United changes + SFO Sky Club + Southwest devalues + New Virgin route + Beijing bird!

United MileagePlus changes go into effect on March 1 (Photo courtesy Robbie Plafker)

United MileagePlus changes go into effect on March 1 (Photo courtesy Robbie Plafker)

First Delta, now United. Several weeks ago, Delta made the big changeover in its SkyMiles program to a spending-based model, and now it’s United’s turn. March 1 is the effective date for United’s previously announced changes in MileagePlus — changes essentially the same as Delta’s. Under the new system, MileagePlus members’ earnings will be on a graduated scale, ranging from five points per dollar spent on air fare for basic program members, up to 11 points per dollar for Premier 1Ks. So basically, low-level, low fare travelers will earn less for their trips than before, while front-cabin, WeekendEditionhigher-level elites will earn more. The big unanswered question at this point: Will American do the same when it finally merges the AAdvantage program with US Airways’ Dividend Miles this year? MileagePlus members: Will you be better or worse off under the new system? Post your comments below.

Rapid Rewards devaluation? Without releasing any specific details, Southwest Airlines said on its Rapid Rewards page last week that it plans to make some changes to its award travel starting April 17. On that date, the number of points needed for award travel on some routes “will vary based on destination, time, day of travel, demand, fare class, and other factors,” the airline said, adding that “many flights…will stay at the current redemption rate.” The blog Travel Summary adopted a skeptical attitude toward the cryptic announcement, referring to it as a “devaluation” of Rapid Rewards points. “While some prices may get cheaper, you can bet they’re making this change to increase a majority of prices,” the blog said.

Restrictions on free-flowing airport booze?

Delta's making progress on the new Sky Club at SFO's Terminal 1 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Delta’s making progress on the new Sky Club at SFO’s Terminal 1 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

San Francisco Sky Club. A Delta spokesperson has confirmed to TravelSkills that the brand new Sky Club, inside security at SFO’s Terminal 1, is set to open in May. We’ll share more specifics when we get them!

Double miles at Alaska; Delta’s bag guarantee. Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan members who register online can earn double miles from now through May 15 on eight routes to and from Salt Lake City, and on 19 Seattle routes. There’s no limit to the amount of extra miles that can be earned with this new promotion … Delta is offering SkyMiles members a bonus of 2,500 miles if they have to wait more than 20 minutes for a checked bag on any domestic flight to reach the carousel after arrival. All you have to do is fill out an online form within three days of arrival.

Trip Report: JetBlue Mint class [photos]

Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 4.50.31 PMSouthwest adds Passbook. It took a while, but Southwest Airlines passengers who are checking in electronically for their flights can now have boarding passes sent to Passbook on Apple devices using iOS6 or later versions. Look for a new button on the bottom of the boarding pass screen that says “Add to Passbook.”

Virgin adds intra-Texas route. Southwest Airlines’ lock on the market between Dallas Love Field and Austin — where it operates 10 daily non-stops — is being challenged by Virgin America, which announced plans to begin flying the route five times a day as of April 28. Virgin already flies to AUS from San Francisco.

A bright new bird to spot flying over the Bay Area starting June 15 (Photo: ByeAngel / Flickr)

A bright new bird to spot flying over the Bay Area starting June 15 (Photo: ByeAngel / Flickr)

New China route for Silicon Valley. It’s all systems go for Hainan Airlines’ planned new non-stop service from San Jose to Beijing’s Capital International Airport. SJC officials said last week that Hainan’s new service will begin June 15, operating five days a week with a 213-seat, two-class 787 Dreamliner. Economy roundtrips are in the $1,500 range while business class is in the $3,500 range—reasonable. The only other transpacific service out of San Jose is ANA’s daily flight to Tokyo Narita — but more could be coming, as the airport expects to finish construction of two new international gates by this summer. 

Have you been following our super popular Planespotting 101 series? Check out our first three installments here: 

Planespotting 101: Boeing 757, 767 (latest)

Planespotting 101: Boeing 737 vs Airbus A320

Planespotting 101: MD-80/90 & Boeing 717

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Fortune’s 10 most admired (travel-related) companies

Apple's iPhone, seen here in leather, has become a frequent travel essential (Photo: Omar Jordan Fawahl / Flickr)

Apple’s iPhone, seen here in leather, has become a frequent travel essential (Photo: Omar Jordan Fawahl / Flickr)

This week FORTUNE magazine churned out its annual list of “most admired” companies.

While most of the top 10 are not specifically travel-related companies, they all have a profound impact on our daily lives as frequent travelers. Here’s what I mean.

1) Apple. Think about how Apple has transformed the travel experience with the iPhone and iPad. These days 48% of TravelSkills readers access the blog from mobile devices and we have Apple to thank for that. And Apple has been pumping soothing music into our ears for years helping us to forget about cramped cabins and screaming babies, right?

Related: 6 tips for taking better iPhone pics

2) Google. I can’t think of a company that has altered the travel experience more in the last decade than Google. Most helpful for me as a frequent driver is its new Waze map app– a wizard at showing me short cuts around traffic, and keeping me alerted to speed traps. Then there’s flight status. Did you know that you can enter “Delta 134″ in the Google search bar and get immediate flight status? Or enter “SFO JFK” and get an immediate “ballpark” figure on flight price. Oh, and then there’s ITA Matrix, the best airfare research tool out there. The list goes on and on…

3) Berkshire Hathaway. In addition to owning NetJets, which is perhaps the best known provider of private jet services, Berkshire Hathaway is a big provider of travel insurance, most recently rolling out an innovative new protection product called Aircare that pays you up to $1,000 for things like missed connections or long tarmac delays.

4) Amazon. Let’s face it, frequent travelers rarely have time to shop. With Amazon at our fingertips, we can order nearly anything online from the plane or hotel room and have what we need at home when we get there. Sorry SkyMall! Related: SkyMall bankruptcy no surprise

Starbucks in Dubai? (Photo: Joi Ito / Flikr)

Starbucks in Dubai? (Photo: Joi Ito / Flikr)

5) Starbucks. We just wrote about how frequent travelers should strive to soak up local culture by drinking coffee like locals do. But do we always do so? Or is the most frequently phrase we use overseas, “Where’s the nearest Starbucks?” In addition, Starbucks and Delta just partnered and will serve a whopping 68 million cups of coffee this year on Delta flights.

Related: Coffee 5 ways in 5 cities…or Starbucks?

6) Walt Disney. Walt Disney not only touches us when we are on vacation with the kids, but when we are standing in line at TSA, which took its queue control technology from Mickey.

7) Southwest. Despite the fact that it’s not always the lowest fare option any more, Southwest’s no-nonsense business practices around boarding planes and not charging penalties for itinerary changes resonate with frequent travelers. I just wish they still had an AirTran-like business class section for those long flights…but that would probably just complicate things.

Check in at the new American Express Centurion lounge at SFO (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Check in at the new American Express Centurion lounge at SFO (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

8) American Express. Were it not for a large cash infusion and long term support from American Express, Delta Air Lines would likely not be around these days. Frequent travelers also love AMEX for its new Centurion clubs and highly regarded Membership Rewards program.

Related: First look Centurion Club at SFO

9) General Electric. It’s not just lightbulbs. The GE conglomerate is one of the largest jet engine manufacturers in the world.

"I'll just have a diet Coke." (Photo: Jellidonut / Flickr)

“I’ll just have a diet Coke.” (Photo: Jellidonut / Flickr)

10) Coca Cola. The other most frequently used phrase by frequent travelers? “I’ll just have a diet Coke.” Or a “Coke light” when overseas. Right?

Other travel companies near the top of the most-admired list?

19) Singapore Airlines

27) Boeing

37) Marriott International

39) Delta Air Lines

Here’s the full list of 2015’s most admired companies from FORTUNE.

–Chris McGinnis

Have you been following our super popular Planespotting 101 series? Check out our first two installments here: 

Planespotting 101: Boeing 757, 767 (latest)

Planespotting 101: Boeing 737 vs Airbus A320

Planespotting 101: MD-80/90 & Boeing 717

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Southwest Big Love + Hidden Delta rules + Remarkable Atlanta deal + SFO Centurion chef

AFLaPremieresuite

Air France’s swank new first class suite arrives in the US. See below for details (Photo: Air France)

Southwest sets next round of Love expansion. Southwest Airlines last week revealed details of a big schedule expansion at Dallas Love Field, with plans to add non-stop service to 10 cities starting April 8. New destinations to be served from DAL include Charleston (S.C.), Columbus, Indianapolis, Memphis, Milwaukee, Panama City Beach, Portland (Ore.), Sacramento, San Jose and Seattle/Tacoma. (Charleston service will start April 11 and will operate only on Saturdays; Panama City Beach flights will begin with once-a-week service, increasing to daily May 8, but will be seasonal.) Also on April 8, Southwest will boost frequencies on routes from DAL to Ft. Lauderdale, OaWeekendEditionkland and Santa Ana/Orange County. The airline will also add other new service at Santa Ana/Orange County June 28, including non-stops Chicago Midway, Seattle and Austin.

Southwest woos Atlanta flyers. Pulling out its biggest marketing guns to date, Southwest Airlines this week launched a new promotion in the Atlanta market only, offering Rapid Rewards members a pass good for free companion travel through the end of the year. To get it, members must register online at www.southwest.com/atlanta and complete at least three roundtrips out of Atlanta from now through May 17.  The only other way to get coveted companion pass status on Southwest is to amass 110,000 Rapid Rewards points. This is quite a remarkable deal, especially if you are the type of traveler who likes to mix business with pleasure and bring along the spouse or significant other from time too time. T&Cs state that you must be an Atlanta resident living in one of these zip codes to get the deal.  Delta loyalists….will you bite? 

Screen Shot 2015-02-13 at 5.34.36 PM

Talk about being in the right place at the right time! A rare Etihad sighting along with Air Force One at SFO. (Photo credit: Touch n Go Aviation Photography)

Etihad jet at SFO? We did a double-take when we saw the image of this Etihad jet at SFO floating by on Twitter this week. We thought maybe our post Etihad vs Jetihad had forced positive change :) In the end, we learned from an airport spokesperson that Etihad substituted one of its own aircraft for the normal Jet Airways 777 on the route due to “operational issues.” It’s nice to see that beautiful bird at SFO…and even nicer to see it on the same day that President Obama was in town— see his 747 in the background? What a shot!

Delta said to tighten award rules. First, Delta angered SkyMiles members by taking down the awards chart from its website. And now — according to the Crankyflier blog– the airline has taken another step backwards with its loyalty program by quietly introducing new advance-purchase rules for low-level domestic award travel. Cranky says that SkyMiles now requires members to book those award trips at least three weeks in advance, but it didn’t bother to announce the change. And SkyMilers now have to go through the award booking process online before they can find the true mileage cost of a trip. (So…about that offer from Southwest mentioned above…)

Predicting spring-summer airfares

Air France brings new luxury to JFK flights. The first U.S. flights to introduce Air France’s new La Premiere first class suites are AF 010/011 between New York JFK and Paris CDG. The 32-square-foot suites have a seat that transforms into a bed that’s six and a half feet long and 30 inches wide, along with a 24-inch table and an ottoman that can serve as a guest seat. And four (count em!) windows– see top.

SFO Centurion Lounge loses chef. Michelin-starred chef Christopher Kostow (from Meadowoods in Napa) only lasted three months in a gig where he oversaw the kitchen at American Express’s popular new Centurion Lounge at SFO’s Terminal 3. According to EaterSF, which broke this news, “Kostow declined to comment on the reason for the severed ties, but some industry types assume that the differing desires of a Michelin-starred chef and an airport food service provider have something to do with it.” Too bad because the spread Kostow prepared for the opening night was deeelicious, and TravelSkills was there with a full report!

70,000 IHG Rewards Club points. How?

Now that IHG is absorbing Kimpton, one of our favorite hotel brands, it’s time to consider getting more deeply involved in the popular IHG Rewards program…and maybe even get the IHG Rewards Club card. In addition to the Kimpton news, a primary motivation right now is that Chase just rolled out a nice 70,000 points sign up bonus for the card (up from the standard 60K offer) after you spend just $1,000 in the first three months of account opening. What will 70,000 IHG points get you? Several free nights at IHG hotels, depending on when and where you say, and if you can take advantage of its lucrative point breaks and last minute reward nights options. Sign up today!

Screen Shot 2015-02-13 at 4.07.53 PM

The DOT’s official announcement regarding the United ticketing scam

Smart traveler or fraudster? The TravelSkills post (Should United pay for its mistakes) this week about the folks who snapped up supercheap fares by misrepresenting themselves received a TON of great comments. Check em out here. In a related story….remember the Skiplagged site, where a college kid exposed the longstanding practice of “hidden city ticketing” – a similar practice of the traveler misrepresenting where he or she is actually flying in order to get a cheaper fare? Both United and Orbitz filed a lawsuit against the kid, and this week, Orbitz reached a settlement, but United’s case is still active. Full story from USA Today

Alaska adding preferred seats. The next carrier to add a paid preferred seating option will be Alaska Airlines, which will reportedly start selling extra-legroom bulkhead and exit row seats sometime later this year. The airline is said to be eyeing preferred seating fees ranging from $15 to $50 depending on the length of the flight. Buyers will also get a free drink and priority boarding.

JetBlue will take Apple Pay. JetBlue Airways said its flight attendants will soon start accepting Apple Pay for in-flight purchases of food and beverage items, extra-legroom seats and other amenities. The new Apple Pay technology is offered with Apple’s iPhone 6 and 6s models. The carrier plans to give iPad minis and NFC-enabled cases to flight attendants so they can handle the Apple Pay transactions. The devices will also have a new iOS app that provides flight data and other information, and will let flight attendants “easily identify TrueBlue and Mosaic loyalty members by name,” JetBlue said.

Best new credit card bonuses for frequent flyers

icelandairaurora

Icelandair offers “aurora” flights. For passengers who don’t get to see the real aurora borealis, Icelandair is trying to offer the next best thing. It has painted the exterior of one of its 757s in a Northern Lights simulation, and even brought the same feeling to the cabin interior with a special mood lighting display. The plane is on a varied international schedule. Watch this gorgeous plane take shape in this excellent VIDEO

In Case You Missed It…

>American sets schedules for first 787 Dreamliners.

>Chris tries out (and photographs) JetBlue’s new Mint Class.

>InterContinental’s loyalty plan adds Kimpton hotels, new signup bonus.

Have you been following our super popular Planespotting 101 series? Check out our first two installments here: 

Planespotting 101: Boeing 737 vs Airbus A320

Planespotting 101: MD-80/90 & Boeing 717

+++

>>Take a peek at what you may have missed on TravelSkills.com this week! <<
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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Trip Report: JetBlue Mint class [photos]

JetBlue

A delightful fresh fruit salad with ice cream for dessert. Scroll down for more foodie photos! (Chris McGinnis)

Late last year, JetBlue invited me to try out its new Mint business class on a roundtrip between San Francisco and New York. 

I jumped at the chance because TravelSkills readers have been pinging me with lots of question about it. Why? Most say it’s because they are getting fed up with the recent shenanigans by legacy carriers and that they are considering shifting allegiance, or at least exploring other options.

As a matter of fact, I received another one of these emails this today from TravelSkills reader L.H.: “Delta had been putting Platinum and Diamonds on the upgrade list six hours prior to flight for JFK-LAX/SFO. Today I was told only that only Diamonds get on the list. Now there’s no chance for a Platinum to upgrade either by list or certificate… This is just another reason to not fly Delta on this market.  And it seems punitive.  [Delta] just pushed my business to Virgin or JetBlue…”

So would this high-flying Delta elite member really be willing to give up all those SkyMiles to give JetBlue a whirl? I doubt it. I’ve watched Delta’s frequent flyer program tick off travelers for the last 20 years, but they nearly always go back.

But have we finally reached a turning point? What JetBlue has put on offer between New York and California with its new Mint class is pretty tempting.

And it’s not too expensive, either– at times, fares are as low as $599 each each way. The only way to upgrade into Mint class is to pay the fare difference- a spokesman told TravelSkills that it does not offer last minute incentives at the gate for folks hoping for an empty seat.

Here’s what’s on offer for next week and next month on one of JetBlue five daily flights.

JetBlue

JetBlue one way fares for a SFO JFK flight next week

JetBlue

JetBlue one way fares for SFO JFK  flights next month

 

Now let’s jump on board for a look and a bite! 

JetBlue

JetBlue’s new satellite-based inflight wi-fi product is considered one of the fastest in the sky. When it worked, I would agree with that. But there were several spots along the way, especially when flying over the northern plains and Rocky Mountains where the connection went away completely for long periods of time. Not a huge issue since I’m a fan of ANY plane equipped with wi-fi, but more evidence to me that there’s not a completely reliable and speedy service in the sky…yet.

JetBlue

There are 16 Mint class seats on each of JetBlue’s new Airbus A321s. Seats are staggered, so you can sit alone like this guy and feel like Captain Kirk :) . In this seat, there’s even a sliding door to separate you from the commotion in the aisle. Contrary to what a lot of readers think (or have heard), this is not a “private suite” with a door that closes.

JetBlue

While everyone probably wants to sit in the Captain Kirk seat, there is plenty of room to spread out in the seats that are two abreast. But insiders tell me that the Kirk seats always sell out first. There is plenty of in-seat storage space and well thought out nooks like the pouch for smart phones you see in the lower right of the photo above.

