pilots develop a flight plan for a flight to nowhere?

I buttonholed Captain Jim Abell, United assistant chief pilot, NW region, who told me the main thing was for the flight to stay out of the way of traffic at the busy airport, maintaining close communication with TRACON. He mentioned that this 747 would “take off like a rocket,” because we would be unusually light—just a sip of fuel, no cargo and a load of lightweight passengers. This was basically a sightseeing flight, he said, so we’d maintain a cruising altitude of just 3,000 feet, making views a priority: taking a track across the bay, over Alcatraz, then a left turn and through the Golden Gate, flying down the coast as far as Monterey before turning back. (I loved the idea of sightseeing on a 747.)

Santa and Mrs. Claus hung out on the upper deck before making their dramatic appearance.

Santa and Mrs. Claus hung out on the upper deck before making their dramatic appearance.

How would the North Pole narrative deliver the magic for both skeptics and believers?

About an hour in, just when we flew over Pebble Beach, flight attendants announced that bad weather had delayed our landing at the North Pole. Instead, Santa and Mrs. Claus were landing their sleigh on top of the plane. And what do you know? The rosy-cheeked pair emerged down the stairs from the upper deck, to the delight of the kids. Ingenious. (I was amused earlier in the flight when I visited the upper deck and found it to be a rather surreal Green Room for the cast of characters and their children. In fact, the pilots’ grandchildren were on the flight and scrambled onto their laps in the cockpit after we landed.)

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SFPD Airport Bureau bomb-sniffing dogs like Big and his handler, Sgt. Michael Andraychak, were just along for the fun of it.

SFPD Airport Bureau bomb-sniffing dogs like Big and his handler, Sgt. Michael Andraychak, were just along for the fun of it.

How do you keep a planeload of sick kids safe and still have fun?

Five paramedics from the South San Francisco fire department were on board the flight with their gear in case of medical emergency, donating their time. They told me later that they had a blast, and, happily, their services were not needed. In addition, the traditional safety demonstration by flight attendants had been rewritten to the cadence of “The Night Before Christmas.” I chuckled at, “In the unlikely event of a dip in the bay, put on your life vest and you’ll be OK.” Some other guests helped me appreciate what a special flight this was.

Two San Francisco police officers and their bomb-sniffing dogs were on board, small packs of children petting the dogs in the galleys. I have to say, there’s something relaxing and wonderful about seeing Black Labs roam the aisles of a 747.

Even the pilots were into it!

I was actually sad to have this flight end. Certainly, the day brought a special joy to the very deserving families for whom it was arranged. I was just along for the ride. But maybe it was the ultimate Christmas miracle for me, too, to embrace the fact that even airlines have big hearts this time of year. Air travel really is a wonder.

This time of year do you get travel burnout, or do you enjoy the ride? Leave your thoughts in the comments below! 

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Virgin food award + Delta beer + New flights to Europe + 3 Miami hotels + First A350

VirginAmericasobanoodles

Virgin America soba noodles serving (Photo: Virgin America)

AIRLINES

Virgin takes top honors in food study. Charles Platkin, a nutritionist also known as the Diet Detective, has come out with his annual ratings of airline food in terms of its nutritional quality, and Virgin America has captured the top spot. “It’s great that Virgin America also provides ALL nutritional information, NOT just calories, and it’s on their website, too.  Virgin America also has on-demand eating – you simply select the food you want, when you want it right at your seat,” he wrote.  Platkin rated Delta’s in-flight food as most improved this year, thanks to a new partnership with healthy food company Luvo. Do you care about the nutritional value of in-flight food?  What’s the best meal you’ve had this year? Please leave your comments below. 

Delta broadens beer selections. The craze for regional craft beers is getting a boost from Delta, which said it is introducing seven varieties to the beverage carts on a number of its most popular business travel routes. The providers of the new brews range from New York’s Brooklyn Brewery to San Diego’s Ballast Point Brewing.

Qatar Airways A350 (PHOTO: Qatar Airways)

Qatar Airways A350 (Photo: Qatar Airways)

Qatar debuts world’s newest airliner. Qatar Airways, the global launch customer for the new Airbus A350 XWB, said it will take delivery of the first aircraft on December 13, and plans to put it into commercial service between Doha and Frankfurt in January. Qatar, a member of the Oneworld global alliance, has expressed its confidence in the new Airbus model by ordering 80 of them. The A350 is a wide-body, mid-sized aircraft designed as Airbus’ answer to Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, to be used on medium to long-haul international routes. Like the Boeing plane, the A350 relies on composite materials and aluminum alloys to reduce its weight and increase fuel efficiency. The XWB stands for extra-wide body — its cabin is a few inches wider than the 787’s. TravelSkills got an advance look at the A350 a few months ago; here’s our report.

Oneworld expands benefits. Frequent flyers who have achieved Sapphire status in the Oneworld alliance (American, British Airways, et al.) are getting an additional baggage benefit. In economy class on member airlines using a weight-based system, they’ll get an extra 15 kg. over the usual economy class allowance; and on those using a piece system, they’ll get a second checked bag (when the allowance is one) of up to 23 kg. Allowances were also increased for first and business class customers. In addition, Sapphire and Emerald-level elites will get priority baggage delivery.

International routes: Etihad, United, Lufthansa, Azul. Etihad Airways last week kicked off new non-stop service between Abu Dhabi and Dallas/Ft. Worth, using a three-class 777-200LR; its initial three flights a week will increase to daily next April … United on Sunday (December 7) begins daily non-stops between Houston Bush Intercontinental and Santiago, Chile, with a 767-300 … Lufthansa last week resumed seasonal Miami-Munich service five times a week, with a three-class A330-300 … Brazilian carrier Azul — run by JetBlue founder David Neeleman — has started its first service to the U.S. with a daily Ft. Lauderdale-Sao Paulo flight; it will add Orlando-Sao Paulo on December 15.

Delta sets seasonal Europe service. Delta last week unveiled plans for its 2015 seasonal transatlantic schedule additions. March 29 is the launch date for New York JFK-Nice service, using a 767-400 and operating five times a week, increasing to daily on May 2. Also on May 2, Delta will kick off daily JFK-Shannon, Ireland non-stops with a 757-200. On June 2, the airline will begin daily JFK-Prague non-stops, using a 767-300, and daily Atlanta-Barcelona service with an A330-300.

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TravelSkills editor Chris McGinnis is in Washington DC this week-- flew nonstop SFO-Washington National on Virgin America

TravelSkills editor Chris McGinnis is in Washington DC this week– flew nonstop SFO-Washington National on Virgin America

AIRPORTS

Clear Card in Vegas. CLEAR, the provider of biometric identity-based expedited access to airport security lanes, has finally added Las Vegas McCarran as its 10th location. The $179-a-year service is already available at SFO, SJC, DFW, DEN, IAH, HOU, SAT, MCO and HPN. Miami International MIA is next on the list for Clear although there is no firm start date. Do you use Clear? Is is still worth $179 per year? Leave comments below. 

Washington D.C.’s airports dilemma. The nation’s capital has expected Dulles International Airport to handle the region’s long-term traffic growth, but a report by the Washington Post notes that growth at IAD has stalled as more passengers and airlines are flocking to close-in Reagan National Airport. Part of the blame goes to Congress, which has opened up DCA to more long-haul flights, but part of it is due to Dulles’ remote location.

CARS

Uber, Lyft OKd in Denver. Ride-sharing services Lyft and Uber have both won approval from Denver International Airport officials to pick up and drop off passengers at the passenger terminals. Have you used Uber or Lyft for airport transportation? How would you describe the difference between the two?

HOTELS

marriott-edition-hotel

Miami Beach Edition Room (Photo: Marriott)

South Florida gets three new properties. The newest product of Marriott’s partnership with hotelier Ian Schrager has opened its doors — the Miami Beach EDITION. The 298-room EDITION — a remaking of the old Seville Hotel at 2901 Collins Avenue — was designed as an “urban resort” to appeal to business travelers who want to work and play in Miami Beach … Down the road at 4041 Collins Avenue, Thompson Hotels has cut the ribbon on the 380-room Thompson Miami Beach in an historic Art Deco building; it has 47,000 square feet of meeting space and a gourmet restaurant called Seagrape from local celebrity chef Michelle Bernstein … And in Palm Beach, Kimpton Hotels has added a new oceanfront property, taking over the former Omphoy Ocean Resort and rebranding it last week as the Tideline Ocean Resort & Spa after making a number of enhancements.

JW Marriott Houston Downtown room (PHOTO: Marriott)

JW Marriott Houston Downtown room (Photo: Marriott)

Openings: Houston, Brussels, Johannesburg. The century-old Samuel F. Carter building at 806 Main Street in downtown Houston has been remade into the newly opened, 328-room JW Marriott Houston Downtown. Each room has a 55-inch TV, Nespresso machine, touch-screen room controls, and an iPad for ordering hotel services … A landmark building in the heart of Brussels, close to the Grand Place and the Square Brussels Meeting Center, has been transformed into the new Hilton Brussels Grand Place, with 123 rooms and suites … The renowned Westcliff Hotel in Johannesburg, South Africa, has undergone an 18-month, $56 million renovation and reopened as The Four Seasons Hotel-The Westcliff Johannesburg. All 117 rooms were renovated, and the hotel has new contemporary restaurants, lounges and a spa …In Australia, luxury operator Langham Hotels has finished a $25 million renovation of The Langham Sydney (formerly the Observatory Hotel).

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Uber out in Vegas + United changes routes + Delta in Philly + Virgin’s next moves? + New India visa

alaska

Alaska Airlines is sticking to a miles-based program unlike most other carriers (Photo: Jim Glab)

AIRLINES

Alaska boosts mileage bonuses. Alaska Airlines has an early Christmas present for its Mileage Plan members: bigger earning bonuses for certain fare classes and for MVP Gold 75K elites starting January 1. The bonus for first class fares jumps from 50 to 75 percent, and for refundable coach (Y) fares from 25 to 50 percent. Some nonrefundable fare classes will start offering 50 percent (S class) or 25 percent (M and B) bonuses. And MVP Gold 75K elites will see their bonus rise from 100 to 125 percent. An Alaska official said airlines that have moved to revenue-based loyalty programs “have the potential of diluting the rewards earned for the average passenger,” and said Alaska will stick with a generous mileage-based plan. (Take that, Delta!)

United draws heat for Sacramento suspension. United Airlines will suspend its non-stop service between Sacramento and Washington Dulles for the winter season (January 6-April 6), drawing criticism from local politicians and members of Congress, who will have to make the trip via a connection during that period. United said the suspension is due to weak seasonal demand. California has 53 members of the house of representatives and two senators.