JetBlue

When fully extended, that seat is as flat as Kansas. On my flights in both directions, less than half of passengers went fully flat. That’s likely because there was too much going on… and too much to eat and watch on the seatback entertainment systems. (Keep scrolling!) One important note about seatback movies– I was surprised to see that they are not “on demand” which means you cannot start and stop them along the way. They are on a set schedule, which makes watching them during mealtime or between bouts of work a hassle.

JetBlue

Some interesting options here on the seat controller… the discreet floor light, the massage function, and the ability to adjust the firmness of your seat cushion– just like a Sleepnumber mattress. Pretty cool!

JetBlue

In-flight amenity kits for men– thoughtful, entertaining and quirky, but not sure if I would use any of this stuff. Would you?

JetBlue

Birchbox amenity kit for women.

JetBlue

My seatmate, who seemed to be more of a wine connoisseur than I, was very impressed with this selection of wines. Any oenophiles out there want to chime in on this list?

JetBlue

JetBlue wi-fi is sorta like hotel wi-fi– you get a basic connection for free (for now), but have to pay for a high speed connection– and it’s not cheap. If you are like me and spend five hours online between SFO and JFK, you could end up with a $45 wi-fi bill. To be honest, I tested both and found little difference between the free and paid versions, and since the product is still in beta, we’ll just have to wait and see how it all pans out.

JetBlue

Economy class on JetBlue’s A321 is comfortable, clean and modern- but starting this year, it plans on pushing seats closer together, so enjoy the extra space while you can!

JetBlue

A very nice touch for economy class passengers is this snack bar located at the front of the cabin. Includes a wide selection of soft drinks, water and snacks including JetBlues signature blue potato chips.

JetBlue

A hearty breakfast on my SFO-JFK morning flight included several options. I was unable to eat all of it… rare to get so much food! All of it delicious. Might be some of the best food I’ve ever had on a plane. And I’ve had a lot!

JetBlue

Mint passengers choose three of five entrees on dinnertime flights.

JetBlue

I chose the terrine, lentil salad and pot roast. All of it was delicious. Very very impressive. Be sure to see the nice fresh dessert at the top of this post– a fresh fruit salad and mint (natch) ice cream.

Have you flown JetBlue in Mint class yet? What did you think? Would you be willing to dump your allegiance to a legacy carrier to fly in a cabin like this? Please leave your comments below.

–Chris McGinnis

Disclosure: JetBlue covered the cost of airfare on this trip between San Francisco and New York. 

Have you been following our super popular Planespotting 101 series? Check out our first two installments here: 

Planespotting 101: Boeing 737 vs Airbus A320

Planespotting 101: MD-80/90 & Boeing 717

+++

>>Take a peek at what you may have missed on TravelSkills.com this week! <<
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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8 things every frequent flyer wants

How about a little peace of mind for your Valentine this year? (Photo: Clear)

How about a little peace of mind for your Valentine this year? (Photo: Clear)

Even busy travelers love to know that when they’re out of sight, they are not out of mind (or heart!). Say “you’re special” to the frequent flyer in your life with one of these gifts for Valentine’s Day.

CLEAR membership

Nothing is more frustrating than bumping into an unexpected delay at airport security. Or worrying about it. Giving a CLEAR gift card means your beloved can skip the worry, and skip the lines for six months. CLEAR lines are now open at 10 airports with two more quickly on the way: San Francisco-SFO, San Jose-SJC, Las Vegas-LAS, Denver-DEN, Dallas-Ft Worth -DFW, Houston-IAH & HOU, San Antonio-SAT, White Plains-HPN, Orlando-MCO and soon in Miami-MIA and one other that will soon be announced. CLEAR’s six-month gift card is specially priced this week only (thru Feb 14) at just $49– that’s nearly half off the standard price of $90. Plus, giving CLEAR means more time to phone you from the gate, right?

Smartphone battery backup

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 7.08.03 PM

Power management is the new time management, and carrying spare juice for a smartphone is an insurance plan of the highest value for biz travelers. These battery backups come in all shapes in sizes, and most will charge a smartphone and tablet simultaneously. Only you know what works best for your bae: a stylish statement, like the colorful Kate Spade charger ($80), a case that boosts charge like the Mophie (from $100), or a simple stick charger like the PowerStick (from $40). (Okay, I know you are wondering…here’s how you define “bae;) )

Lounge access

Business travelers know an airport club room is an indispensable oasis. Learn where your lover’s lounge gaps are and then fill them. Many airlines offer gifting of lounge passes, like American (one day, $50; one month, $99) and United (one year, $500 or 60,000 miles). Or if you’re on a super-tight budget, just sneak into his or her phone and install the LoungeBuddy app to put club room info at his or her fingertips. It’s the thought that counts.

Airport massage

Did you know that foot massage is the most requested service at airport XpresSpas?

Did you know that foot massage is the most requested service at airport XpresSpas?

Even the strongest bodies sag under the stress of travel. A gift card for an airport massage (like at XpresSpa, from $25) may be just the push your favorite flyer needs to take a pampering break—to stow that laptop back in the carry-on and relax into a massage during a flight delay. Before buying that card, check out this listing to learn which massage shops are at the airports frequented most often.

Inflight entertainment

Say it with a movie. Gift Casablanca or Top Gun ($15 each), and you send an instant “you’re my hero” message—plus provide a couple of hours of entertainment for a long flight or a night alone in the hotel room. In the iTunes store, you can shop for an item and then gift it with just a few clicks. Specify the day you’d like it sent, and type in a message. Be Mine.

Travel blanket/eye mask

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 7.25.05 PM

No more snuggling into questionable blankets on long flights: Your partner will appreciate a highly packable bit of luxury, a cashmere travel set that includes a blanket, pillow and eye shades ($395). Priceless. If you’ve just started dating and this is too much of a commitment, even a fleece travel blanket ($12.95) will be appreciated.

Carry-on organizer

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 7.17.58 PM

A carry-on quickly becomes a creepy nest of snaky black cables, and digging through it inflight can require contortions. The GridIt organizer keeps everything where it should be, while providing lots of flexibility ($49.94). Suddenly, a place for everything and everything in its place. There’s even one that doubles as a MacBook carrying case (pictured).

Packing cube

Even the savviest traveler can take packing to the next level. Packing cubes, like these from Tumi ($45), make prepping for a trip a pleasure—and unpacking even better. Good for the morale in lots of colors and practical, too.

I know I’d love to receive any of these gifts, but I hear it’s better to give than receive. And for last-minute shoppers like me, a special tip: Gift cards, like those from CLEAR, are delivered instantly and your loved one will think you’ve been planning for weeks!

What’s the best travel gift you’ve ever received? Best you’ve ever given?

Disclosure: Thank you for reading TravelSkills! We will periodically send out messages like this one from commercial partners about topics relevant to frequent travel.  Our sponsors’ support, and yours, help us keep TravelSkills a free publication. 

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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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Aer Lingus sees green in U.S. [PHOTOS]

Two Aer Lingus crew members checking out the new furniture (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Two Aer Lingus crew members checking out the new furniture (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Aer Lingus says that the return of non-stop flights between San Francisco and Dublin last year (after a five year hiatus) counts as the most successful launch in the Irish airline’s history.

It’s so pleased with the success of the route that it’s bumping up Airbus A330-200 frequencies to daily (from 4x per week) starting May 4.

The new business class seat in partial recline (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

The new business class seat in partial recline (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Plus, the San Francisco-Dublin route (the longest flight in its network) is the first to get Aer Lingus’ new lie-flat business class seat. At 6.5 feet long and nearly two feet wide, the Irish-made seats are some of the most spacious in the sky. In addition to all that sleeping space, Aer Lingus offers business class passengers free wi-fi, and a whole new menu.

The first planes with the newly outfitted cabin arrived at SFO this week.

Aer Lingus new business class seat in fully flat position (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Aer Lingus new business class seat in fully flat position (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

This week the airline threw a shindig at the Four Season’s hotel in Palo Alto to celebrate its success in the Bay Area and to show off the new business class seats. Why Palo Alto and not San Francisco? Because most of Aer Lingus’ business class passengers work and live in Silicon Valley.

Current fares for Spring roundtrips between SFO and Dublin are in the $1000 range for economy, and around $4500 in business. Aer Lingus does not offer first class. 

Plenty of storage space for laptops and like (Photo Chris McGinnis)

Plenty of in seat storage space for laptops and like for techie travelers (Photo Chris McGinnis)

Here are some more photos from that fete!

Samples of preflight beverages (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Samples of preflight beverages and Irish-American camaraderie (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Irish butter. Mmmm. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Irish butter. Mmmm. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

It's not just passengers on Aer Lingus flights- freight like dairy, pharma and electronics, too. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

It’s not just passengers on Aer Lingus flights- freight like dairy, pharma and electronics, too. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

>Aer Lingus is not a member of the Star Alliance, Oneworld or SkyTeam. However, it is a United code share partner. But the SFO-DUB route is not a route where the carriers share a code. Nonetheless, due to the partnership, United Mileage Plus members can earn miles on Aer Lingus flights… but there are limits based on fare paid. Business class fares earn 150% of base miles flown, but economy fares earn just 50%-75% of base miles. Many of the lowest fares do not earn miles at all. You can redeem 60,000 MileagePlus miles for economy round trips on Aer Lingus, or 140,000 for business class. Details here. 

>One of the best things about flying Aer Lingus is that passengers pre-clear US customs and immigration in Dublin before boarding the plane. That means when you land at SFO, it’s just like a domestic flight… you can hit the ground running as soon as you touch down. Aer Lingus currently flies into the international terminal (Boarding Area G).

–Chris McGinnis


Etihad vs “Jetihad”

One of very few photos provided by Etihad to welcome it's new SFO-Abu Dhabi flights (Photo: Etihad)

One of two photos of the provided by Etihad to welcome it’s new “Jetihad” SFO-Abu Dhabi flights (Photo: Etihad)

Last November, Etihad Airways launched new nonstops between San Francisco International and Abu Dhabi. But in an unusual twist, it did not launch the service using an Etihad aircraft. Instead, it substituted a Boeing 777 aircraft and inflight amenities from India’s Jet Airways, of which Etihad is part owner.

Etihad has made a big splash over the last year among frequent flyers by rolling out a new three-room cabin onboard its A380 last December. The Residence includes a “living room,” private bathroom with shower, a bedroom with a double bed and a suited, London-trained butler. The Residence is one of many firsts Etihad has brought to the premium flying experience in recent years.

The highbrow amenities, and the well-crafted media circus around their introduction has raised travelers’ expectations about flying one of UAE’s flag carriers.

Etihad uses a Jet Airways 777 on its new SFO-Abu Dhabi run (Photo: Aero Icarus / Flickr)

Etihad uses a Jet Airways 777 on its new SFO-Abu Dhabi run & one of two JFK flights (Photo: Aero Icarus / Flickr)

While it’s always exciting to get new nonstop service at SFO,  it was a bit of a letdown to learn that Etihad would launch the SFO-Abu Dhabi flights with a leased Jet Airways plane instead of a shiny new B777 of its own…just like the ones recently deployed from Los Angeles and Dallas.

Etihad has one of the youngest fleets flying, with the average aircraft age of just 5.5 years.

An Etihad B777-300ER flies between LAX and Abu Dhabi (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

An Etihad B777-300ER flies between LAX and Abu Dhabi (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

When I asked around about why SFO would get the Jet aircraft instead of a new Etihad B777, I learned that it was because the rapidly expanding airline simply did not have enough of its own aircraft to enter the market. Experts also said that the Bay Area does not have as robust a premium class market as LA, New York or Dallas.

Having never flown Jet Airways, or Etihad, I was eager to see photos of the plane. So were readers…over the last few months, I’ve been peppered with queries about the aircraft interiors, services and amenities on the SFO flight. However, despite multiple requests, Etihad couldn’t provide more than two original photos– the one at the top of this post, and another one showing a ribbon cutting inside the SFO International Terminal.

In December,  I heard from a longtime TravelSkills reader  (“S.P.”) who had just flown from Los Angeles to Abu Dhabi on a new Etihad B777 in first class and was returning to SFO (also in first) on the new “Jetihad” nonstop.

Perfect! I asked S.P. to help us with our new series of “Reader Reports” by taking some notes and photos from his journey so I could report them here. (Last month’s Reader Report “I have to sit where?”)

His first missive was regrettably full of disappointment about the Jet Airways plane from Abu Dhabi to SFO. So I asked him to balance it out by sharing his thoughts on the LAX-AUH flight on the Etihad flight, which he really liked.

Below are some excerpts from our emails and some photos to help compare the two trips. Keep in mind that S.P. only took photos on the Abu-Dhabi-SFO leg of the trip. I’ve done my best to include photos of Etihad interiors from other sources to help compare.

S.P.: Overall, the AUH-SFO leg of the trip was a big disappointment.  My expectations were sufficiently low, knowing that the Jet hard product wouldn’t be the same as Etihad, but the actual experience was significantly worse than those expectations.

I was surprised by how different this flight was than the one we took Los Angeles-Abu Dhabi on the outbound (on an actual Etihad aircraft).  I knew in advance that we’d be on a Jet Airways aircraft, but I thought everything else would be Etihad — entertainment, food, crew, etc.  But boy was I wrong.

UAE 2014 (358)

Here’s how Etihad explains to passengers why they are onboard Jet Airways aircraft instead of Etihad. (Photo: S.P.)

UAE 2014 (353)

Photo of Jet Airways first class seats (Photo: S.P.)

 S.P.: In first class, the suite is pretty similar in form to what you find on Etihad.  The finishes on the Jet seat were not nearly as nice as Etihad, the seat motors were loud and creaky like an old jalopy, and my seat wouldn’t even move in all the directions it was supposed to.  The controller for the seat was also much worse than Etihad, very hard to read and use. The Etihad aircraft had really nice mood lighting that adjusted throughout the flight — something about it was very cool and felt glamorous.  No such lighting on Jet.
(Courtesy: Ben Schlappig / OneMileAtATime

Photo of Etihad first class seats (Courtesy: Ben Schlappig / OneMileAtATime

S.P.: First class on Etihad from LAX was very luxurious feeling with beautiful finishes, especially the soft beige Poltrona Frau leather seat. Everything in my suite felt new, high end, and of course, was fully functioning. The entertainment system on Etihad has a few cool features that you don’t find on the Jet aircraft (even though it is the Etihad entertainment system on Jet).  I enjoyed being able to view two live cameras, one that looked straight down at the ground and the other that was a perspective from the flight deck, looking forward.  The other cool feature was the ability to watch live TV, which is great for getting a news update while you’re stuck flying for 15+ hours.  Jet didn’t have either of these features.

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UAE 2014 (360)

First class amenity kit on Jet Airways operated flight (Photo: S.P.)

Etihad amenity kits  feature colorful Sadou patterns pa centuries-old Abu Dhabi weaving craft. (Photo: Etihad)

Etihad amenity kits feature colorful Sadou patterns pa centuries-old Abu Dhabi weaving craft. (Photo: Etihad)

S.P.: The contents of the amenity kit on the Etihad flight were pretty basic, especially for first class, but I did like that the bag itself was somewhat “authentic” in that it was made of woven wool fabric that I read was some kind of UAE traditional design (as opposed to some generic high-end case like Givenchy or Ferragamo).  Much better than the cheap, black rubber bag given out on Jet.

UAE 2014 (366)

First class lavatory on the Jet Airways operated flight (Photo: S.P.)

S.P.: The bathroom situation on the Jet operated aircraft was also a clear step down.  Etihad had two lavatories in first, one large one and then a second smaller one.  But the Jet aircraft only had one and it was pretty ghetto. It was very rough around the edges and just didn’t feel clean. I really liked having two lavs for the first class cabin, which only has eight seats.  One of them was smaller, but perfectly adequate, and the second one was very large and easy to move around (great for changing clothes) with nice, high-end finishes
UAE 2014 (357)

Business class on the Jet Airways operated flight to SFO (Photo: S.P.)

Business class on Etihad (Photo: Etihad)

Business class on Etihad (Photo: Etihad)

Despite the addition of several new aircraft elsewhere in its network, an Etihad spokesperson at first told TravelSkills that there were no immediate plans to replace the Jet Airways B777 on the SFO to Abu Dhabi route. Update: After this post appeared, the spokesperson contacted TravelSkills to say that the possibility of replacing the Jet aircraft with an Etihad aircraft on SFO-AUH is now “under review.” 

Keep in mind that this reader is one of the few lucky ones to travel in first class– most TravelSkills readers will be flying in business class or economy, and their experiences could be completely different. So here are some other resources to help make your decision to fly Jetihad or not.

>Jet Airways on SkyTrax

>Jet Airways 777 first and business class seats on FlatSeats

>Jet Airways 777 seats maps/reviews on Seat Guru

>Jet Airways website

>Etihad business class page

Have YOU flown Etihad on a Jet Airways operated aircraft (there’s one on the two New York-Abu Dhabi flights, too). Please leave your comments below, or submit a Reader Report to us which we will consider for posting!

–Chris McGinnis

Post script: Etihad provided TravelSkills with the following statement regarding this post:

Our absolute commitment at Etihad Airways is to being the very best in the hospitality industry for our guests – whether you are comparing us with the best airlines, hotels and restaurants – and, also across every class of service.  We greatly appreciate the support and ongoing feedback from our guests within the San Francisco market, which we launched late last year using an aircraft leased from one of our partner airlines, Jet Airways and is operated by Etihad Airways. This feedback helps us constantly improve the travel experience for our guests as we always strive to offer the best in flight hospitality in the world. We value the feedback our guests have shared with you and with us which we will certainly take into account as we continue to further improve upon the product.