JetBlue debuts free Wi-Fi content. JetBlue last week went live with its new “Fly-Fi Hub,” a collection of free content that passengers can view on their personal devices aboard aircraft equipped with JetBlue’s Fly-Fi service. Content available both online and off-line includes Fox TV shows; e-book excerpts from 20 HarperCollins best-sellers; National Geographic programs; and educational videos including courses from Wharton Business School. Users also will have the option to buy Time Inc. magazines. Coming early next year is PBS programming for kids, as well as full access to the Wall Street Journal.

Popular! 6 most annoying actions of infrequent flyers

virgin-route-map

Virgin America routes as of November 2014 (Source: Virgin America)

Virgin America: Ready for takeoff? With its initial public offering successfully completed, its balance sheet in the black and fuel prices remaining low, Virgin America appears to be poised for a new period of growth and expansion, according to a newly released analysis by the CAPA Centre for Aviation. With new funds and 10 new aircraft joining its fleet in the next two years, it is expected to achieve capacity growth of 10-15 percent in 2015, and to focus on attracting an increasing number of higher-yielding business travelers. There’s room to grow, since Virgin only serves 15 of the top 50 U.S. markets, the report notes. Where would you like to see Virgin America fly next? On our wish list: Atlanta, New Orleans, Phoenix. What about you? Please leave your comments below. 

Route news: United, Alaska, Delta. United plans to add a pair of new seasonal routes to Europe on June 4 and double its service on another: Daily Newark-Venice service operates through September 23 with a 767-400ER; daily Chicago-Dublin service through August 17 with a 757-200; and a second daily Washington Dulles-Paris CDG flight through August 17 with a 757-200 … This week, United adds two Latin American routes: Denver-Panama City starting December 3, and Houston-Santiago December 7 … On July 1, Alaska Airlines will add three routes operated by partner SkyWest’s Embraer 175s: Seattle-Milwaukee, Seattle-Oklahoma City and Portland-St. Louis, each with one daily flight … Delta plans to drop even more routes from Memphis on January 5, including Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Dallas/Ft. Worth; in April, it will end MEM-Washington Reagan National service.

MileagePlus tests new shopping app. United recently revealed plans to let MileagePlus members use miles to pay for meals and drinks via iPads at Newark’s Terminal C once renovations are finished, and now it is expanding its app-based shopping technology. The airline said it has started testing with a select group of members what it calls the MileagePlus X mobile app, which lets members with iOS and Android phones instantly earn up to 24 miles per dollar spent at participating retailers, including Lowe’s, Sears, the Gap and AMC Theaters. “The airline plans to expand MileagePlus X to all members and offer more retailers soon,” a spokesman said. “United is continuing to improve MileagePlus X and plans to launch additional features, including the ability to redeem miles for in-store purchases.”

Philadelphia

Philadelphia (Photo: Murray Hedley, Flickr)

AA, Delta battle for PHL-London. When Delta recently began its own non-stop Los Angeles-London Heathrow service, American responded with plans to double its service on the route to two flights a day starting next spring — and now the same thing is happening on the Philadelphia-London Heathrow route. Delta said it will launch daily 757-200 flights between PHL and LHR on April 8 as part of its partnership with Virgin Atlantic. And American said it will add a second daily PHL-LHR flight starting March 29, operated by a US Airways 757-200, with a 9:55 a.m. departure time. That will give the AA-British Airways joint venture four daily PHL-LHR flights.

What are the two best all-around credit cards? Both currently offer 40,000 mile sign up bonuses!

CARS

Uber suspends Nevada service — for now. Ride-sharing app Uber’s presence in one of its newest big markets — Las Vegas — has been suspended after a Nevada judge issued a temporary restraining order against the service. It’s apparently the first time that Uber has failed to overcome the many legal and regulatory challenges to its business model, which generally involve whether or not the firm should have to follow the same rules as taxi operators.


Gas prices plunge. As air fares keep going up, gas prices keep going down. Late last week, the price of a barrel of oil plunged to a low of about $66. If this trend continues, it could lead some business travelers to consider adding more road trips to their schedules in place of shorter flights. Last week, average U.S. gas prices hit $2.82 a gallon, down 47 cents from last year at this time and at their lowest late-November level in five years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Are you planning to drive more now that fuel prices are lower… but airfares are not? Please leave your comments below. 

International

Easier entry to India. The notoriously difficult Indian visa application process is now apparently a thing of the past according to QuartzThe Narendra Modi government on Thursday launched a “tourist visa on arrival” scheme for nationals of 43 countries (including the US and Cananda) traveling to India for 30 days or less—and only for “recreation, sightseeing, short duration medical treatment, casual business visit, casual visit to meet friends or relatives.” Applications must now be made online (instead of the previously required visit to a consulate) at least four days prior to arrival and cost $60.

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22 fun facts about flying

For your holiday reading pleasure, here are 22 fun facts about flying that you may not know. An entertaining and enlightening read from the folks at FlightRight.com.

Have a great Thanksgiving!

–Chris

22 fun facts

 

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36 most/least frustrating airports

Did you know that there's a five star hotel (with a great bar) inside Vancouver Airport? Photo: Chris McGinnis

Did you know that there’s a five star hotel (with a great bar) inside Vancouver Airport? Photo: Chris McGinnis

Just in time for the holiday crunch, Bloomberg/BusinessWeek has put together a spot-on ranking of the 36 largest airports in the US and Canada.

What’s best about this ranking is that it is based on a survey of 3,000 frequent travelers who know a thing or two about airports, plus a full analysis of drive time to/from airports, and airport on-time data.