(Reader Report is a new series of posts from TravelSkills readers about their recent travel experiences. Would you like to submit a Reader Report on a recent travel experience? Let us know and we’ll send you some guidelines! We are looking for short, sweet, concise reports– no rants. Photos always appreciated! Email us!

 

Putting a wrap on airport security checkpoints

New jets SFO-LAX + Europe summer deals + United move at ATL + Delta wi-fi progress + Cathay biz class sale

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Singapore Air reveals a new seat. Why?

Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airlines’ new premium economy seat is 19.5 inches wide- two inches wider than standard economy (Photo: Singapore Airlines)

Singapore Airlines will become the next international carrier to jump on the premium economy class bandwagon later this year as it introduces the roomier seating on its A380 and 777-300ER aircraft.

The Asian carrier will roll out the new seating product in August on the Singapore-Sydney route, followed by Singapore-Hong Kong and Singapore-London Heathrow. The deployment schedule calls for introduction of premium economy on the Los Angeles-Tokyo-Singapore route starting December 1, followed by New York-Frankfurt-Singapore December 14 and San Francisco-Seoul-Singapore on January 6, 2016.

Singapore Airlines

Seat pitch in SIA’s new premium economy is 38″, up from 32-33 in standard economy (Image: Singapore Airlines)

Singapore’s new premium economy section — with a 2-4-2 configuration — will offer seats with 38-inch pitch, width of 18.5-19.5 inches, eight-inch recline, 13.3-inch touchscreen HD monitors, noise-canceling headsets, power outlets, and two USB ports.

In-flight service will provide a choice of three entrees as well as champagne and wines; premium economy passengers will get priority check-in, boarding and baggage handling, and a checked bag allowance of 35 kg (77 pounds). Members of the airline’s KrisFlyer program who buy premium economy tickets will earn 110 percent of miles flown.

The company has set up a special website detailing the service and amenities of the new seating class, as well as the schedule for deployment on international routes.

Related: How to say “hello” the right way in Singapore? 

Singapore Airlines

Here’s what you get with your Premium Economy fare on Singapore Airlines (Image from SIA website)

Here’s a footnote from history: This will not be Singapore’s first effort at premium economy seating. When the airline launched A340-500 non-stops from Singapore to Los Angeles and Newark in 2004, the specially configured planes had business class and premium economy seating (but no first class or regular economy). That configuration was eventually changed to all-business-class on those two routes (which were the longest commercial non-stops in the industry), but the flights were discontinued in October 2013.

And our choices for the two best all around credit cards offering 40K bonus miles are …. 

Premium economy class has been adopted by a growing number of carriers in recent years; it’s now offered on at least 21 international airlines as a dedicated product (not counting the extra-legroom economy seating — such as United’s Economy Plus or Delta’s Comfort +). Most recently, Lufthansa brought premium economy sections onto intercontinental routes out of Frankfurt starting last fall, and it just introduced them onto select Munich routes (to Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai) last month.

Here's Cathay Pacific's newish premium economy seat on a B777 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Here’s Cathay Pacific’s newish premium economy seat on a B777 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Transpacific airlines currently offering premium economy seating include Air China, Air New Zealand, ANA, Japan Airlines, China Airlines, China Southern, EVA, Philippine, Qantas and Cathay Pacific, according to Seatguru.com, which has a handy comparison chart detailing the seat pitch, width, and amenities of all premium economy cabins worldwide. (Here’s TravelSkills earlier report on the Cathay Pacific premium economy product.)

Why the trend toward premium economy seating? Think of it as a gradual recycling of airlines’ premium cabins, one that has a lot to do with corporate travel policies. First class cabins on international routes have been gradually disappearing, in part because fewer companies were willing to foot the bill for their employees to travel in such luxury. But they were more willing to pay for business class on long-haul flights — so airlines started to improve their business class products to compete for those high-revenue passengers. Over time, business class has become de facto first class on many airlines (it’s not a coincidence that United calls its international business class cabin BusinessFirst).

Delta's new Comfort + seat offers more legroom, but that's about it (Photo: Delta)

Delta’s new Comfort + seat offers more legroom, but that’s about it (Photo: Delta)

Some corporate bean-counters have taken aim at those new and improved business class seats in recent years, especially as fares have increased; but they still had no problem with economy seating — and increasingly, premium economy seating (which, after all, still has “economy” in its name). So airlines are trying to cash in on that enhanced revenue source.

What’s the price differential? SeatGuru estimates that premium economy fares are “generally” about 65 percent less than business class fares. Comparisons to regular economy are more complicated, but SeatGuru says that on transpacific routes, premium economy fares cost about 95 percent more than standard economy.

–Jim Glab

Putting a wrap on airport security checkpoints

New jets SFO-LAX + Europe summer deals + United move at ATL + Delta wi-fi progress + Cathay biz class sale

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Putting a wrap on airport security checkpoints

SpringHill

Have you ever seen an airport security checkpoint that looks like this? (Photo: SpringHill Suites)

When was the last time you felt cool, calm and collected at an airport security checkpoint? 

You might feel that way the next time you pass through the new “Experience Zone” at Oakland International Airport’s Terminal 2 (used by Southwest Airlines).

Since last month, OAK’s security checkpoint area has been wrapped in colorful wall art, pumped full of soothing sounds from Pandora radio, and bathed in calm lighting, eye-catching videos and helpful displays showing current queue wait times.

Instead of just stanchions, benches and tables like you see at most security checkpoints, here you’ll find hotel-lobby-quality furnishings, rugs and a soft, comfortable place to sit down and “recompose” after passing through security.sponsored-slider

The new look is not just cosmetic– tests of similar airport Experience Zones show that security lines move about 25% faster than normal according to SecurityPoint Media, the company behind the effort.

Take a look at this time lapse video below to see how Oakland’s airport security was transformed from a cold and foreboding space that felt like a warehouse into something warmer and more familiar.

Watch the transformation in this 90-second time lapse video

“We have received tremendous feedback from travelers who have experienced the transformed security zones in some of the country’s busiest airports,” said Craig Fowler of SpringHill Suites. “We are excited to be able to continue to extend the hospitality of our brand by providing enhanced surroundings and unexpected moments of relief to busy travelers.”

The enhancements are a collaboration between SpringHill Suites, Oakland International, and SecurityPoint Media, which as created similar installations at Chicago O’Hare, Dallas Ft Worth and Charlotte Douglas airports. 

“This latest conversion in Oakland is the most dramatic to date,” said Joe Ambrefe, CEO of SecurityPoint Media. “Balancing the unique culture of each airport with the science of queue theory has proven to redefine the screening area as a point of service excellence.”

SecurityPoint Media

Watch the transformation in this 90-second time lapse video

Disclosure: Thank you for reading TravelSkills! We will periodically send out messages like this one from commercial partners about topics relevant to frequent travel.  Our sponsors’ support, and yours, help us keep TravelSkills a free publication. 

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New jets SFO-LAX + Europe summer deals + United move at ATL + Delta wi-fi progress + Cathay biz class sale

Delta 717

Delta’s new Boeing 717s used to belong to AirTran (Photo: Delta)

AIRLINES

Delta eyes 717s for LAX-SFO. Delta will put larger Boeing 717s onto eight daily Los Angeles-San Francisco “California Shuttle” flights starting June 4, retaining Embraer 175s on the other seven of its 15 daily flights, according to the website Airlineroute, which tracks planned service changes across the industry. Delta obtained scores of former AirTran 717s from Southwest and has been phasing them into service; last fall, it replaced some of the 76-seat E175s on its LaGuardia-Boston shuttle with 110-seat, two-class 717s. And Delta plans to put 717s onto its LAX-Portland and LAX-Las Vegas routes in June as well. Been on a Delta 717? What did you think?

Screen Shot 2015-01-31 at 9.52.44 AM

Storm warning. Yet another big winter storm (this time named “Linus”) is expected to hit a wide swath of the northern US and could affecting flying this week. Details. Plan accordingly.

United on the move at ATL. United is moving its Atlanta operations from distant Concourse D to close-in Concourse T at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson. The T-gates are located alongside the main terminal building, which means that passengers can walk from the curb to the plane without having to descend into the giant airport’s bowels for a ride on the “Plane Train.” A United spokesperson told TravelSkills that the United Club on Concourse D closes this weekend and that it is “in the process of evaluating potential opportunities to build a new United Club in the T Concourse.” From ATL, United flies to Newark, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington Dulles and Houston.

United bows out in Dallas Love battle. Southwest Airlines has nabbed two more highly contested gates at Dallas Love Field, giving it 18 of the small airport’s 20 gates. It subleased the gates from United, which will move out of Love to concentrate its operations at Dallas Ft Worth. (United used the Love gates for a handful of regional jet flights to Houston.) Delta currently has temporary authority to serve Love Field with five daily nonstops to Atlanta, but only until July 6. Southwest plans to use the new gates to add nonstops to Memphis, Milwaukee and Seattle and beef up frequencies to cities it already serves.

The noodle chef at Cathay Pacific's business class lounge at SFO (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

The noodle chef at Cathay Pacific’s business class lounge at SFO (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Cathay biz class sale. Cathay Pacific is offering some decent discounts for business class flights from the US to several cities across the Pacific. Examples: West coast US to Australia in biz class is running about $8,000 round trip. From the US to most cities in Asia, business class is running around $5,200. Worth a look if you or your company can spring for biz class. The catch: You must book 90 days in advance.

Must see reader comments on this TravelSkills post! My two favorite airlines. Yours?

Fares to Europe are not as high as we expected, but probably won't stay this low for long

Fares to Europe are not as high as we expected, but probably won’t stay this low for long

Europe fares for Summer. We keep hearing about how expensive it’s going to be to fly to Europe this summer due to high demand from Americans with fists full of strong US dollars. BUT, we’ve seen some very good deals for summer trips if you book now. Using the new FLYR site we found these examples: Aer Lingus nonstops between New York and Dublin were running at just $762 for June roundtrips this week, and just $1050 in the peak month of July. From San Francisco Bay Area, SAS or Norwegian Air are currently the cheapest way to get to Europe this summer– Norwegian out of Oakland is pressuring all carriers to discount fares, and we are seeing some roundtrips to Europe running as low as $1,000 to $1,200 during peak summer months. Considering Europe this summer? Might want to check fares now because US-Europe roundtrips during peak summer could easily exceed $2,000 in coming months.

In Hong Kong, coffee is mixed with tea to make yuanyang (Photo: Calvin / Flickr)

In Hong Kong, coffee is mixed with tea to make yuanyang

Drink coffee like a local, or seek out Starbucks when overseas? Tell us! 

Alaska extends free entertainment. Passengers on many Alaska Airlines flights will continue to get free premium movies and TV shows streamed via their personal electronic devices for another two months — i.e., through the end of March. (That’s in addition to the usual no-fee list of some 100 titles.) More than half of the airline’s fleet is currently equipped with streaming technology, and all aircraft should have it by April, Alaska said. And on its long-haul flights, the company has started renting Microsoft In-flight Entertainment tablets (available free to first class flyers and MVP Gold 75Ks) with a selection of films, games, magazines, music and Internet access. The fee is $8-$10.

From Delta regarding international wifi progress

Here’s the latest on Delta’s rollout of inflight wifi on its international fleet, which is progressing more slowly than expected. Among US carriers, Delta has about 37% of its international fleet outfitted with wi-fi–  primarily on its 747s and A330s but coverage is sparse on its much larger fleet of 777s and 767s.

In-flight innovations: Southwest, Virgin Atlantic. Airlines have been known to host band performances at the airport — JetBlue does this regularly at its JFK terminal — but in the air? Southwest is carrying the band Imagine Dragons on a four-city tour, and as part of the hoopla, the group will perform an in-flight concert later this month aboard a flight from Las Vegas to Atlanta. If your in-flight preferences are more cerebral, Virgin America this month started offering in-flight audio and video academic lectures on a variety of subjects, provided by The Great Courses. The curriculum covers everything from cosmology to cooking, history to music. Readers: What’s your in-flight preference? Rock concerts or learning enhancement?

Qantas Samsung VRheadset

New fangled inflight entertainment aboard Qantas.

Qantas tests VR headsets. Virtual reality (VR) is primed to be the next big thing in entertainment technology, providing an immersive, 3D experience. Qantas is getting a jump on the trend by offering Samsung VR headsets to first class passengers on some of its Los Angeles flights starting in March, and at its first class lounges in Melbourne and Sydney.

BA revamps mileage plan. British Airways is coming out with a big overhaul of its Executive Club loyalty program effective April 28. Among the changes: The number of Avios earned (that’s Executive Club’s “currency”) will basically be increased for passengers in business and first class — especially in the higher fare classes — and decreased for those flying on the lowest economy fares. The cost of reward travel is also being restructured with the introduction of peak and off-peak pricing. You can see all the details on the airline’s website

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Plane runs out of fuel, ditches near Hawaii VIDEO

Have you ever wondered what happens when a plane runs out of fuel over the ocean?

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that a small plane from the Bay Area had to ditch in the ocean using a built in parachute after running out of fuel near the coast of Hawaii.

The pilot of a single engine Cirrus SR-22 aircraft that ran out of fuel is safe after ditching his aircraft 253 miles northeast of Maui, Hawaii Sunday. At approximately 4:44 p.m. the pilot was able to deploy the aircraft’s airframe parachute system and safely exit the aircraft into a life raft. (Now that took some TravelSkills, right? :) )

The Holland America Veendam cruise ship en route to Lahaina nearby was diverted to help rescue the pilot of the downed plane. Imagine watching all this unfold off the deck of a cruise ship. Unforgettable.

The dramatic video was shot by the crew of a Coast Guard C-130 Hercules airplane, which maintained communications with the pilot during the ditching. The most dramatic footage in the video above is toward the end after splashdown when the pilot evacuates into a life raft and the cruise ship arrives to save him.

Wow! Just wow.

What’s your biggest flying fear?

–Chris McGinnis

Crashing currencies = More travel deals for Americans

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

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

A mesmerizing look at a Delta jet from a window of ATL's Concourse E (Photo: AP Gouge Photography)

A mesmerizing look at a Delta jet from a window of ATL’s Concourse E Delta Sky Club (Photo: AP Gouge Photography)

AIRLINES

Hot mushroom soup and a pretty fruit/chicken salad on a recent SFO-ATL lunchtime flight (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Hot mushroom soup and a pretty fruit/chicken salad on a recent SFO-ATL lunchtime flight (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

United improves front cabin meals. February 1 is United Airlines’ launch date for upgraded meal service in United First and United Business cabins on North American mainline flights of at least 800 miles. Transcontinental and Hawaii flights will get a new multi-course meal service with “heartier entrees,” United said, while flights of four hours to five hours and 19 minutes will offer three entree options instead of two. Meal flights of less than four hours will provide breakfast options like French toast souffle or steel-cut oatmeal with yogurt and fruit, and dinner choices like tandoori chicken instead of sandwiches. Also new on certain flights: Cookies baked fresh on board. Starting in March, United said, United Express premium-cabin travelers on flights of at least 800 miles will get fresh meals served on china instead of snack boxes; international long-haul economy flyers will see a new multi-course meal service; and new premium cabin menu choices will be introduced on p.s. transcontinental flights.

Best Photo! Thanks to TravelSkills reader Tony Gouge who responded to the request for plane photos in our recent 6 Tips for Better Plane Pics post– one of our most popular “how to” stories so far this year. Tony said that he used a technique called HDR on this (High Dynamic Range) to get the effect you see in the photo at the top.

Just in: Bomb threat leads to evacuation of Delta and Southwest jets at Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta Airport. Developing story. 

Bidding for upgrades on Virgin America. Over the last few months, Virgin America has been quietly rolling out a new program inviting certain Elevate members to bid for upgrades to unsold Main Cabin Select and first class seats about a week before departure. We have learned that Virgin is experimenting with a service called Plusgrade that several other carriers have utilized. Here’s a quick video showing how it works on Air New Zealand. Sounds like a nice idea, but don’t sit around waiting for that email asking for a bid.  A Virgin spokesperson told TravelSkills that the program is available in some markets for select flyers only and, “We are testing to see how travelers react to it first before instituting a broader program.” At present there is no way to get on the email list. Have you been asked to bid on an upgrade on Virgin America? Did you make a winning bid? Leave your comments below. 

Double points on Virgin. Members of Virgin America’s Elevate loyalty program who register online will earn double points — or 10 per $1 spent — for travel from January 20 through March 31.

A big green Aer Lingus A330 at SFO (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

A big green Aer Lingus A330 at SFO (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Aer Lingus enhances SFO service. Bay area travelers will be the first to experience Aer Lingus’ new business class service starting January 28 on the carrier’s A330 non-stops to Dublin. The new cabins are coming this year to all of Aer Lingus’ A330 U.S. routes, including New York, Boston, Chicago and Orlando. You can check it out in this Youtube video. Meanwhile, the Irish carrier plans to boost SFO-Dublin service to daily frequencies (from the current five a week) on May 1, and to launch new Washington Dulles-Dublin flights four times a week on the same date.