Let’s start on a positive note and look at the those that come out at the top of the list for being LEAST frustrating overall:

#1 Vancouver YVR

#2 Portland PDX

#3 Austin AUS

#4 Calgary YYC

#5 Phoenix PHX

Every one of these top five airports puts a smile on my face. I love Vancouver for its indoor creek and 5-star hotel on the premises. I’m in awe of Portland’s glassy rain canopy that connects the airport to parking lots. Austin has live music, rocking chairs and BBQ!

Portland's glass canopy and great public transport  give it high marks (Port of Portland)

Portland’s glass canopy and great public transport give it high marks (Port of Portland)

One thing that jumped out at me about this study was that Canadian airports rank so high. In addition to Vancouver and Calgary, Ottawa ranked #8 overall. However, Toronto Pearson (YYZ), Canada’s busiest, ranked near the bottom of the pack at #30– just ahead of the reviled LAX and JFK. I can relate– nearly every time I fly to or from Toronto or pass through Pearson, I get lost. The first step Toronto could take toward a better airport would be better directional signage.

The bottom of the list should be familiar territory to all TravelSkills readers…these airport laggards nearly always fall at the bottom of every list, so there are few surprises here:

#32 New York Kennedy JFK

#33 Chicago O’Hare ORD

#34 Washington Dulles IAD

#35 Newark Liberty EWR

#36 New York LaGuardia LGA

Here's how Bloomberg described LaGuardia airport

Here’s how BusinessWeek described LaGuardia airport

Why the disdain for NYC area airports? Probably because they are dinosaurs– and most are too busy to make way for many improvements. Although I think it’s fair to say that there have been some improvements in New York. And there are more on the way… but it’s going to take a while…

For example, Delta’s new Terminal 4 operation at JFK is a dramatic improvement over its old digs at the long gone PanAm Worldport. The biggest downside are the unusually long walks required to get to gates at the far end of the concourse. I was just in JetBlue’s big, bright and happy JFK Terminal 5 last week and was impressed. And United’s operations at Newark are slated for improvements as we reported on TravelSkills this week.

Washington Dulles Airport's curves are sure lovely. Bu not its commute! (Photo: Joe Wolf / Flickr)

Washington Dulles Airport’s curves are sure lovely. Bu not its commute! (Photo: Joe Wolf / Flickr)

Another thread among the most frustrating airports is drive time. Washington Dulles is the most dramatic example of this… there is little worse than a five-hour transcon flight to Dulles, then another hour or two fighting traffic to get into downtown DC. Thankfully we have Washington National, which came in at #13. The top three airports in terms of drive time to/from during rush hour are: Boston BOS, Atlanta ATL and San Francisco SFO.

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Some other interesting notes from the study: Delta’s big hubs at Detroit and Atlanta came in at #11 and #12 respectively- well into the top half. While both are big and always busy, they work well. When I lived in Atlanta, people would say, “Atlanta Airport is about as pretty as a Xerox machine. But it works like one, too,” referring to the overall efficiency of the world’s busiest airport.

My hometown airport San Francisco International ranked #17– firmly middle of the pack. While SFO has some award winning terminals, organic food and excellent runway views, I’m sure its poor on-time performance in rain and fog likely pushed it down in the rankings.

Bloomberg airports

Click to see the full report!

Take a look at this fascinating report!  and leave your comments about it below. Were there any surprises in it? 
 
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New look for Newark + United goes Android + New Delta look at LAX + Fee at Hilton/Marriott

Which country boasts this gorgeous passport design? See below

Which country boasts this gorgeous design on passport pages including the North Star, Moon and Northern Lights? Scroll to bottom for full story!

AIRLINES

Just in time for the busy holidays, United has (finally) extended its new onboard streaming service to Android users. Apple iPhone and iPad users (as well as those on any laptop)  have been able to give the new service a try since last spring.  To use it, you must first download the United app from the Google Play or Apple App store in order to watch a variety free TV shows and movies while in flight on nearly 200 United aircraft, including its entire Airbus A319, Airbus A320 and Boeing 747 fleets and its Boeing 777 flying between the mainland and Hawaii. For the full story on inflight streaming, see this recent TravelSkills post: BYOD Entertainment on Planes. Have you tried United’s inflight streaming product yet? How did that go for you? 

You are reading Part 2 of this week’s Catch Up in Travel News from TravelSkills. Here’s Part 1

AIRPORTS

NEW RAIL LINK UP & RUNNING.  BART’s new Oakland airport service got off to a wet start last Saturday — with crews forced to squeegee off rain that had blown in and flooded the airport station platform — but nothing could dampen the enthusiasm of its jubilant first-day riders, according to SFgate.com “It was great, it was wonderful, it was easy, quick and cheap,” said one rider. New automated trains will transport riders from BART’s Coliseum station to the new Oakland Airport station every five minutes during peak hours; the ride takes eight minutes. The ride from the Coliseum station to/from downtown SF takes about 25 minutes. BART fares between the new Oakland Airport station and downtown San Francisco are $10.05.  More… 

A rendering of the future look for United's Concourse C in Newark (Image: OTG)

A rendering of the future look for United’s Concourse C in Newark (Image: OTG)

Big-name chefs coming to EWR. United Airlines and development partner OTG Management have revealed more plans for the ongoing overhaul of Terminal C at Newark Liberty International Airport. Not only is the revamped facility bringing in new restaurants from a number of high-visibility chefs, but travelers will be able to use their MileagePlus miles to pay for food and drinks through some of the 6,000 iPads that will be deployed in the terminal’s restaurants, bars and gate areas. The headliner restaurant will be chef Alaine Ducasse’s Saison, a French bistro; others include a French country eatery from Alex Guarnaschelli; an Italian steakhouse from Mario Carbone, and a surf bar and sushi outlet from Josh Capon.

Taxi turmoil at SFO. Organized taxi drivers clogged up the roadways outside passenger terminals at San Francisco International one night last week to protest the airport’s recent decisions to let app-based ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft operate there. And members of the Taxi Workers Alliance are threatening to repeat the curbside chaos at SFO “again and again” unless the airport changes its policy. Meanwhile, a top Uber executive stirred up a mini-scandal after word leaked out that he had threatened to start digging up dirt on journalists who write negative stories about the company. Would negative publicity about Uber make you less likely to use their service? Put your comments below.

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Delta's Sky Prority lobby at LAX efore (above) and after (below)

Delta’s Sky Prority lobby at LAX efore (above) and after (below)

Lobby remake at LAX. Delta has finished the renovation of its Sky Priority lobby at Los Angeles International’s Terminal 5. Take a look at the before and after photos.

HOTELS

New fees coming at Hilton, Marriott. Effective January 1, Hilton and Marriott will impose a new standard cancellation fee — a single night’s room rate — on no-show guests unless they have cancelled their bookings at least the day before scheduled arrival. If individual hotels within the groups already have more restrictive cancellation policies, those will remain in effect. Not all chains are adopting a uniform policy; e.g., things are unchanged at Best Western, a spokesperson said, where cancellation policies vary by the rate booked and the individual hotel’s policy; policies are listed under each rate bookable on bw.com.

This is what Norway's passport pages look like in normal light. (Image: Neue)

This is what Norway’s passport pages look like in normal light. (Image: Neue)

This is what the pages of Norway’s new passport look like in normal light. The darker image above (scroll to top), which reveals the north star and northern lights, is only visible under UV light. Beautiful! (Full story from CNN here)

You are reading Part 2 of this week’s Catch Up in Travel News from TravelSkills. Here’s Part 1

-Jim Glab & Chris McGinnis

In Case You Missed It…

  • Olefactory stimulants: Chris lists his favorite travel smells. What are yours?
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Delta push at Seattle + Seat pitch compared + Southwest “Swagger” + Delta’s newest jets +

Delta & Alaska Air battle for Seattle (Photo: Jim Glab)

Delta & Alaska Air battle for Seattle (Photo: Jim Glab)

AIRLINES

Delta’s big(ger) Seattle plans. Last week Delta’s CEO told employees the company wants to expand from its current 11 gates to 30 gates at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, making it “a huge international gateway.” With those gates, Delta could operate up to 240 flights a day. Delta has been steadily adding transpacific and domestic flights at SEA, to the dismay of its erstwhile partner Alaska Airlines, which is following its own growth plan at its hub airport. Alaska currently controls about 40 percent of SEA’s traffic. Meanwhile, Delta announced another round of expansion at SEA next May and June, adding Delta Connection service to Denver (five flights a day), Sacramento (four a day) and Boise (four a day), plus seasonal service to Ketchikan and Sitka, Alaska.

Even with the cuts, JetBlue has a chart showing that it's legroom will still be better than others. (Image: JetBlue)

Even with the cuts, JetBlue has a chart showing that its standard legroom will still beat other carriers. (Image: JetBlue)

JetBlue overhauls fares, seating. Only two major U.S. airlines let all passengers check a bag for free — JetBlue and Southwest (Southwest allows two free bags) — but that will fall to just one in the first half of 2015. That’s when JetBlue will revamp its pricing into three “branded fare bundle options.” The lowest fares will be for “customers who do not plan to check a bag,” JetBlue said; the others will include one and two checked bags respectively, plus other perks. The airline also will “refresh” its A320s by installing “lighter, more comfortable seats” that will let it increase the number of seats per plane — and reduce its current (very generous) standard seat pitch, although it will still exceed pitch on major competitors according to the chart above (supplied by JetBlue). The airline pledged that its Wi-Fi will still be offered for free (at least through 2015). Meanwhile, a JetBlue exec said in an interview the airline is likely to expand its Mint premium seating product to transcon flights from Boston in the future.

Within days of JetBlue’s announcement, wily Southwest Airlines launched a retro-hipster, captivating new TV ad campaign focusing on its free checked bag option. This 30-second spot, called “Swagger” is worth a watch and listen! See below.

Delta places big widebody order. In a blow to Boeing, Delta said it will turn to Airbus for the next big phase of its fleet renewal program, placing an order for 50 twin-engine widebody jets to replace its aging 747s and 767s. The company has ordered 25 of Airbus’ next-generation A350-900s, to be delivered starting in 2017; and 25 A330-900neo aircraft, to arrive starting in 2019. The A350s will be used on transpacific routes, and the A330s will go onto medium-haul transatlantic routes and some west coast-to-Asia routes. Earlier this year, TravelSkills got an inside look at the A350, which claims to be the widest of widebodies. Check out our report and PHOTOS of the new A350.

Cheaper upgrades. Delta is offering winter travelers the opportunity to upgrade at a discount for flights now through February. A nice way to avoid some holiday travel hassles, yes, but (as usual) there are some important points in the fine print: The markets NYC to/from LAX / SFO / SEA will be excluded from this offer.  This promotion does not include any fares purchased in Delta’s cheapest E, V, or Y class.