American Airlines’ new baby. On Friday, American Airlines flew its first Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner (N800AN) from the factory in Everett, Washington to Dallas/Ft Worth. As part of a massive (and much needed) fleet renewal program, AA has firm orders for 42 more of the efficient widebody. American expects its first 787 to enter revenue service in the second quarter, flying domestically between American’s hubs for several weeks before being launched on international flights.

Delta downgrade? A blogger who specializes in scrutinizing Delta’s SkyMiles program says that Platinum elites are no longer eligible to request upgrades on the airline’s JFK-Los Angeles and JFK-San Francisco routes. The unannounced change would mean that only Diamond-level members can ask for upgrades on those plum routes. Anyone else encountered this new downgrade? Please leave your comments below. 

United eyes new aircraft type. United Airlines is reportedly considering switching some of its existing orders with Boeing to an aircraft type not currently in its fleet: the 777-300ER. The carrier is said to be thinking about adding 10 of the planes — Boeing’s largest twin-engine model — possibly in place of some 787s currently on order. United was the launch customer for the original Boeing 777 back in 1995; the company already has dozens of Airbus A350 widebodies on order. What’s your favorite long-haul aircraft type? Why? Post comments below.

20 different biz class seats in 1 room- PHOTOS

A Hainan Air Boeing 787

A Hainan Airlines Boeing 787 like could find its way to San Jose this summer (Hainan Air)

New China service from San Jose, Dallas. Silicon Valley workers might not have to go to San Francisco International to get a non-stop to China starting in June. That’s when Hainan Airlines plans to begin non-stop San Jose-Beijing 787 flights five days a week, subject to government approval. The airline already flies to the Chinese capital from Boston, Chicago and Seattle. Meanwhile, the trade journal Travel Weekly reports that Hainan has also filed for U.S. approval to begin non-stop service to Shanghai from Seattle and Boston … American Airlines has received Transportation Department approval for its planned Dallas/Ft. Worth-Beijing service, which will start May 7. AA will use a 777-200 for the daily non-stops. (Meanwhile, American is offering double miles for flights to Asia on AA and its partner Japan Airlines, for travel from now through March 20. Online registration is required.) Related: Did you see our story on the new high speed rail line between Beijing and Moscow?

And finally… we bet you’ve never seen a 747 that looks like this one! Take a peek and let us know what you think! 

Back tomorrow with more of TravelSkills Weekend Edition!

WeekendEdition

 

6 tips for better plane pics

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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.  

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.”

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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.

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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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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.

Extra Bonus! Here’s an easy way to top off your Chase Ultimate Rewards balance with 20,000 points!
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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Say what? Even more cuts to United MileagePlus

United revealed even more "updates" to MileagePlus this week (Photo: United)

Just a few weeks ago, United matched Delta in boosting by 20 percent the amount of dollar spending required in 2015 for MileagePlus members to achieve elite status levels in 2016. And now United has made some more “updates” to its loyalty program starting early next year that will further chip away at the benefits of Premier membership.

Effective February 1, MileagePlus Premier members who ask for an Upgrade Award on United’s enhanced-service “p.s.” routes (New York JFK-Los Angeles and JFK-San Francisco) will be charged a co-pay in addition to miles — something they’re currently exempt from. That co-pay can range from $75 to $250 one-way, depending on booking class. (United’s complimentary Premier Upgrades do not apply on p.s. routes.)

In another change taking effect February 1, United will no longer pick up the $100 cost of membership in Customs and Border Protection’s Global Entry trusted traveler program, which allows speedy re-entry to the U.S. from international trips — and also gives members access to TSA’s domestic PreCheck security checkpoints. Currently, United provides a Global Entry payment code to eligible Global Services, Premier 1K and Premier Platinum members of MileagePlus. (That will still be available through the end of January 2015.)

United’s Premier Gold members who require lots of luggage will be sorry to see that when they travel on a domestic economy ticket on or after February 1, their free checked bag allowance will drop from three pieces to two. (For most international markets, it will remain at three.) The domestic economy allowance will still be one free checked bag for Silver members and three for Platinums and 1Ks.

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Starting April 15, elite-level members who use their miles to acquire an award ticket for someone else will find that their own Premier trip benefits will no longer be granted to that second person for the award trip; instead, the recipient’s Premier status — if any — will determine which perks will apply.

Photo: Bernal Saborio / Flickr

Finally, some changes are coming to United’s relationship with its Latin American partner Copa Airlines effective July 1. As of that date, flights on Copa won’t count toward the minimum segment requirement for MileagePlus Premier status, and flight miles on Copa won’t be applied to a member’s lifetime MileagePlus mileage balance. MileagePlus Premier members will keep many of the benefits they currently have for trips on Copa, like an extra bag allowance, priority reservation waitlist, priority standby and so on; and they’ll still earn Premier qualifying miles — and can take award travel — on Copa. United said the reason for those changes is that Copa will roll out its own loyalty program in July.

Popular: How to get on an earlier flight without paying a fee

Taken individually, the new MileagePlus rule changes might not have too much of an impact on any single member. But collectively, they represent a continuing pattern of benefits erosion that could well make members wonder what might be coming next.

Declining program benefits, along with rising fees, post-merger quality-of-service problems and other indignities led one disgruntled MileagePlus loyalist to pen an essay that appeared in the prestigious New Yorker magazine this month under the headline “Why I Left United Airlines.”

What do our MileagePlus readers think of these new changes? Are they deal breakers — or no big deal? Post your comments below.

–Jim Glab

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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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Virgin’s next moves? + NYC + New Lufthansa seat + Eastern Airlines + More A380s

A brilliant fall day in NYC from the top floor of the Parker Meridien hotel (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Greetings from New York City on a beautiful fall day peering out from the Parker Meridien hotel (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

AIRLINES

Virgin shares soar in IPO. And the airline could, too. This is going to be really fun to watch. Virgin America shares hit the market Virgin Americaon Friday morning at $23 each, and took off to reach $30 by the end of the day. That makes Virgin worth about $1.3 billion. Now, with about $220 million in net proceeds, Virgin is going to add new planes, new routes and hopefully more frequencies in key business markets. CEO David Cush said that Virgin will add five new planes in 2015 and another five in 2016. He also said the SF-based carrier has a few other “tricks up its sleeve.” Talk of new flights to Hawaii has re-emerged. With Southwest taking AirTran’s business class seats out of the SFO-ATL market, I’d love to see two-class Virgin dive in. Where would YOU like to see Virgin America (see current destinations) expand? And would you be willing to give up your legacy carrier frequent flyer miles to try it? Please leave your comments below. 

Lufthansa’s premium economy starts this week. That new Premium Economy Class at Lufthansa is opening up nine days sooner than expected. The carrier said that starting November 22, the new section will be available on all of its 747-8 routes, including Frankfurt to Chicago, LAX and Washington Dulles. Besides the extra in-flight comforts, passengers will get twice the free checked bag allowance of regular economy, and for a 25 euro fee ($31), Premium Economy passengers can access the business class lounge before departure. Currently, United does not allow redemption of MileagePlus miles for Lufthansa (or any Star Alliance) premium economy. Lufthansa is offering a 15 percent discount on Premium Economy bookings until December 9. Take a look at Lufthansa’s new seat in this TravelSkills post: 20 different business class seats in one room

etihadTheResidenceFclass

One of three rooms in the Etihad First Class “Residence” onboard its A380s (Etihad)

$20,000 first class suites going fast. Would you pay $20,000 one way to fly in a private first class suite the size of some Manhattan apartments? Etihad Airways says these super-premium accommodations on its A380s — called The Residence — are selling out, in spite of the stratospheric price tag. Each one has a private shower, living area, bedroom — and the services of a butler. Meanwhile, other leading international carriers have upgraded their own front cabins to meet strong demand from global business moguls.

I captured this image of the Asiana B777 wreckage when my Delta flight from Atlanta landed the day after the crash (Chris McGinnis)

I captured this image of the Asiana B777 wreckage when my Delta flight from Atlanta landed  at SFO the day after the crash (Chris McGinnis)

Asiana SFO flights suspended. The South Korean government has ordered Asiana Airlines to halt its daily service to San Francisco from Seoul Incheon for 45 days as a penalty for the airline’s crash of a 777 during its landing at SFO in July 2013, in which three passengers died and scores were injured. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board blamed the crash on errors by one of the pilots, who was unfamiliar with all the automated systems on the 777. Asiana said it will appeal the suspension, which could delay implementation of the order.

Related: Korean Air Trip Reports- SFO-Seoul on a B777  &  Seoul-Atlanta on an A380 

International route news: Etihad Airways, which begins daily San Francisco-Abu Dhabi non-stops November 18, said its upcoming Dallas/Ft. Worth route, beginning with three flights a week on December 3, will increase to daily on April 16; Etihad is a code-share partner with American …

>Emirates will put a fourth daily flight, using an A380, onto its Dubai-New York JFK route on March 8, timed to maximize connections with partner JetBlue. The carrier also said it intends to put the A380 super-jumbo onto more U.S. routes; it introduced the plane on its DFW route last month, and will do the same in December with San Francisco and Houston. Emirates will have 68 A380s in operation by the end of 2015 compared with 55 today according to Bloomberg …

>British Airways will replace the 777 on its Denver-London route with a four-class 747 starting in March (including its new 14-suite first class design) …

>El Al will introduce Boston-Tel Aviv service three times a week starting in June 2015 …

>On May 1, Aer Lingus will begin new seasonal service from Washington Dulles to Dublin four times a week …

>Lufthansa will add Tampa to its route network in September 2015, using an A340-300 for flights to Frankfurt.

Popular: 20+ TravelSkills readers have signed up for these oddball credit card offers that reap big rewards. Have you? 

The new Eastern Airlines has painted its first jet. Brings back memories, no?

The new Eastern Airlines has painted its first jet, a 737-800. Brings back memories, no?

Something old, something new: PEOPLExpress, Eastern. The new incarnation of PEOPLExpress Airlines appears to be in trouble: Media reports indicate officials at Virginia’s Newport News/Williamsburg Airport are trying to evict the carrier from its home base, citing $100,000 in unpaid bills … The old Eastern Airlines name is also being revived in Miami. The “new” Eastern has started recruiting flight attendants, although it doesn’t yet have FAA certification. The company said it plans to operate 737-800s, but will initially serve only as a charter airline.

United’s holiday shopper lounges. Chase and United Airlines will soon open special VIP lounges for holiday shoppers in San Francisco and New Jersey. Available to Chase United cardholders, they’ll offer gift wrapping, refreshments, TVs, Wi-Fi and more, with locations at the Westfield San Francisco Centre (November 24-December 24) and The Mall at Short Hills (November 22-December 24).

Lake Tahoe at sunset (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Lake Tahoe at sunset (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Love Lake Tahoe? Then come chat about it! TravelSkills editor Chris McGinnis will be talking about his favorite place to get away from it all MONDAY at 3 pm ET. Take a cool virtual tour here and come chat with us and FlipKey today! On Twitter, look for the #TakeMeThereTahoe hashtag at 3 pm ET, Noon PT today!

In Case You Missed It…

Stay tuned! Part 2 of this weekly “Catch Up” will post tomorrow morning…

 

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New options for Delta flyers at SFO

Delta flyers can now enjoy the mod design and amenities of SFO's Terminal 2 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Delta flyers can now enjoy the mod design and amenities of SFO’s Terminal 2 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Delta flyers at SFO can now take a yoga break, partake of local organic food and wine or check out a cool museum space at SFO.

That’s because there’s a brand new airside (behind security) connector between Terminal 1, Boarding Area C or “T1C” (used by Delta) and the world famous Terminal 2, designed by the San Francisco design firm Gensler, where Virgin America and American are located. Starting in January, US Airways flyers can join the fun when its SFO operations move alongside Delta’s in T1C.

So next time you are stuck at SFO’s rather prosaic Terminal 1 due to fog…or maybe if you arrive a bit early, take a 10-minute stroll through this new 500-foot, glassed-in, “sterile connector” to Terminal 2 and you can enjoy what many people think is the best airport terminal in America.

Here's a rendering of the new connector viewed from the ramp (Fentress Architects)

Here’s a rendering of the new connector viewed from the ramp with T1 to the left and T2 to the right (Fentress Architects)

(See airport map here to get your bearings)

What’s so cool about it? Well, for one, there’s a new yoga room. I’m not sure how many travelers actually use it for yoga (the original one has been empty every time I’ve peered in) but it can also be used for naps, prayers or quiet time. To make room for the new connector entrance, SFO relocated the original yoga room from T2 to the connector.

Scroll to the bottom for a photo from INSIDE the connector.

SFO's famous yoga room has moved to the new corridor.  (Photo: SFO)

SFO’s famous yoga room has moved to the new corridor. (Photo: SFO)

What else is great about T2? Well, the food! About the only decent place to get a meal in Delta’s T1C space is Perry’s, a sit down restaurant. In T2, options multiply- there are 11 outlets and the food is outstanding… there are Burritos (Andale), Tapas & cocktails (Cat Cora), sushi & noodles (Wakaba), fresh healthy soups, salads and sandwiches (Pinkberry/The Plant), a wine bar (Vino Volo) and even rotisserie chicken (Napa Farms) or steak/seafood (Lark Creek). There’s a Kiehl’s store, too.

On of my favorite stops at T2 is the excellent maps exhibit. Endlessly fascinating to see maps old and new depicting the growth of San Francisco over the last 150 or so years. In addition, T2 is one of the best perches at the airport for plane spotting. Just go sit a big red egg chair facing out to the runways and gaze. T1 does not offer views like these!

Popular: Oddball card offers reap big rewards

T1 redevelopment

Some other important points about what’s going on at SFO:

>Frontier Airlines, which used to operate out of T1C, has moved into Boarding Area B in T1, which does not have access to the new sterile connector.

>Airport spokesman Doug Yakel said that plans for a similar sterile connector between T2 and T3 (United) are in discussion, but “no schedule has been established for this as of yet.”

>Alaska Airlines has moved from T1 to the International Terminal Boarding Area A. Lucky Alaska Boardroom members now get to use Cathay Pacific’s outstanding business/first class lounge nearby.

>SFO’s iconic new 220-foot control tower, which is rising between T1 and T2 should be completed by mid-2015. The new tower is built to withstand an 8.0 earthquake with 215 piers embedded in bedrock 140 feet deep and anchored by 2,700 cubic yards of concrete, according the Fentress Architects which designed the tower and the new connector.

>A complete re-do of SFO’s Terminal 1 is already in the works and should be complete by 2024.

Here's a look down the new sterile corridor connecting T1 and T2 (Fentress Architects)

Here’s a look down the new sterile corridor connecting T1 and T2 (Fentress Architects)

–Chris McGinnis

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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Trip Report: Korean Air B777 & A380 (Part 1)

Korean Air

Business class seats on Korean Air’s B777 are nearly identical to those on its A380 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Ever since Korean Air launched its Airbus A380 service between Seoul and Atlanta in September 2013, I’ve longed to take a seat on that 14.5-hour whopper of a flight.

Last month, I finally got my chance when Korean Air invited me over to Seoul for a look at the fast-growing, modern-yet-quirky South Korean capital.

The first leg of my journey was an 11.5-hour Boeing 777 flight from San Francisco to Seoul. I was in Seoul for three busy days, then boarded an A380 for the trip to Atlanta.

I was especially excited to be able to compare the business class experience on two different planes in a single trip. What did I discover? Well, it’s that business class on Korean Air is very consistent across these two planes. Except for the unbelievable business class lounges onboard KAL’s A380 (tune in to my next post for details/photos), nearly everything else was identical. There’s no need to be too disappointed if you can’t ride on an A380 because once you are in your seat, there’s very little difference– the seats, service, food, inflight entertainment, lavs… it’s all pretty much the same. And in both directions, the planes were squeaky clean– even down to the floor of the lavatories (see below).

Today, let’s take a look at that B777 flight from San Francisco to Seoul. Tomorrow I’ll post about my experience on KAL’s big A380 to Atlanta and we’ll explore the slight differences between the experiences.

At SFO, Korean Air uses British Airways Terraces lounge for first and business class flyers (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

At SFO, Korean Air uses British Airways’ Terraces lounge for first and business class flyers (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

At SFO, Korean Air new uses British Airways Terraces lounge for first and business class passengers. Luckily the KAL flight and the BA flights are timed well apart from each other so the lounge did not feel overcrowded.

Direct access to the plane from the lounge (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Direct access to the plane from the lounge (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Nice touch: When boarding KAL’s B777 from the Terraces lounge, business and first class passengers walk directly onto the plane from the lounge… the jetway is just beyond the door in the photo above.

Now, let’s jump onboard.

Korean Air

Carpet in the lavs on Korean Air’s B777 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

On the B777 flight from SFO to Seoul, I noticed something I’ve never seen on any aircraft: Carpet in the business class lavatories! My first thought was “eeuuww, what if this gets wet?” But upon closer inspection, I noticed that the carpet was actually a rug that was velcroed to the floor. If it gets wet, it’s removed and replaced with another. Based on how many times I noticed the hard working KAL flight attendants enter the lavs for cleaning during the flight, I was certain that it would get switched out if needed. But in any case, I have to say that it added a cozy or homey feel to the lav– much better than the black rubber floor I’m used to. It’s one of those “little things” but I noticed and appreciated it.