Popular: Did you hear about the latest wave of downgrades at United MileagePlus? Read this! 

Watch those Wi-Fi charges. When you sign up for in-flight Wi-Fi, do you keep a close watch on how much data your device is eating up? One transpacific traveler found himself unexpectedly facing a bill for almost $1,200 from Singapore Airlines, and web site Skift examined just what went wrong for him– providing an object lesson for others. (P.S. Sounds like the guy’s not getting his money back…)

KLM's new economy seat (Image KLM)

KLM’s new economy seat (Image KLM)

KLM overhauls 777-200s. Delta’s SkyTeam partner KLM has started renovating the passenger cabins of its 777-200 fleet, following up on a similar overhaul of its 747s. The new World Business Class is getting fully-flat seats with more personal space for passengers and new 16-inch seatback monitors with upgraded entertainment options. In the 777-200 economy class, new seats will provide extra legroom, ergonomic headrests, power outlets and a new entertainment system with hundreds of programming options.

Route news: Alaska, JetBlue, Frontier, Spirit. Alaska Airlines said it will introduce daily Seattle-Washington Dulles service on March 11 … JetBlue last week started daily non-stops between Salt Lake City and Orlando … Spirit Airlines has big expansion plans at Houston Bush Intercontinental, where it will add 10 new routes next spring, including Tampa, Baltimore/Washington and Oakland as well as three points in Mexico and four in Central America … Frontier Airlines told employees that it plans to slash 15 flights a day at its Denver home base next year due to rising taxes and fees at that airport.

Extra Bonus! Here’s an easy way to top off your Chase Ultimate Rewards balance with 20,000 points!

Bottled cocktails on VX.  A new cucumber vodka mojito from Austin Cocktails, a line of bottled, craft cocktails, is now available fleetwide onboard Virgin America. The new pre-mixed drink is made with vodka, natural flavors and sweetened with organic agave and priced at $8.25. Culturemap Austin says this about the Mojito:  “For anyone watching her girlish figure, what may be most noteworthy is that all the drinks ring in at less than 100 calories a serving….and has a refreshing, lime-heavy flavor that gets better with subsequent sips. With its hint of cucumber, it reminds us of the cucumber-infused water you get at a spa.”

STAY TUNED! Part 2 of Catching Up on the week’s most important travel news comes tomorrow!

In Case You Missed It…

  • Olefactory stimulants: Chris lists his favorite travel smells. What are yours?
>>Take a peek at what you may have missed on TravelSkills.com this week! <<

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Much needed upgrade in London

Heathrow Train

New cars for the London Tube (Photo: Transport for London)

The City of London has released plans for a futuristic upgrade to The Tube, one of the world’s largest underground rail systems. But don’t hold your breath– the fleet of 250 new trains won’t hit the tracks until the mid-2020s, and are anticipated to remain in service for 40 years. The Piccadilly Line, well-used by business travelers in central London, will be the first to get the new cars.

The cars were designed by UK-based PreistmanGoode, a design firm that specializes in transportation and has made its mark on many travel environments that touch us daily, such as seats on United, interiors of Qatar Airways’ new A380 or Heathrow’s Terminal 5. (Cool website!)

Simply called “the New Tube,” the trains will feature a few firsts.  They will be comprised of one contiguous walk-through barrel, rather than many interconnected cars. This stretched look means that more passengers can be transported on the same track, increasing capacity on the system overall. (You may have seen trains like this if you’ve taken the MTR subways in Hong Kong.)

Related: Chris’s column Business Trip: London

 

The new trains will bring a welcome reduction in crowding….the new layout increases capacity up to 60%, providing a significant boost for Tube travelers for the useful life of the new trains – pegged at 40 years or more. Slideshow here

Another welcome tech feature comes from the air-cooling of the cars. It’s not always possible to move air-conditioning at certain depths in the existing Tube system, and so this will bring cooler, fresher air to increase passenger comfort. (And could help eliminate that well known “Tube smell”– see our post about that here)

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The initial rollout will still have drivers in each car; eventually, the New Tube can run on its own without human guidance. As some viewers have pointed out on YouTube, this full automation has the added advantage of reducing, and eventually eliminating, chaotic Tube strikes.

London Travel Tip: During peak travel season, when tourists, business travelers and locals fill the city, do not depend on the ability of London’s current aging transportation infrastructure to get you to your meetings on time. Black cabs creep slowly through the traffic of central London. The London Underground, or Tube, is notoriously unreliable and susceptible to delays, forcing users onto lengthy alternate routes. To avoid being late in a city that appreciates promptness, always schedule your meetings with a very large cushion of time in between.

Popular: Did you hear about the latest wave of downgrades at United MileagePlus? Read this! 

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Google’s travel advice

Google travel

Ninety percent of holiday travel is by CAR, not by plane. With that in mind, the smarties at Google took a deep dive into their data and came up with some helpful insight and advice for avoiding Thanksgiving traffic as well as top searches in Google Maps before, during, and after Thanksgiving.

Traffic data was pulled from the Monday before Thanksgiving to the Sunday after Thanksgiving during 2012 and 2013, and Google Maps search trends are based on information from 2013.

According to Google’s data, Wednesday is the worst Thanksgiving traffic day for most cities, with Saturday the worst day to return. (This flies in the face of conventional wisdom that Sunday is the worst day to return.)