Korean Air

Buttonholes in the napkins on Korean Air (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Another one of the “little things” I noticed on this flight…. napkins with button holes. I’ve seen this on a handful of other carriers and always appreciate it… especially when I’m wearing a light colored shirt and eating things that easily spill… like soup or salad dressing. It shows that someone has really thought through inflight dining… a good sign. (And a shirt saver!)

Popular: Oddball card offers reap big rewards

Korean Air

The dinner starter on SFO>Seoul: Seared tuna (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Meal service on the flight from San Francisco (which departed at 2 pm) started with seared tuna– accompanied of course by the ever present Korean chili paste gochujang and a two servings of kimchee-like pickles with an unusual rubbery crunch.

Korean Air

KAL’s famous bibimbap (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Next up for dinner was the popular Korean specialty bibimbap. Korean Air is famous for this… and even serves it from a truck at promotional events like its recent launch in Houston… it even offers it the Aspen Food & Wine Classic. It’s delicious and healthy. To eat it, you squirt that tube of chili paste over the top and then mix all the ingredients together. Yum!

Economy class on Korean Air B777 offers 33-34 inches of pitch (Chris McGinnis)

Economy class on Korean Air B777 offers 33-34 inches of pitch (Chris McGinnis)

Economy class on Korean Air’s B777s offers a roomy 33-34 inches of seat pitch– that’s very generous compared to other carriers (United, for example, only offers 31 inches on its B777). Seats are configured 3-3-3. Korean Air does not offer a premium economy seat.

Stay tuned! My next post will be about my 14.5 hour journey on KAL’s A380 to Atlanta! Here’s a teaser photo… explanations coming soon! 

Korean Air

–Chris McGinnis

Disclosure: I was a guest of Korean Air on this flight

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Delta bumps bennies + BART-Oakland sets date + LAX airlines move + Hilton HHonors hacked + W in Beijing

Delta has expanded its popular Porsche pick up service to three more airports (Photo: Delta)

AIRLINES

Delta expands Porsche transfers, expedites at Heathrow. Delta continues to lead the way when it comes to adding new services for its best customers. For example, last week it announced an expansion of its Porsche tarmac transfer program to three more airports — New York LaGuardia, Seattle-Tacoma and Detroit Metro. The program offers gate-to-gate rides in Porsche vehicles for select SkyMiles Diamond Medallion members who have tight connecting times. It’s already offered at Atlanta, New York JFK, Los Angeles and Minneapolis-St. Paul. (Here’s a video showing how it works.) At London Heathrow’s Terminal 3, meanwhile, Delta BusinessElite passengers arriving by private car service can now take advantage of an expedited greeting service in which Virgin Atlantic concierge staffers will meet them curbside with boarding passes, take their luggage, and speed them through security to the Virgin Clubhouse. Delta says, “On arrival at London Heathrow Terminal 3, Delta Air Lines BusinessElite customers can now enjoy a seamless and stress-free transfer from car to lounge in less than 10 minutes via the Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Wing.” Keep in mind that many of Delta’s flights at Heathrow (including those to/from Detroit and Minneapolis) use Terminal 4 where this service is not available. Delta’s Atlanta-London flights switched to Terminal 3 from Terminal 4 on October 26.

The AirBART station is located at the front door of Oakland International

The AirBART station is located at the front door of Oakland International

BART-Oakland Airport sets date. Bay Area Rapid Transit officials have finally announced an opening date for the new BART rail link to Oakland International Airport. On Saturday, November 22 the 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 will be $10.05. That’s a nice break from cab fares which run as high as $75-$80. Are you more likely to use Oakland Airport now? Leave your comments below. 

Virgin America posts another profit. After dipping back into the red in the first quarter of 2014, Virgin America was solidly profitable in the third quarter, reporting net income of $41.6 million and a healthy operating margin of 12.9 percent. After years of operating in the red since its founding in 2007, Virgin has been profitable now for five of the last six quarters, putting it in a good position for its upcoming initial public offering. Virgin said in an SEC filing last week that its IPO shares will be priced at $21 to $24, valuing the company at up to $1 billion. The anticipated $320 million from the share sale should allow Virgin to move ahead with an ambitious expansion plan to buy new planes and add new routes.

Sneeze alarm. With all the concern about disease lately, especially as it affects travelers, you might get a little paranoid when a fellow passenger on your flight sneezes. Did you ever wonder just how far that sneeze can travel? Check out this video — if you dare.

American adds Europe routes. American Airlines has unveiled plans to add a pair of new routes to Europe next spring. On May 7, AA will inaugurate new daily narrowbody 757 flights from New York JFK to Birmingham, England. And on May 14, the company will kick off daily 767-300 flights from its Miami hub to Frankfurt.

AIRPORTS

The nice new Star Alliance lounge at LAX's new Tom Bradley International Terminal (Air New Zealand)

The nice new Star Alliance lounge at LAX’s new Tom Bradley International Terminal (Air New Zealand)

Air New Zealand, US Airways move at LAX. Effective December 3, Air New Zealand will set up shop in Los Angeles International’s refurbished Tom Bradley International Terminal 3, moving out of Terminal 2. That will give premium customers easy access to the new Star Alliance Lounge at LAX, which Air New Zealand manages. The carrier operates twice-daily service to Auckland (to be increased next summer to 17 a week) and one flight a day to London from LAX. Meanwhile, American Airlines affiliate US Airways last week moved from Terminal 3 to Terminal 6, gates 60-63, “with convenient access to connections on flights operated by American Airlines at Terminal 4 through an underground connector,” American said. “Shuttle service is also available to Terminal 4 and the Remote Terminal for American Eagle flights.”

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New airside connector at SFO. We’ve heard (but not confirmed) that the new airside connection between SFO’s fabulously famous Terminal 2 (Virgin America & American) and the more prosaic Terminal 1C (Delta’s boarding area) has opened. This means that Delta flyers socked in by delays now have some exciting new dining and retail options once they are behind security.

Outdoor spaces are the craze these days. Here's what JetBlue's will soon look like at JFK (Image: JetBlue)

Outdoor spaces are the craze these days. Here’s what JetBlue’s will soon look like at JFK (Image: JetBlue)

JetBlue’s JFK terminal grows. On Wednesday (November 12), JetBlue will open a $200 million extension of its home base, Terminal 5 at New York JFK, to be used for international flights. (The airline’s international arrivals currently use leased gates at Terminal 4.) The new six-gate expansion offers full federal inspection facilities in an arrivals hall and 40 automated passport readers. JetBlue plans to develop a public outdoor area on the new facility’s rooftop, akin to the popular High Line park in Manhattan. Meanwhile, Air France has finished a complete renovation of its two-level lounge at JFK’s Terminal 1.

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HOTELS

Hackers hitting HHonors accounts. How safe are your points in Hilton’s HHonors loyalty program? Recent online reports indicate that hackers have been raiding some accounts, not only stealing points — and in some cases selling them — but also gaining access to members’ credit card information.

Related: Hilton’s newest hotel in Honolulu

Hotels roll out keyless entry apps. Starwood and Hilton last week both announced new app functionality that will allow guests to open their room doors with smartphones. The Starwood Preferred Guest app’s new SPG Keyless feature is available now at 10 select Aloft, W, and Element hotels, with more to come in the months ahead; it allows SPG members who book directly with the company to bypass the front desk and go directly to their preassigned room, where a tap of their Bluetooth-enabled phone will unlock the door. Hilton said keyless entry will be available through its HHonors mobile app starting in 2015 at its Hilton, Waldorf Astoria, Conrad and Canopy brands, and at all 11 of its brands in 2016. The app will also work with other locked areas in Hilton’s hotels such as executive floors, fitness centers and garages.

A room at the new W Beijing located near the Forbidden City (Photo: Starwood)

A room at the new W Beijing located near the Forbidden City (Photo: Starwood)

Openings in Beijing, Sydney, Paris. The newest hotel in China’s capital city is Starwood’s 349-room W Beijing-Chang’an, located close to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Each room is equipped with a digital tablet that controls its lighting, 48-inch TV and Bluetooth sound system… InterContinental Hotels Corp. has cut the ribbon on the InterContinental Sydney Double Bay Hotel a few miles from that city’s central business district; the 140-room property is a luxury remaking of the former Double Bay Hotel … Hilton scheduled a January opening for the 268-room Hilton Paris Opera in the heart of the French capital; the company spent $50 million restoring and improving the 125-year-old building, formerly the Concorde Paris Opera.

In Case You Missed It…

>Check out these two airline credit cards for bonus benefits.

>American Express has opened a Centurion Lounge at San Francisco International.

>Two airlines offer free in-flight Wi-Fi.

>Here are six tips for securing the best air fare.

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First look: Centurion Lounge at SFO [photos]

Centurion Lounge

SFO’s new American Express Centurion Lounge is located on the far west end of Terminal 3, behind security (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

The new American Express Centurion Lounge at San Francisco International Airport’s Terminal 3 opens on Thursday, November 6.

It joins three other Centurion lounges at New York LaGuardia, Dallas Ft Worth and Las Vegas McCarran airports.  A spokesperson told TravelSkills that the next Centurion Lounge will open at Miami International in the first half of 2015. She also said that Amex is working on securing space at several other airports.

The SFO Centurion Lounge is located in Terminal 3 (United) behind security. This means that it is easily accessible for travelers in Terminal 3 or the International Terminal Boarding Area G. But it is going to be inconvenient for passengers flying in or out of the airport’s other terminals because getting there requires an extra trip through the T3 security gauntlet. At SFO, Terminal 3 is not connected on the airside to Terminal 2 (American, Virgin America) or Terminal 1 (Delta, US Airways, Southwest).

American Express invited TravelSkills in for a sneak-peek at the lounge which included a sit down dinner prepared by Chef Christopher Kostow, who will oversee the lounge’s full kitchen. The menu items he prepared for this special meal were similar to those that will be on offer at the lounge. (see photos below.) All Centurion lounges offer a full hot buffet for breakfast, lunch and dinner. SEE MENU

What’s unique about the San Francisco lounge is its wine wall. Members get a paper chit with a bar code when they check in. This chit entitles them to five small pours of wine from an automated dispenser (See photos below.) Wave the chit under a reader, push a button, and get your pour. Very cool! There’s also a full complimentary bar stocked with call brand booze and beer. There’s a single shower, a quiet nook with chaise lounges for napping, a small business center that pays homage to Bay Arean Steve Jobs and a big bright & colorful living room space. Thankfully, there’s a glassed in “family room” for kids.

And before we get started with photos, here’s a link that explains who gets in Centurion lounges. (It’s free for Amex Platinum and Centurion card holders only- this does not include Delta/Amex Platinum card holders. Anyone else with any type of Amex Card gets in for $50.) See the screen grab at the bottom of this post for more details.

Free Rides to SFO! To celebrate the opening of The Centurion Lounge at SFO, American Express is working with Uber to give Amex card holders a complimentary Black Car ride to the airport. On November 6 Amex cardhholders who have any Amex card as their selected method of payment can enter the promo code CENTURIONSFO in the Uber app to receive a complimentary Black Car ride from San Francisco to SFO.

Now let’s take a look! Leave your comments below, please… 

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Centurion Lounge

All Centurion Lounges sport a “living wall” (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

Centurion Lounge

Check in here to enter. Only Platinum and Centurion cardmembers get in free. All others pay $50 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

Centurion Lounge

A big bright “living room: area with windows that overlook Terminal 3. Sorry, no views out to runways. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

Centurion Lounge

The SFO lounge’s most distinguishing feature is this wine wall. Each member gets 5 free pours (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

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Wave this chit under a reader and then choose your pour. Very cool! (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

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Wine expert Anthony Giglio shows how to pick your pour. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

Centurion Lounge

An all Mac business center pays homage to Steve Jobs. Nice touch! (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

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The glassed in family room for kiddies (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

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A full kitchen staffed by chefs serving hot meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

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Eat your hot meal or sip on your wine here. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

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Full bar with plenty of nice call brands and beer (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

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A nook for napping (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

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Plenty of color pops…and room to sit down (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Centurion Lounge

Looking down from the lounge which is located on the mezzanine level– accessible by this staircase or a glass elevator. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

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A nice sit down dinner for special guests included menu items likely to be served (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

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“Slow roasted pork shoulder apple lees vinegar” paired nicely with a big fat Somerston Estate red blend from Napa (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

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Chestnut pudding with roasted chocolate for dessert (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

 

Centurion Lounge

–Chris McGinnis

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2 airlines offer free inflight wi-fi

Inside Emirates outstanding hub in Dubai (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Inside Emirates outstanding hub in Dubai (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Inflight wi-fi still feels like a miracle to me. It’s even more miraculous when it is free.

Right now, you can get it for free on two carriers: One international, the other domestic.

Today, Emirates announced that it will soon offer free wi-fi on all 53 of its A380 superjumbos, and on 28 (out of about 140) Boeing 777s. The Dubai-based carrier says that it is “aggressively retrofitting” all its other aircraft and will eventually offer free wi-fi fleetwide. This is great news because most of Emirates flights are super long-hauls, like this 15-hour journey I took from San Francisco to Dubai– and inflight wi-fi can sure help pass the time.

On most Emirates flights equipped with wi-fi, you’ll get the first 10MBs of data for free. To get a whopping 600MB, all you have to do is pay a token $1 fee.  But don’t count on getting free wi-fi yet– Emirates says that due to technical limitations, it is currently not possible to offer the 10MB free “on a few of its A380s and 777s” but that the issue should be “resolved in coming months.”

“If we can offer good quality Wi-Fi connections for everyone onboard at no charge tomorrow, we will do it. But we face a slew of technical limitations – from speed and bandwidth availability and cost, to the supporting hardware and software – all of which we are working hard to address with the industry right now,” said Emirates President Sir Tim Clark. “Ultimately, we believe that onboard Wi-Fi will become a free service, and a standard that customers will expect on a full service airline, just like onboard refreshments and personal inflight entertainment. Emirates is leading the way on this, and we are working closely with our suppliers and various stakeholders towards this vision,” he said. On a few of its A380s and 777s, it is not currently possible to offer the first 10MB free for technical reasons, but the airline says it is working hard to resolve the issue in the coming months.

Related: How to save $$$ on inflight wi-fi 

Emirates says that it saw a 200% spike in Wi-Fi usage in the month of October when it offered a free wi-fi promotion to mark the Eid holidays. During the month, it saw a daily average of 3,500 passengers using onboard Wi-Fi, at an average of 28MB per user. The highest number of Wi-Fi users on a single flight was recorded on an A380 with 153 passengers connecting, and the flight pulling the most bandwidth  was nearly 8,000MB from 26 users onboard a Boeing 777 flight. (It did not provide details on which flights.) Its data show that Emirates passengers most frequently access Google, Facebook, and chat services Skype, WhatsApp and BBM.  Passengers onboard Emirates also have other ways to stay connected with in-seat sms and email, as well as mobile phone services.

In the US, Emirates flies to Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Boston, New York City and Washington, DC. In December, it will begin flying A380s to both San Francisco and Houston. I’ve heard mixed reviews about Emirates’ inflight wi-fi connections. Have you used it? Please leave your comments below…

JetBlue

In the US, JetBlue’s beta version of Fly-Fi, its inflight wi-fi product, is on all 10 of JetBlue’s Airbus A321s and 73 of its A320s. It should be on all JetBlue’s Airbus aircraft by spring 2015. Eventually, you’ll get it on its Embraer 190s, too.

Fly-Fi is available on JetBlue’s fancy new Mint A321s flying between New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

JetBlue currently offers a basic wi-fi connection for free

On it’s website, JetBlue says that it currently offers a basic wi-fi connection for free

It’s basic “Simply Surf” option is currently free. For more bandwidth, JetBlue says that you can purchase its fatter “Fly-Fi Plus” plan for $9/hour. Just log in to the Fly-Fi portal during your flight and follow the instructions.

(Source: JetBlue)

JetBlue release this infographic in September. (Source: JetBlue)

Let’s do a bit of expectation management: Inflight wi-fi, no matter what carrier offers it, is still a relatively new phenomenon. Whether it’s paid for, or free, inflight wi-fi WILL NOT work as well as the connection you have at your home or office. Sometimes it will not work at all. Maybe some day it will. But not right now. Expectations managed? ;)

What’s been your experience with inflight wi-fi? Should it be free? Please leave your comments below. 

–Chris McGinnis

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A new way to get to New York – La Guardia

Virgin America get a ceremonial squirt with its inaugural flight from Dallas to New York La Guardia (Photo: Virgin America)

Virgin America get a ceremonial squirt with its inaugural flight from Dallas to New York La Guardia (Photo: Virgin America)

Virgin America’s first flights into New York’s close in LaGuardia Airport arrived yesterday. The new nonstops originate from Virgin’s new mini-hub at Dallas Love Field (DAL) and are currently on sale for just $89 each way. Virgin now offers four daily roundtrips on the important business route. Southwest Airlines offers three daily roundtrips.

The new service provides an additional one-stop transcon option for travelers who might prefer to skip the traffic and hassles of JFK or Newark for the close-in ease of LaGuardia, even though total flight time is longer.

For example, Virgin’s one-stop (same plane) flight from SFO via DAL departs at 7:20 am and arrives LGA at 5:35 pm and takes about 7 hours. Southwest’s one stop flights are routed through Denver or Chicago Midway and take about the same amount of time.

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LaGuardia Airport is the closest airport to Manhattan

LaGuardia Airport is the closest airport to Manhattan

From LGA, the trip to Manhattan via cab or car is about 25 minutes vs 45-60 minutes from JFK. (Cost is $30-35 plus tip and toll from LGA and a flat $52 plus tip and toll from JFK.)

Virgin’s return flight from LaGuardia to SFO via Dallas Love takes 8.5 hours, departing LGA at 3:45 pm and arriving SFO at 9:10 pm.

By comparison, Virgin’s nonstop SFO>JFK takes 5-6 hours (depending on winds), departing SFO at 7:00am and arriving JFK at 3:35pm. Return flights take about 6.5 hours due to winds.

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Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 8.10.54 AM

At LaGuardia, Virgin and Southwest both use the main “Central Terminal B.” This week the Central Terminal celebrates the opening of a the first batch of nearly 60 new food and specialty stores which are part of an $18 million re-do of the aging terminal. Long term, LaGuardia could get a multi-billion dollar makeover.

Maybe one day there will be nonstop flights between west coast cities and La Guardia (click here to read more about that). But in the meantime…Would you fly Virgin via Dallas Love to get to NYC or vice versa? Leave your comments below.

TIP: In the market for a new credit card? With the holidays coming up, apply now and you’ll likely meet the spending requirement for BIG bonuses! How about $500 in free travel?
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Half off first class JFK-SFO fares

JetBlue hosted a shindig at San Francisco's Bentley Reserve to kick off its new Mint service on SFO-JFK (Photo: JetBlue)

JetBlue threw a swank shindig at San Francisco’s Bentley Reserve to kick off its new Mint service on SFO-JFK (Photo: JetBlue)

JetBlue’s new Mint class nonstops cranked up on the SFO-JFK run on Sunday, offering a totally new premium transcon experience…and significantly lower first class fares on the popular route.

Key points:

Mid-December fares on JetBlue

Mid-December fares on JetBlue- those low Mint fares are going fast!

>Currently the lowest Mint roundtrip fare is $1,200-- that’s about half off compared to average first class fares on offer before Mint entered the market. All other carriers on the route have now discounted first class to match JetBlue’s new Mint fares– but that fare is only available on a few seats per flight. A quick look at JetBlue.com shows nearly all the $1,200 Mint fares sold out through mid December- the next step up is about $1,620 round trip.

>JetBlue says that Mint class (click for pics) features the widest seat and longest fully-flat bed in the U.S. domestic market and four private suites among the 16 seats. Each seat has a 15 inch flat screen TV with 100 channels and in-seat power ports. Mint is only available on JetBlue’s A321 aircraft.

JetBlue's new A321s not only have Mint, but some of the most spacious coach class seats on the route  (Photo: JetBlue)

JetBlue’s new A321s not only have Mint, but some of the most spacious coach class seats on the route (Photo: JetBlue)

>In coach, JetBlue offers 10-inch seatback screens and in-seat power outlets in each row. Coach passengers also have access to a complimentary self-serve station full of snacks and soft drinks. JetBlue is known for having some of the roomiest coach class seats flying and it’s A321s boast 33-37 inches of pitch.

>By early next year, JetBlue will offer five roundtrips per day between SFO and JFK. Currently, there are three daily SFO-JFK nonstops, two have Mint, one does not. By December, all three will have Mint. (JetBlue will have Mint on seven daily LAX-JFK roundtrips by December 19.)

>All JetBlue A321s are also equipped Fly-Fi, JetBlue‘s new, fast inflight wi-fi. It’s currently free, but likely not going to stay that way for long.

October Mint menu on eastbound lunch/dinner flights

October Mint menu on eastbound lunch/dinner flights

>Mint class passengers choose from five “tapas style” menu items curated by New York’s popular Saxon+ Parole restaurant. For dessert there is Blue Marble ice cream.

Will you give JetBlue a try on your next trip to NYC? Leave your comments below.

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Big United-Hertz deal + Uber in Vegas? + Virgin in Atlanta + Biz class sale + Holiday Inn NYC

Virgin Atlantic's brand new Dreamliner touched down at ATL this week (Photo: Hartsfield-Jackson)

Virgin Atlantic’s brand new Dreamliner touched down at ATL with Richard Branson onboard this week (Photo: Hartsfield-Jackson)

This week! Uber getting scrappy in Las Vegas – A Virgin 787 lands in Atlanta – Big changes for United flyers who rent cars – United & KLM discount holiday business class….

AIRLINES

Virgin Atlantic in Atlanta. Last Thursday Virgin Atlantic loaded up its newest plane, a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, with two rock bands and Sir Richard Branson for a promotional trip to Atlanta, touching down at Hartsfield-Jackson on Thursday. Virgin’s new daily nonstop service (using an Airbus A330) cranks up this Sunday. The new Virgin flight replaces Delta on one of the latter’s three daily Atlanta-LHR roundtrips. Simultaneously, Delta is taking over one Virgin Atlantic’s two daily LAX-LHR flights. This is just one of several new flights Virgin has planned for Atlanta– Virgin’s Chris Rossi said that within 6-8 months the airline will launch nonstops to Manchester, England and will add a second daily Atlanta-London nonstop.

United/Hertz ink exclusivity deal. Big changes are in store for United’s MileagePlus members who rent cars. On November 1, the loyalty program kicks off an exclusivity agreement with Hertz Corp. and its three brands (Hertz, Dollar, Thrifty), making them the only ones that earn MileagePlus miles. Members will generally earn more miles for Hertz rentals than before — using a per-rental basis rather than the current per-day basis, on a sliding scale ranging from 500 miles for general members up to 1,250 for top-tier elites. (Dollar and Thrifty earning levels are unchanged.) In January, top-level elites will also be able to sign up free for Hertz’s President’s Circle. A United spokeswoman confirmed to TravelSkills that the deal means members won’t be able to earn miles with other rental companies currently listed as MileagePlus partners — Avis, Alamo, Budget, National and Sixt. Does this mean similar deals might be forthcoming from American and Delta with Avis/Budget and Enterprise/National/Alamo?

KLM's new lie-flat business class seat-- on sale for holiday trips (Photo: KLM)

KLM’s new lie-flat business class seat– on sale for holiday trips (Photo: KLM)

Watch for holiday biz class sales. If you don’t mind taking business trips around the holidays (or are looking for a cushy ride home or on vacation), you might score some great deals on premium-cabin fares, since business travel normally drops off then. E.g., United is offering discounted BusinessFirst travel to South America in late December, with roundtrip fares like $2,473 from Chicago to Santiago and $2,944 from Houston to Sao Paulo. KLM has business class sale fares to Europe for travel December 15-January 3 including $1,803 roundtrip from New York to Barcelona and $2,651 from Washington to Amsterdam.

New overseas routes begin. It’s a big weekend for new international routes. Delta on Sunday (October 26) launches a daily Los Angeles-London Heathrow non-stop with a 767-300ER.  Meanwhile, United is launching a pair of new transpacific routes on the same day, including daily San Francisco-Tokyo Haneda 777 flights (in addition to its SFO-Narita flights), and service six times a week between LAX and Melbourne, using a new 787-9 Dreamliner (that one’s 15 hours 45 minutes westbound, about an hour less eastbound).

European court rules on flight delays. Is an aircraft’s arrival time determined by when its wheels touch down or when the door is opened? It makes a difference in Europe, where consumer regulations assign levels of compensation based on how long a passenger has been delayed — up to $800 on transatlantic flights. According to a firm called Flightright, which tracks these matters, the court has ruled that a flight’s arrival time is determined by when the cabin door is opened — not when it lands.

Codeshare, interline pacts announced. American Airlines on October 26 starts code-sharing with Jetstar Japan, putting the AA designator on domestic flights from Tokyo Narita to Fukuoka, Matsuyama, Osaka (Kansai) and Sapporo. Jetstar’s owners include Oneworld carriers Qantas and Japan Airlines. Meanwhile, Alaska Airlines has inked an interline pact with Florida’s Silver Airways, permitting single ticketing for connecting itineraries. Silver serves multiple destinations in Florida and the Bahamas.

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CARS

Uber now in Vegas, maybe

Uber now in Vegas, maybe

Uber in Vegas, baby. At long last, Uber is operating in Las Vegas as of this weekend according to its company blog. That’s great news to Uber addicts who could never believe that the ride sharing company did not operate there. The service got off to a rocky start, however, and its future is now uncertain (at least in the short term) since a federal judge blocked Uber from operating in Nevada just four hours after its launch. Despite the block, an Uber spokesperson told TravelSkills that as of Saturday morning (Oct 25) Uber is operating and its cars are on the road. Currently Uber is the only rideshare service with the will and deep pockets to go up against the powerful and well-connected taxicab industry in the state- Lyft, Sidecar and others are not in the market. Stay tuned… In the meantime, an interesting read about why Vegas is ripe for ridesharing from the Cato Institute.

UPDATE 4:30PM Saturday: Uber is still operating in Las Vegas. The court order applies to rides in Carson City only and Uber expects an apology from the Attorney General according to The Las Vegas Review Journal.

SFO comes to terms with UberX, Lyft. San Francisco flyers who worried about using UberX or Lyft for airport rides that were technically illegal can relax. SFO officials said last week they have forged agreements with both ride-finding companies that will allow their drivers to pick up and drop off riders at airport terminals. The announcement comes a week after the airport inked a similar deal with Sidecar. “Both companies are expected to begin operations at the airport within the next 30 days,” a spokesman said. Terms of the agreements were not disclosed, but they could lead to similar deals at other airports where the companies have been at odds with local officials and taxicab operators.

(Disclosure: If you sign up for Uber via our links, you get a free ride, up to $30,  and so do we. Thanks for your support!)

The tallest Holiday Inn. Photo by architects GKAPC in NYC

The tallest Holiday Inn. Photo by architects GKAPC in NYC

HOTELS

World’s tallest Holiday Inn debuts. A 50-story, 490-room hotel said to be the world’s tallest Holiday Inn was due to open last week in lower Manhattan’s Financial District. Located at the corner of Washington and Rector streets, it has Executive Club Level rooms, many with great city or river views.

Openings in China. Newly opened business hotels in China this month include the Rosewood Beijing, a five-star, 293-room property from Texas-based Rosewood Hotels located in the city’s Chaoyang central business district across from the iconic CCTV Tower; the 386-room Haikou Marriott, in the capital city of southern China’s Hainan Province; and Starwood’s Castle Hotel, a Luxury Collection property in Dalian, in northeast China.

In Case You Missed It…

>Understanding your Tokyo airport options.

>What to expect at American Express’ new SFO Centurion Lounge.

>The Apple iPad Air 2’s SIM card offers carrier flexibility.

>The U.S. is seeing a boom in hotel construction.

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

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In Tokyo: New airport options

Haneda Airport International Terminal New Wing

The new wing at Haneda Airport’s International Terminal (Photo: Jun Seita / Flickr)

Quick — where is Tokyo International Airport? If you haven’t flown into Japan recently, your reflex response might be “Narita,” the airport located well over an hour east of the capital by train or even longer by taxi or shuttle bus.

However, closer-in Haneda (HND) is also known as Tokyo International Airport. This near-city-center airport is getting an increasing amount of attention with a newly expanded international terminal that turns four this month, and a handful of new flights.

For example, United launches a new daily nonstop from SFO to Haneda this Sunday October 26th, using a three-class 777-200ER. On December 1, Japan Airlines will deploy a larger, newly revamped, four-class Sky Suite 777 on the SFO>HND run. And American Airlines is fighting to get in on the Haneda action.

United’s new flight departs SFO at 6:15 pm and arrives at HND 10:45 pm the next day. From Tokyo, the flight departs at 1:00 am and arrives in SFO at 5:10 pm.

On the plus side of the scheduling for US flyers,  return flights from Haneda are a pleasing late night departure (ideal for connecting from elsewhere in Japan or Asia, since Haneda has far more domestic flights than Narita), and tend to arrive at west coast hubs in the late afternoon, in time for a 7-9pm connection– or dinner and bed.

(Note: Starting in Sunday, United will operate once-daily service between SFO and Narita, rather than the twice-daily service currently offered.)

United seat map

Looks like United’s new Haneda flight is popular with business travelers already… only 5 biz class seats left on Sunday’s inaugural flight last time we checked.

Frequent Tokyo traveler and TravelSkills reader Hitoshi Hokamura told us, “I have been flying SFO-Narita for 23 years but after a one-time experience on a Haneda night flight, I have completely switched to HND for both my business and pleasure trips. Haneda is much closer to Tokyo, plus timing is great. For example, with Narita flights, my first day and last day of the trip used to be chopped in two on both ends, but with this night flight to/from Haneda, I have almost a full day on both ends .”

In addition the United’s and JAL flights from SFO, flyers from or connecting in North America also have the option of Haneda flights from:

  • Los Angeles, Honolulu and Vancouver on ANA
  • Honolulu on JAL
  • Los Angeles (and seasonally Seattle, but more about that below) on Delta
  • Toronto on Air Canada
  • Honolulu on Hawaiian

Are you in the market for a new credit card? Looking for a fat points or mileage bonus to sweeten your balance? Then check out our BEST CREDIT CARDS FOR BUSINESS TRAVELERS and scoop up the deals!

So why aren’t we all flying to Haneda? Well, the authorities granting slots for Haneda have been slow to let non-Japanese carriers in — and when airlines like Delta and American have been granted slots, they’re forced to depart and arrive during inconvenient overnight hours. (Haneda is the second busiest airport in Asia and the fourth busiest in the world.)

That type of restriction on US carriers makes Haneda flights only effective for flights to and from the west coast. That’s why American cut its New York JFK-Haneda flight last October, and that’s why Delta shifted its Detroit-Haneda flight to Seattle.

More controversially, timing is also allegedly part of the reason why Delta’s flight is operating on what’s basically a seasonal basis. For its part, American doesn’t think Delta’s playing fair, and has asked the US DOT to hand over Delta’s slot for Los Angeles service — so we could see an American Airlines flight shifting from Narita to Haneda if the DOT agrees.

Haneda vs Narita: Which is best for you?

Choose Haneda for: Evening west coast US departures, evening US west coast arrivals/connections, late night Japan departures, if your destination is Tokyo, or if you’re connecting late in the day on a return from another city

Choose Narita for: More flight options, non stops from non-West-Coast cities, same-day connections to major Japanese cities, if you want to connect on a US airline elsewhere in Asia for upgrade or status reasons, wider choice of connections to Asia.

Related: Trip Report: ANA’s Dreamliner to Tokyo

map

Good Advice for getting to or from Haneda:

Keikyu, the primary railway company for access from Haneda, is probably the best way to get to or from Haneda for most business travelers, and offers three options: $10 on a fast, clean train to Shinagawa station in 12 minutes for Y410 (knock off two zeroes to convert approximately to USD, so about $4) or Tokyo station in 20-30 minutes for Y580). Compare that with over $30 on the NEX train from Narita or $25 on the more complicated Keisei option.

Second, Keikyu and other companies offer limousine buses that are direct with no transfers, take about an hour and range from $10-25 depending on your destination. That’s less than half the time and about half the cost of Narita limousine buses.

Third, there’s a set-fare taxi option that will set you back the best part of $85, but is obviously door-to-door to or from your hotel. That’s less than a third the price of a taxi from Narita, which is in excess of $200.

And, lastly, there’s the Tokyo Monorail, which is a bit of an advanced user option that connects to four lines including Tokyo’s circular Yamanote Line. If you’re familiar with Tokyo and know how the Suica card system works (it’s a tap-the-card payment system that works across Tokyo and several other cities in Japan for everything from transport to vending machines), then this is probably the best option for you.

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

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Searching for Centurion lounge?

A look at the main "dining room" area with the bar and hot/cold buffet in background (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

A look at the main “dining room” area with the bar and hot/cold buffet in background (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

What is the most frequently searched term that leads people to TravelSkills.com? According to our stats, it’s “Centurion Lounge SFO.” 

American Express has done a masterful job keeping a lid on the goings on on the mezzanine level of  San Francisco International’s Terminal 3. All that will change in early November when the lounge opens.

Since it’s clear that inquiring minds want to know, here are some photos from my recent visit to the Centurion Lounge at Las Vegas McCarran. Based on what I’ve been able to see, and what I’ve heard from airport insiders, the SFO lounge is going to be very similar to this one. So consider this a sneak-peek! (SFO will be the fourth Centurion Lounge… others are at New York La Guardia and Dallas. There’s apparently one in the works for Miami.)

And before we get started with photos, here’s a link that explains who gets in. (Free for Amex Platinum and Centurion card holders. $50 fee for anyone else with any type of Amex Card.) See the screen grab at the bottom of this post for more details.

Don’t miss: Is this the most epic airline safety video ever? 

Centurion SFO

A big blue door with a garden wall behind it is likely at SFO– you’ll see this from Gates 74 & 75, and upon entering, take a glass elevator up to the lounge (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Centurion SFO

Warm, modern accents sustainable wood paneling, tables and floors (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Related: Raft of new perks for elite flyers

Centurion LAS

A busy, social bar area where cocktails are complimentary (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Centurion LAS

A robust meal offering including both hot and cold items, also complimentary (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Please join the 80,000+ people who read TravelSkills every month! Sign up here for one email-per-day updates!
Centurion LAS

Plenty of space to work, rest or people watch (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Centurion LAS

I was at the LAS Centurion Lounge at lunchtime, and this Mediterranean style beef and lamb pie topped with a lemony yogurt sauce was on offer (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Recent: There are currently 400,000 hotel rooms under construction in the US

Centurion LAS

Do these privacy chairs look familiar? They are the same ones used by Virgin America at its LAX Loft lounge we covered last summer (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Centurion Lounge

 –Chris McGinnis

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

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Cadillacs on the tarmac + 2nd Ebola case in US + Dallas Love Field recap + Virgin hotels splash

This is Part 2 of this week’s Catching up on Travel News with TravelSkills! Here’s Part 1.  (Sorry if you get this email more than once today…we are still getting the hang of our email distribution system)

AIRLINES

American will soon be picking up its best passengers at LAX in Caddies.