Google travel

  • Worst day to travel: For most cities, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the worst traffic day — but in San Francisco the worst day is Saturday. Other exceptions include of Boston (Tuesday), Honolulu (Saturday), Providence (Saturday).
  • Skip the rush: The worst time for Thanksgiving traffic falls between 3:00pm and 5:00pm the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Better to leave before 2:00pm or after 7:00pm on Wednesday if you want to beat the rush.
  • Second worst traffic day: Saturday and Tuesday vie for the second and third heaviest traffic days overall — Black Friday doesn’t draw huge road traffic.
  • Thanksgiving Day traffic: Thanksgiving Day traffic is a breeze — it usually has the least traffic of the entire week; for those looking to beat even the lightest traffic day, make sure you stay off the road between 12:00pm and 2:00pm on Thanksgiving Day.
  • When to drive back home: Traffic patterns show that you’re better off driving home from the holiday weekend on Sunday rather than Saturday — traffic can be up to 40% worse on Saturday.
  • Changes in holiday traffic: In six cities, Thanksgiving traffic has actually decreased slightly between 2012 and 2013 (Boston,Dallas, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Providence).

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Food and drink top Google Maps searches the day before Thanksgiving, and Detroit football fans looked for directions to the stadium.

  • Last minute prep: The top three trending searches on Google Maps the day before Thanksgiving were ham shop, pie shop, and liquor store, as Americans do last minute errands just before Turkey Day.  I get liquor story, but ham shop? Really? :)
  • Gearing up for Black Friday: “Outlet mall” is the #1 trending Google Maps search term on Thanksgiving Day. Meanwhile, “outlet mall” is only the #3 trending search term on Black Friday itself.
  • Ready for Christmas: The top two Google Maps search trends on Black Friday had nothing to do with shopping — instead, people were already on to Christmas. The top two terms were: “Christmas tree farm” and “festival.”
  • Thanksgiving football: Lions fans plan ahead. The day before Thanksgiving football, Detroit fans searched for directions to the stadium (#1) and parking garages (#2). In comparison, in Dallas, stadium is the #9 search trend the day before Thanksgiving.

Google Travel

–Chris McGinnis

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My 9 favorite travel smells

The new scent globe a London Heathrow Terminal 2 (LHR Airports)

The new scent globe a London Heathrow Terminal 2 (LHR Airports)

This week sees London-Heathrow’s brand new Terminal 2 “The Queen’s Terminal” operating at full capacity with all 26 airlines (primarily Star Alliance) now in their new home. Airport authorities planned for the transition to take place over the five months instead of in one fell swoop. Good thinking since the process seems to have gone without a hitch, and the new terminal is a far cry from the old cramped quarters of Terminal 1 & 2.

TravelSkills got an early sneak peek at the shiny new terminal and United’s nice new business and first class lounges last spring. But regrettably, we missed out on the terminal’s new, one-of-a-kind “scent globe” which the airport says “will immerse the curious in the aromas of Thailand; South Africa; Japan; China and Brazil.”

The scents emitted from the globe come from key ingredients associated with the designated country and “are designed to transport passengers to far flung destinations.” South Africa smells of tribal incense, wild grass and musk. Brazil’s scent is rich in rainforest fauna with a palette of coffee, tobacco and jasmine. Japan smells cool, oceanic with a mix of seaweed and shell extracts, green tea and Ambergris. Thailand is mix of lemongrass, ginger and coconut.

This of course got me on a train of thought about distinct travel smells… there are many and some so strong and memorable that I could be blindfolded, yet know exactly where I am due to the olfactory sensation. 

For example, there’s what I call “the Marriott smell.” Have you ever noticed that Marriotts (all brands) smell like band-aids? I’m not certain, but I assume that the lodging giant centrally sources an iodine-based antibacterial cleaning compound that emits the smell. It’s not a bad smell… it’s a clean, reassuring smell. But it’s there. Am I crazy or does anyone else notice this?

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Speaking of travel smells… here are nine of my favorites (in no particular order)… what are yours?

Chestnuts Roasting NYC IMG_1703

Chestnuts roasting in Manhattan (Steven Depolo / Flickr)

  1. The smell of coffee brewing on a plane as a long overnight flight is coming to an end. And the smell of jet fuel as you walk off the plane and onto the jetway.
  2. The acrid, sour, but memorable smell of chestnuts roasting on a dry, cold New York City night.
  3. Getting into a rental car, noticing the “new car smell” and looking down at the odometer reading 000016 miles.
  4. The smell of rain & tropical flowers when stepping off the plane at almost any airport in Hawaii
  5. The minty-soapy-lotiony-cologne-y smell of my toilet kit- it means the road is calling.
  6. The leathery, carpet-y “new plane” smell on a brand new or refurbished aircraft.
  7. I love it when you walk into a hotel with a spa… and you can smell it. Usually eucalyptus. On the other hand, I hate it when you walk into a hotel with an indoor pool and you can smell the chlorine.
  8. The smell of cookies baking on a plane (even if they are only served in first class).
  9. A Cinnabon at the airport. A Lush boutique somewhere overseas. And yes, even a McDonald’s when I’ve been away from the US for too long.

To me, Seattle and San Francisco smell like dark roast coffee. Los Angeles and Phoenix smell like orange blossoms. Houston smells like refineries. Tampa and Orlando smell like hot summer afternoon thunderstorms. Paris like bread. London smells metallic, and rubbery, like the Tube.  Mumbai like sewerage and sandalwood. Boston smells like fish or the ocean. Denver like wood smoke. I could go on and on.