American will soon be picking up its best passengers at LAX in Caddies like this one. (Source: GM)

American Airlines teams up with Cadillac. Following the lead of Delta’s partnership with Porsche and United’s with Mercedes-Benz, American Airlines is teaming up with Cadillac to provide rides across the tarmac to connecting flights — starting at Los Angeles International — for ConciergeKey members with tight transfer times. AA said it will expand the service next to Dallas/Ft. Worth and New York’s LaGuardia and JFK, using Cadillac CTS, SRX or Escalade models. Also, as part of the promo AAdvantage members can earn 7,500 miles for test-driving a new Cadillac.

Breaking news: A health care worker in Dallas has contracted Ebola according to health officials there. If confirmed by CDC, this would be the first case of Ebola transmitted in the US. Hmm. I’m wondering how many TravelSkills readers (including yours truly) might want to change their answer to our recent Ebola fear poll from “not fearful” to “somewhat fearful” after hearing this news. One thing you can count on: Increased Ebola screening at airports that could cause long lines.

How fearful are you of the possibility of contracting ebola?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

(click on the vote button or the clear looking button to cast your vote)

Love Field route recap. October 13 marks the end of the Wright Amendment at Dallas Love Field, and here’s a reminder of what’s happening there route-wise.

  • Virgin America, which moves operations from DFW to DAL, will have three daily flights starting Monday, October 13 from DAL to SFO, LAX and DCA, adding four daily DAL-LGA roundtrips October 28. (Still no word on when it will add flights to Chicago.)
  • Southwest on Monday starts five daily roundtrips between DAL and Chicago Midway; three each to LAX, Baltimore, Denver, Las Vegas and Washington National; and two to Orlando.
  • On November 2, Southwest adds one more daily frequency to Midway, Las Vegas, LAX and Orlando, and boosts DAL-DCA to six a day. Also on November 2, Southwest begins service from DAL to Atlanta (4x/day), LGA (3x), PHX (4x), Ft Lauderdale (2x), Nashville (2x), San Diego (2x), Orange County (1x) and Tampa (2x).

All-you-can-fly airline comes to OAK. California’s Surf Air, which charges a flat fee starting at $1,750 a month for unlimited flights in its Pilatus turboprops, is expanding to two more airports — Carlsbad’s McClellan-Palomar (CRQ) north of San Diego on November 18 and Oakland (OAK) on December 15, with flights to Hawthorne, Santa Barbara and other locations. “Both markets were added based on the high current and potential member demand–with more than 100 deposits already placed for membership in these regions and relatively limited service by other carriers to either market,” Surf Air said.

Love your United FA, then say so via the carrier's website (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Love your United FA, then say so via the carrier’s website (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Thank your flight attendants. Members of the flight crew seem to be regularly bashed by frequent fliers more times than they are appreciated. Here is a way you can quickly send your message praising a flight attendant who served you well on a recent flight via United’s web site. Although this topic is primarily for passengers of United Airlines, other airlines are discussed in this MilePoint string as well. Have you thanked a flight attendant lately?

HOTELS

The brand new Conrad Seoul hotel is on the south side of the Han River which bisects the city (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

The brand new Conrad Seoul hotel is on the south side of the Han River which bisects the city (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

TravelSkills editor Chris McGinnis just returned from a business trip to Seoul, South Korea with a big batch of great pics and news about this burgeoning, modern, high-tech (and quirky) Asian city. Stay tuned for a few fun trip reports and another in our series of new hotel updates. Have you been to Seoul recently? What did you think? Please leave comments below or email Chris. 

The first Virgin Hotel will be located in this Chicago building.

The first Virgin Hotel will be located in this Chicago building. (Virgin Hotels)

First Virgin Hotel opening soon. Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group has been working for years on a hotel subsidiary, and its first property — in downtown Chicago — is set to open January 15. The 250-room property (including 42 suites) is in the Old Dearborn Bank Building at 203 N. Wabash. Rooms start at $209 and bookings are open now through a new website at http://virginhotels.com.

In Case You Missed It…

>Looks like a major renovation is in store for New York’s iconic Waldorf-Astoria following its sale by Hilton to a Chinese insurance company for nearly $2 billion.

>Airline lounge memberships: Why they’re not for everyone.

>Try these tips for catching some Zs in your hotel room.

>Eight essential tips for business trips to San Francisco.

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

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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Would you rather get TravelSkills Weekly instead of Daily? No probs! click here to sign up for TravelSkills Weekly. 

Are you in the market for a new credit card? Looking for a fat points or mileage bonus to sweeten your balance? Then check out our BEST CREDIT CARDS FOR BUSINESS TRAVELERS and scoop up the deals!

Please join the 80,000+ people who read TravelSkills every month! Sign up here for one email-per-day updates!

 


Delta raises bar for Medallions + More LAX flights + Ebola poll results + Delta back in Love

This is part one of this weekend’s Catching Up on Travel News (part 2 comes tomorrow)

AIRLINES

Delta keeps making moves to improve the ride for it's customers with deepest pockets.

Delta keeps making moves to improve the ride for it’s customers with deepest pockets. (Photo: Jim Glab)

Delta tightens SkyMiles rules — again. Will United? In the latest tweak to its ever-changing SkyMiles program, Delta is increasing by 20 percent the minimum spend required during 2015 to achieve 2016 Medallion status — e.g., Medallion Qualifying Dollar requirements go from $2,500 to $3,000 for Silver status and so on, up to $15,000 for Diamond from the current $12,500. Delta says it is upping the ante to increase exclusivity of higher status– much like it’s done with more restrictions on guests allowed in Sky Clubs to control crowding. And keep an eye on United, which in keeping with it’s WWDD (What Would Delta Do) policy of mimicking every Delta move, could impose similar higher spending requirements. Is it working to make the experience more exclusive? We frequently hear from both sides of this issue, so please leave your comments below.

Another Delta squeeze. In another change, Delta will downgrade its Basic Economy fares (E fares). Effective February 15, passengers on those low-cost fares (typically on fares where the carrier competes with the likes of Spirit or Frontier) will not be able to get free Medallion upgrades, paid upgrades or advance seat selection; no refunds, changes or same-day standbys are allowed; and Preferred and Economy Comfort seats are off-limits.

Delta gets more time at DAL. Instead of being forced out of Dallas Love Field on October 13 as reported earlier, Delta will now get a reprieve at least until January 6 to keep operating its five daily DAL-ATL flights. What changed? Southwest Airlines — which controls 16 of DAL’s 20 gates — agreed to let Delta use one of them for a few months, and United anted up ticket counter space as well. Delta has been subleasing two gates from American Airlines, but those will be transferred to Virgin America this week.

An American Airlines B737-800 will soon fly ATL-LAX (Photo: BriYYZ / Flickr)

An American Airlines B737-800 will soon fly ATL-LAX (Photo: BriYYZ / Flickr)

American adds another key ATL route. A week ago, American revealed plans to revive LaGuardia-Atlanta service on January 6. And now AA announced another stab at the heart of Delta’s network: It will begin three flights a day between Atlanta and its Los Angeles International hub on March 5, and is already taking reservations. LAX-ATL will be a mainline AA route, operated with 737-800s. So for those of you who say you are ready to dump Delta for a carrier that (so far) has not made the move toward revenue-based frequent flyer rewards, you now have more options.

Ebola fears in check. Based on our recent Ebola Fear Poll and post, it sounds like frequent travelers are not too alarmed about the possibility of contracting Ebola. With nearly 500 votes from TravelSkills readers in so far, 68% say that they are not fearful about Ebola, 22% say they are somewhat fearful and just 10% say that they are very fearful. Have you participated in the poll? In case you missed it, here’s one of the most viral travel videos this week showing hazmat crews entering a plane where a passenger joked about having ebola. VIDEO

How fearful are you of the possibility of contracting ebola?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

(click on the vote button or the clear looking button to cast your vote)

wipesSpeaking of germs, we got a kick out of this email from TravelSkills reader MM about a recent flight where she was seated next to one of the 10% who are very fearful of Ebola: Dear Chris: I had to share an inflight experience I had tonight traveling from DFW to the ATL.  So I am seated on a three seat row, when a passenger seated beside me (I was stuck in the middle seat) gets to her aisle seat to settle in. I said a quick hello and continued looking at my phone.  She then began to pluck what I appeared to be antibacterial wipes from a container…they were ALCOHOL wipes—big ones!!  She proceeded to stand up and wipe down her entire seat…every inch…seat belt included..straps too.  Then she wiped down her tray table, light and ac controls, arm rests…the whole kit-kat and caboodle!  By this time, I am having flashbacks to having my ears pierced in seventh grade at Rich’s department store where they doused you in alcohol.  Then she neatly sat down.  There were so many fumes that I felt like I needed the pull down the oxygen mask before take off!  This is what happens when the fear of germs affects the quality of flight I thought to myself. Then I smiled and thought…I couldn’t wait to email TravelSkills about this!  I am anti-germy myself but keep my hand sanitizer neatly tucked away.  This woman was ready to do battle with bacteria!  Oh, the stories that will emerge from all this…”

HOTELS

Marriott's new wireless charger

Marriott’s new Kube wireless charger

Marriott tries a new tech amenity. if you see an odd black box in a Marriott lobby, don’t hesitate to put your phone on it — that’s what it’s for. Marriott installed Kube Systems wireless charging stations in the lobbies of 29 hotels, acting on a suggestion from customers at its idea website, www.TravelBrilliantly.com. Besides the wireless charging surface, the boxes have built-in connectors to power up to six devices.

In Case You Missed It…

>Looks like a major renovation is in store for New York’s iconic Waldorf-Astoria following its sale by Hilton to a Chinese insurance company for nearly $2 billion.

>Airline lounge memberships: Why they’re not for everyone.

>Try these tips for catching some Zs in your hotel room.

>Eight essential tips for business trips to San Francisco.

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

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! 

facebook like

Would you rather get TravelSkills Weekly instead of Daily? No probs! click here to sign up for TravelSkills Weekly. 

Are you in the market for a new credit card? Looking for a fat points or mileage bonus to sweeten your balance? Then check out our BEST CREDIT CARDS FOR BUSINESS TRAVELERS and scoop up the deals!

Please join the 80,000+ people who read TravelSkills every month! Sign up here for one email-per-day updates!

 


Don’t make these 8 mistakes in San Francisco

Now that's an unusual approach to SFO, right? (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Now that’s an unusual approach to SFO, right? (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Nearly every frequent traveler visits San Francisco at least one time each year. And it’s most likely that visit will take place between September and December, the city’s peak convention season.

That’s especially true if you are in the tech or related fields. For example, San Francisco-based cloud computing giant Salesforce.com puts on its annual Dreamforce conference in October or November at the city’s sprawling Moscone Convention Center, attracting 60,000+ people, and this year it’s bringing in the likes of Hillary Clinton and Bruno Mars. Oracle OpenWorld and it’s 60,000 techies just left town last week.

When a big “citywide” like that comes to town, nearly every hotel in the Bay Area is sold out, or its rates are hyper-inflated. During these peak weeks,  you’ll pay a minimum of about $500 for an decent room and feel lucky that you even found one. When citywides come into town, Airbnb hosts lick their chops and fluff their pillows. Restaurant reservations become scant. And Uber drivers kiss their families goodbye and work double shifts for several days in a row.

So now’s probably a great time to offer some advice to the arriving throngs—and this advice is good whether you are coming San Francisco next week or next year. (If you are in SF, please forward this to your future guests!)

1>Don’t schedule business meetings on Friday afternoons after 2 p.m. On Fridays, when New York closes for the weekend at 5 pm eastern, so does much of San Francisco (at 2 pm Pacific) especially when it’s warm and sunny outside. Cocktail and beer carts start making the rounds in offices at about 3 p.m. While there are exceptions to this rule, your Bay Area colleagues are likely to groan if you send out a calendar invite for a 4 p.m. meeting on Friday. Make it at 11 a.m. instead.

San Francisco's a town that gets started early...even when it's foggy out (Photo: Frank Schulenburg / Flickr)

San Francisco’s a town that gets started early…even when it’s foggy out (Photo: Frank Schulenburg / Flickr)

2>Don’t be surprised about an early start. In a similar vein, know that the workday starts relatively early here, so an 8:30 a.m. meeting is not considered out of order. If that feels too early for you, just bring along some caffeine from Blue Bottle, Ritual or Philz and you’ll be fine. Lunch hour begins promptly at noon, but you find that locals may ask you to show up at 11:45 a.m. “to beat the crowds.” Expect the same early schedule for dinner meetings, which can and do start as early at 6 p.m. Most restaurants are empty by 9:30 on weekdays and by 10:30 p.m. on weekends.

3>Don’t always rely on taxicabs. This is Uber’s hometown, so download the app and use it if you haven’t already done so and enjoy all the different “flavors” of Uber available in the Bay Area, which include the standard town car UberBLACK, private car “citizen driver” UberX (cheaper than taxis), UberSUV, UberXL, and the new UberPOOL where you share a ride with someone else headed in the same direction. Cabs are fine when available, but the industry has been decimated by the likes of Uber and Lyft and their business is down by 65%. Don’t rent a car at the airport unless it’s absolutely essential. SFO rental rates are notoriously high, the car rental center at is distant and unloved, and downtown hotel parking rates are in the $60 per night range. If you’ve not signed up for Uber yet, do so here and get $20 off your first ride.  In addition to your discount, TravelSkills gets a $20 Uber discount when you sign up, so help us out :) 

4>Don’t put off making dinner reservations. This town is HOT and wealthy right now, full of cool kids and visitors with sophisticated palates who love to dine out. If you are here to try the city’s best restaurants, make reservations at least two or three weeks in advance…or more for top spots like Boulevard, Frances, State Bird Provisions, Gary Danko, and others.  One common mistake among visitors is thinking that the city’s best Chinese food is in Chinatown. Not necessarily. Grab an Uber or jump on Muni and head out to the western neighborhoods like the Sunset or Inner Richmond which stake claim to the real thing.

MUNI, pictured here, and BART are not the same thing. (Photo Torbakhopper / Flickr)

MUNI, pictured here, and BART are not the same thing. (Photo Torbakhopper / Flickr)

5>Don’t confuse subways. You should know that San Francisco has TWO main subway systems—BART is the rapid rail regional system with several stations along Market Street connecting out to the suburbs and airport. MUNI is the slower central city subway & streetcar system used frequently (and frequently derided) by inner city residents. Of course, there are San Francisco’s fabled cable cars, but those are mostly a tourist attraction and rarely a primary means of transport for locals.

6>Don’t think BART to airport is going to save much time. BART is a great option for those who travel light, but you should know that takes 30-40 minutes to get to the Embarcadero from SFO (for $8.65 each way). If there’s no traffic, a taxi or Uber can get you to or from the airport in about 20 minutes. UberBLACK flat rates are $65. UberX can be about half that. And cabs run about $50 including tip.

7>Consider hills when walking. First timers with hotels on Nob Hill may look at a map and think, “Oh, I’ll just walk to my hotel from Market Street. It’s close.” Well, yes, it’s close as the bird flies, but try lugging your rollaboard up the side of the hill to the Ritz-Carlton, Fairmont, Scarlet Huntington or Mark Hopkins and you’ll learn quickly that this may not be the smartest option. Especially if you are wearing heels!

8>Don’t forget your layers. While the rest of the country is experiencing an autumnal cool-off right now, SF is experiencing its typical October heat wave, so that new black sweater or suit won’t work when it’s 85 in the city during the day. But of course, it could be perfect in a matter of hours when the fog, a storm or cold front blow in off the Pacific. (By the way, wear black here. It always works.)

Finally, never call San Francisco “Frisco” or “San Fran.” Laid back locals won’t say anything, but inside, you can bet they are groaning. To be safe, just call it “The City” or San Francisco.

I’m sure our many Bay Area readers can add to this list, so please fire away in the comments section below and help your fellow frequent traveler headed west!

–Chris McGinnis

.

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Big day in big D + New carrier for ATL? + New LAX lounge + NYC grand dame facelift

Will Turkish Airlines land in Atlanta any time soon? (Photo: Turkish Airlines)

Will Turkish Airlines land in Atlanta any time soon? (Photo: Turkish Airlines)

AIRLINES

Big day approaches in Big D. In two weeks — on October 13 — the Wright Amendment expires, opening up Dallas’ close-in Love Field to a new era of long-haul domestic routes, and the major players are getting ready. Virgin America teamed up with ride-finding service Uber and with HotelTonight to offer discounts and digital promotions at a special website, www.ShareTheLoveDallas.com. Southwest has scheduled a series of concerts and a golf tournament, and will give away prizes in-flight to passengers during the first week of service. Southwest set up a website detailing its new DAL routes at www.nonstoplove.com.