What about you? Please leave your comments and favorite (or least favorite) travel smells below.

–Chris McGinnis

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United changes rules + Radical plan for NYC airport + Centurion “Studio” + Uber’s friends in DC

United

Somewhere over Greenland up in the bubble on a United B747 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

AIRLINES. 

Did you get the email from United last week? As expected (and as usual) the carrier mimicked Delta’s recent move to increase the amount of dollars members must spend to get (or maintain) Premier status. The 20% bump up applies to qualifying activity in 2015 for status in 2016. The 25K spend threshold on MileagePlus co-branded credit cards  for status is not affected by this. Details here. So far, American is still sitting back, watching and remaining vague about any plans it has for the move toward a revenue based program. So what do you think? Last time we wrote about airlines’ new revenue requirements, the general reaction from TravelSkills readers was, “Mmmeh, I’ll easily meet those spending requirements.” And some even lauded Delta and United for weeding out the gamers who don’t pay much but have figured out wily ways to snag awards and upgrades. Please leave your comments below. 

AIRPORTS

New Amex Centurion “Studio.” American Express can’t always find a airport space large enough for its super popular Centurion Lounges, like the brand new on in San Francisco. Such is the case in Seattle (SEA), where Amex announced that will open a smaller Centurion Studio instead. Amex says: “The Centurion Studio will be a retreat for Card Members but in a smaller space, featuring some of the amenities Card Members say are most essential: comfortable seating, charging stations, fast and free WiFi, and complimentary healthy snacks and beverages.” Amex told TravelSkills that it will be located “right off the Main terminal towards concourse B, post-security and easily accessible to all terminals.” It will be interesting to see how the smaller studio handles crowds…we’ve heard from several TravelSkills readers already about overcrowded conditions at the SFO lounge and elsewhere….

A grand re-imagining of New York's LaGuardia Airport- enter on Riker's Island & take a train to your plane (ReThink NYC)

A grand re-imagining of New York’s LaGuardia Airport- enter on Riker’s Island & take a train to your plane (ReThink NYC)

Visionary plan for LaGuardia. The New York Times reports that one local resident who thinks big has a grand plan for remaking LaGuardia Airport. His concept would move airport access much closer to Manhattan and expand the airport from two runways to four, and have as many as 160 passenger gates. How could this be? The airport would take over nearby Rikers Island — currently home to a big city jail — and put all the passenger gates there, freeing up space at the existing airport for more runways; a transportation terminal at the southern tip of The Bronx would bring in passengers from subways and Amtrak trains; and the whole thing would be linked with underground trains. Talk about outta-the-box thinking!

Big improvements planned at DCA. Airlines at Washington Reagan National have come to terms with the airport authority on a plan to invest $1 billion in facility improvements over the next 10 years. The plan calls for construction of a regional airline concourse linked to the north pier; connecting the three B/C piers inside security by moving TSA checkpoints from level 2 to level 3, making for easier connections between American Airlines flights; adding a new parking garage; and overhauling Terminal A.

Bonus Offers: How about a round trip to Hawaii or Mexico for less than $100 on US Airways? Or enough points for two roundtrips and a big jump on coveted Companion Status on Southwest? More…

CARS

(Photo: Uber)

(Photo: Uber)

Uber gaining Capitol friends. A new report finds that ride-sharing service Uber is making big inroads among Congress people and their staffs. Specifically, their use of Uber for local transportation increased from a zero percent market share in the 2010 election campaign to 61 percent this year. “Uber has overtaken taxis in both number of rides and amount spent,” the researchers said.

SFO adds another private ride provider. San Francisco International Airport, which in recent weeks reached agreements allowing UberX, Lyft and Sidecar to operate there, has issued a pilot permit to another operator — Wingz (www.wingz.me). Unlike the others, Wingz specializes only in airport transportation, offering a $35 flat rate to SFO for a private ride with “an awesome trained and background-checked driver.” Service should begin within 30 days.

Note: This is part 2 of our weekly “Catch Up” — have you read Part 1? 

Study tracks rental processing time. How effective are car rental firms’ express service programs for business travelers? The latest rental customer satisfaction study from J.D. Power finds that the vehicle pick-up and return process for business renters averages 41.5 minutes (including the shuttle ride) — only about three minutes less than the process takes for leisure renters. Overall customer satisfaction dropped slightly this year after rising steadily since 2009. Enterprise, National and Alamo topped the J.D. Power list this year. Hertz ranked #4.

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HOTELS

Hackers said to steal business travelers’ data at hotels. Internet security giant Kaspersky is warning business travelers about a corporate espionage campaign it calls “Darkhotel” that targets senior executives staying at luxury hotels — especially U.S. executives doing business in the Asia/Pacific region. The hackers “trick the person into downloading and installing a backdoor that pretends to be an update for legitimate software, such as Google Toolbar, Adobe Flash or Windows Messenger,” Kaspersky said, and can then hunt for stored passwords and logins as well as business data. The firm said travelers should be “suspicious” of suggested software updates when they are abroad, and should use a VPN provider. Has this ever happened to you– or anyone you know? Do you take any precautions when using a Wi-Fi connection in your hotel? Please leave your comments below. 

In Case You Missed It…

Note: This is part 2 of our weekly “Catch Up” — have you read Part 1? 

 

New extra bonus offer: Get a whopping 50,000 Rapid Rewards points by signing up for Southwest’s Premier card – that’s enough for TWO free tickets. 

>>Take a peek at what you may have missed on TravelSkills.com this week! <<

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