Turkish Airlines eyes ATL service. In an interview with Bloomberg News, Turkish Airlines CEO Temel Kotil said the fast-growing carrier plans to start flying from Istanbul to Atlanta, although he gave no date for the service. The airline already announced it will begin San Francisco flights next April. Kotil said the carrier also plans to add more frequencies to Chicago, Washington Dulles and LAX. Turkish is part of the Star Alliance, and its other U.S. routes include New York, Boston and Houston. Turkish giving the fast growing Gulf carriers like Emirates or Etihad a run for their money competing for passengers headed to the Middle East, India and Africa. A new carrier in ATL might help the airport retain its title as “world’s busiest,” which this NPR story says might be in jeopardy.

Air France strike ends. According to AP, the painful Air France strike has ended.  Meanwhile, Lufthansa braces for it’s own pilots to strike by canceling a raft of transatlantic flights.

Big smiles at Delta. If  you notice that your Delta flight attendants or gate agents have a bit more spring in their step in coming months, it could be because Delta is giving all employees a nice 5% profit-sharing payout for 2014 and has promised a 3-4% payout next year. Forbes reports: Delta will report record profitability in 2014, while its stock is a top twenty S&P 500 performer and its operational reliability and customer satisfaction are at the top of the industry.” In similar news, United Airlines announced Monday that it will offer its thousands of flight attendants an early and voluntary buyout option, a lump-sum payout worth up to $100,000. Time reports that United would not disclose the criteria needed to earn the maximum buyout but is hoping at least 2,100 employees take advantage of the offer. 

Frontier Airlines is expanding from its Denver stomping grounds with new nonstops in SFO & PHX.  (

Frontier Airlines is expanding from its Denver stomping grounds with new nonstops in SFO & PHX. (Phot0: Jim Glab)

Frontier grows at SFO, PHX. Frontier Airlines — whose strategy as a new ultra-low-cost carrier (along the lines of Spirit Air) is to nibble at the edges of major business markets — plans to start flying from San Francisco International to Houston Bush Intercontinental and Phoenix November 20. Technically, the service will break up United’s SFO-IAH monopoly and could impact its high fares, but it’s hardly a big threat since Frontier plans one flight a day vs. United’s 10 — and since Frontier levies some heavy fees, like a carry-on bag charge for low-fare passengers. SFO-Phoenix is dominated by Southwest and American/US Airways, with dozens of daily flights vs. Frontier’s planned single departure. Also on November 20, Frontier will add once-a-day flights between PHX-Houston and PHX-Salt Lake City.

People Express suspends service. After a big kick off last summer, Virginia-based People Express is already hitting hard times. According to the Atlanta Business Chronicle, the carrier suspended service suddenly last week. But it said that it might crank up again by Oct 16 according to a press release. Hmm.

Cost of a disrupted trip: $1,475. The most common “travel mishap,” according to a new survey of 500 business travelers, is a flight disrupted by a delay, cancellation or missed connection (like those entangled in the Chicago air traffic shutdown on Friday) — and the average cost to the traveler caught up in the problem is $1,475 in missed work and out-of-pocket expenses, according to the Global Business Travel Association. If the mishap occurs overseas, the average cost jumps to $2,148. When a mishap causes the traveler to miss work, the average time lost is 2.3 days. What was your worst ‘travel mishap’ and how did it impact your schedule?

Plan now: How to get a free trip home for the holidays

AA plans DFW-Beijing flights. American Airlines wants to add Beijing as the newest transpacific spoke from its Dallas/Ft. Worth hub. The carrier last week filed for government approval to begin daily 777-200ER flights from DFW to Beijing’s Capital International Airport sometime next summer. AA already flies from DFW to Hong Kong, Seoul, Shanghai and Tokyo, and it serves Beijing from Chicago O’Hare.

JetBlueFlyFilogoWi-Fi progress at JetBlue, Virgin Atlantic. JetBlue has only installed its super-speed Fly-Fi Internet service on 70 planes thus far — and is adding a dozen aircraft a month — but it said more than a million devices have already connected to the free Ka-band satellite service. “On JetBlue we see 40 percent of customers logged on, while other airlines get single-digits only,” a JetBlue official said. Fly-Fi claims data speeds of 12 to 20 Mbps …. Wi-Fi provider Gogo said Virgin Atlantic has signed on to become the first European carrier to install its satellite-based 2Ku Wi-Fi service fleetwide, offering “unprecedented bandwidth.”

Lower fares at ATL thanks to Spirit. Ultra low-fare carrier Spirit Air’s entry into the Atlanta-Detroit market has resulted in lower fares on not just Spirit, but on Delta and Southwest, which had significantly jacked up fares over the last two years, according to the Detroit Free Press. In related news, when United announced a big downsizing of its Cleveland operation several months back, Frontier started beefing up its presence there, and now Spirit Airlines is doing the same. Spirit will begin new CLE service in mid-January to Orlando, Tampa and Ft. Myers; on February 5 to Ft. Lauderdale, DFW and Las Vegas; and April 16 to Los Angeles and Myrtle Beach.

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AIRPORTS

Southwest's expansion at Denver

Southwest’s expansion at Denver International’s Terminal C (Photo DIA)

Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at LAX. In airport news this week, Virgin Atlantic will build its own Clubhouse for Upper Class passengers at Los Angeles International. No details yet, but it will occupy 4,000 square feet and open next spring. Currently, the airline’s premium flyers use Virgin America’s and Air New Zealand’s LAX lounges …Los Angeles International has installed 40 of those new automated passport control kiosks for arriving passengers in the Tom Bradley International Terminal, and Delta opened up 10 of the devices in Terminal 5 .

Uber, Lyft, Sidecar back in hot water. Ride sharing companies are facing a new round of legal threats from city officials in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Seems like a never ending story… and thankfully, Uber and others seem to just ignore the threats and continue hauling business travelers around town and to the airport. In a related note, Uber has reportedly reinstated it’s flat $65 fare between San Francisco and SFO. TravelSkills riders in Pacific Heights had complained loudly about airport trips costing $95 or more… apparently Uber heard the squawks and fares are back down. Have you noticed? 

Southwest grows at DEN.Denver International cut the ribbon on a five-gate expansion of Terminal C, allowing Southwest Airlines to expand…pushing Frontier into other cities and keeping United on its toes.

Free wi-fi at Houston airports. Houston started rolling out free Wi-Fi at its airports; it’s now available in all terminal areas at Hobby, and in Terminals A and D at Bush Intercontinental; it should be in all IAH spaces by year’s end …

Speeding up at Ft Lauderdale Flight delays at Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International should ease up considerably following the opening last week of a new 8,000-foot runway there.

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HOTELS

The grand old InterConti is going dark for an extensive (and much needed) 18-month facelift.

Manhattan’s  grand old Barclay InterContinental is going dark for an extensive (and much needed) 18-month facelift. (Photo: IHG)

NYC property closes; new Ritz-Carlton in Florida. The InterContinental New York Barclay Hotel in Midtown Manhattan has closed its doors for a much needed,  18-month, $175 million renovation. (The Barclay is located alongside another NYC grand dame that needs the same type of loving restoration…which hotel are wer referring to?? Leave your guesses and comments below!) In other hotel news: Florida’s One Bal Harbour Resort north of Miami Beach will become The Ritz-Carlton Bal Harbour, Miami effective October 2 … A former Sheraton a mile from Washington’s Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va., is now the Westin Crystal City.

In Case You Missed It…

>Here’s how to save money on overseas mobile roaming.

>The latest on the great in-flight voice calling debate. (Check out your comments! They’re great. Thanks!)

>Try these tips for making free or low-cost calls from overseas.

–Jim Glab & Chris McGinnis


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Taxi usage down 65% + Newark, LAX upgrades + Plush transfers at DEN + TSA wait times decline

United's upgraded terminal at Newark could soon look a lot like this one-- which is Delta's a La Guardia. (Photo: OTG)

United’s upgraded terminal at Newark could soon look a lot like this one–> Delta’s Terminals C&D  at La Guardia. (Photo: OTG)

Terminal renovations at Newark. United Airlines is teaming up with OTG Management for a $120 million overhaul of Newark Liberty’s Terminal C over the next 18 months. UA’s hub terminal will get 55 new dining venues, and passengers will have free access to thousands of iPads “to track their flight, order from chef-created menus, and purchase travel amenities for delivery directly to their seat in the terminal while browsing the Internet,” United said. (This set up should sound very similar to Delta flyers who use New York La Guardia airport frequently– it’s the exact same concept.)

LAX upgrade. Meanwhile, LAX officials last week marked the groundbreaking for a $508 million makeover of Southwest’s Terminal 1 at that airport. It will get a new 12-lane security checkpoint, automated checked bag system, new and expanded dining and retail concessions; and relocation of the terminal entrances to the west end of the building.

Air France Update: Over the weekend, Air France pilots extended their crippling strike until Sept 26. The French carrier is flying about 40% of its flights.

SF Taxi biz down a whopping 65% (Photo: Athan / Flickr)

SF Taxi biz down a whopping 65% (Photo: Athan / Flickr)

Taxi usage in SF down 65%! Ride-finding apps like Uber and Lyft have become so popular in tech-savvy San Francisco (where Uber launched in 2009)  that the city’s traditional taxi business is in a downward spiral. A new report presented to city transportation officials said that the number of taxi trips in San Francisco has plummeted by 65 percent over the past 15 months. Have you switch away from cabs in favor of Uber, Lyft or other services in SF or elsewhere? Please leave your comments below. For me, I’m currently stuck in Las Vegas, a surprisingly non-Uber city, and feel lost without it! (Want $30 off your first Uber ride? Click here!)

Mercedes tarmac transfers at DEN. United’s best customers (Global First flyers and Global Services members) now have the opportunity for Mercedes-Benz SUV tarmac transfers to their connecting flights at Denver International. The service is already available at Chicago, Houston, Newark, San Francisco, LA and Dulles. (Something else that should be familiar to Delta’s ultra-elites who get tarmac transfers in Porsches.)

Runway closure at ATL. The northernmost runway at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson closed down last week for paving work that will continue through October 15. Four runways remain open, and because September and October are slow traffic months, “the runway closure is not expected to significantly affect flight traffic,” a spokesman said. However, TravelSkills reader RD begs to differ: On Sunday morning he wrote: “Just landed this morning at ATL and this is already creating a mess for arrivals. It added about 10 minutes to our taxi time.”

Inside the first class section of a United E175 (Embraer)

Inside the first class section of a United E175 (Embraer)

United adds more 76-seat jets. United Airlines is broadening its commitment to the Embraer 175 by ordering another 50 of the two-class, 76-seat aircraft for United Express, to be operated by a subsidiary of Republic Airways Holdings. The carrier is already taking delivery of its first batch of 70 E175s; the next 50 will come online from 2015 through 2017. The aircraft offer first class, Economy Plus and regular economy seats. Next year, United Express will start to remove 31 Q400 turboprops from its fleet. Last week, United Express started deploying the E175 at San Francisco, on the SFO-St Louis route; on October 26, it will put the planes on SFO-Austin, Dallas and Minneapolis flights.

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WestJet, Air Canada add bag fees. Canadian carrier WestJet, which flies to a number of U.S. cities and has code-sharing pacts with Delta and American, is ending its “first checked bag free” policy for passengers who buy its bottom-tier Econo fares. The new $25 fee for the first checked bag is effective for travel starting October 29. The carrier also launched a new WestJet Rewards tier program with three levels — teal, silver and gold — starting October 29; it’s based on spending rather than miles flown. In response, Air Canada — which already has a first-bag fee on transborder flights — said it would impose a similar $25 bag fee starting November 2 on domestic passengers traveling on its economy class Tango fares.

Routes: DL grows in Texas; Frontier comes to ORD. Delta Connection/Compass Airlines will begin four daily LAX-DFW flights on November 3; add a third daily LAX-Austin roundtrip November 2; and start twice-daily LAX-San Antonio flights April 7, 2015 … Frontier Airlines started flying out of Chicago O’Hare last week, with six flights a week to Washington Dulles.

So, what do you think of Spirit Airlines flamboyant new livery? Comments below, please! (Photo: Spirit)

So, what do you think of Spirit Airlines flamboyant new livery? Comments below, please! (Photo: Spirit)

AIRPORTS

TSA: Line times are down. The TSA says it is meeting its goal of getting all travelers through security after a wait of less than 20 minutes. From June through August of this year, the agency said, 99.6 percent of all travelers waited in security lines less than 20 minutes — and 99.98 percent of those in the expedited PreCheck lanes “moved through the checkpoint in less than 10 minutes.” And that’s with a total of 173 million persons screened during those summer months. Do TSA’s numbers about waiting times sound right to you, based on your experience?

SFO encourages networking, brainstorming. The newest public facility at San Francisco International is oddly called “#Converge@flySFO” — an 850-square-foot space in the International Terminal, boarding area G, on Level 3 near Gate G93. Equipped with tables, chairs, power outlets, Wi-Fi and a wall-sized white board with markers, “the space is designed to allow travelers to meet and exchange thoughts on technology, shared economies, and ideas that could make the world a better place,” a spokesman said. Persons who want to use it should post their topic, date and time via social media channels using the hashtag #Converge, and tagging @flySFO so the airport can repost it.

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HOTELS

Marriott wants maids tipped. In thousands of Marriott hotel rooms across the group’s various brands, guests will soon start seeing envelopes encouraging them to tip their maid. Housekeeping workers reportedly receive tips less often than other hotel staff, and the company wants to make sure they’re not forgotten. It suggests $1 to $5 a night, depending on the room rate. We’d love to hear you sound off about hotel tipping and Marriott’s moves. Please leave your comments below.

In Case You Missed It…

>Nostalgia buffs can have dinner in a Pan Am 747.

>New airport concept: Park for free, rent your car while you’re away.

>Here’s a credit card for travelers with big bonuses and easy redemptions.

>Here’s how to find widebodies on domestic routes

–Jim Glab & Chris McGinnis

CLICK>>Take a scroll thru what you may have missed on TravelSkills.com this week! <CLICK

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How to find roomy domestic widebody flights

Economy class on a United 767 (Photo: United)

Check out all that space in economy class on a big, wide United 767 (Photo: United)

Are the golden days of flying domestically on spacious widebody, twin-aisle aircraft gone? Not necessarily, if you know where to look.

All four major US international airlines — American, Delta, United and US Airways — still operate a handful domestic widebody flights.  These big birds are either providing a lot of seats on high-demand routes, positioning planes from hub to hub, offering premium products on valuable flights, or adding temporary capacity for special events. Sometimes widebodies are deployed for short periods of time, like Air Canada’s positioning of a Boeing 767-300ER on SFO-Toronto for four months this winter. Hawaiian Airlines flies only widebodies from the mainland to Hawaii.

Whatever the reason, it’s a bonus for passengers, since widebodies tend to give you more room (or at least the perception of more room) than single-aisle narrowbodies, no matter where you’re sitting in the plane. And internationally-equipped widebodies often offer more robust on-demand entertainment, power outlets, USB sockets, bigger bins and other bells and whistles.

Delta's domestic first class section on a 767-300 (Photo: Delta)

Delta’s domestic first class section on a non-Business Elite 767-300 (Photo: Delta)

Up front on a widebody, you could find a fully flat bed seat à la international business class to stretch out — usually for no extra fee over domestic first.  But not all domestic widebodies offer big new seats up front… notably, US Airways’ 767-200s have older cradle-style sleeper seats, and Delta’s domestic 767-300, coded as 763s, have standard domestic first class seats (see photo).

But how do you find them? Savvy travelers know where they are, but the airlines don’t make it easy when hunting for a flight.

One good tool for finding widebody flights is Routehappy, the half flight search, half data source startup that matches aircraft types to flights and scores them by comfort and amenities. (Disclaimer: an author of this post used to work there.)

We asked Routehappy to show us all the widebody planes jetting around the US on a given day: October 1st, in this case. Here’s what they found. Note that the big birds are on not on every flight, every day– just a chosen few. Also, there are no consistent trends showing that airlines price widebody flights higher than narrowbody flights.

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American Airlines

AA’s domestic widebodies are almost exclusively hub-to-hub.

You’ll find DFW-LAX and Miami-SFO flights using a 767-300ER.

LAX-Miami has a variety of 767-300ERs and 777-200s.

And passengers on Miami-Orlando get a nice, wide 767-300ER for the one-hour ride across the Everglades.

Delta Air Lines

Delta's 767's flying between LAX and JFK sport Business Elite seats up front. (Photo: Delta)

Delta’s 767’s flying between LAX and JFK sport Business Elite seats up front. (Photo: Delta)

(Note: Delta recently stopped allowing Routehappy to display its inventory on the site, which is too bad. But we’ve located a few here anyway…)

Delta is the sole remaining airline to fly 767 widebodies (76w) on its transcontinental flights between New York and LAX and upfront on that route you’ll find its Business Elite seats. There’s also a 767 between JFK and Detroit with Business Elite up front.

You’ll also find Delta 767s (with domestic first class) on flights between Atlanta and Las Vegas, LAX, Orlando, Portland, San Diego, Seattle, SFO, Salt Lake City and Tampa. Atlanta to LAX passengers can also hop on the ultra-long-haul 777-200LR, which positions to LA from its ATL home for the Sydney flight.

Related: American Airlines’ brand new A321 Transcon Trip Report

Hawaiian Airlines unusual  front-of-the-plane setup has first and premium economy in the same cabin (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Hawaiian Airlines unusual front-of-the-plane setup on its A330s has first and premium economy in the same cabin (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Hawaiian Airlines

Hawaiian Air flies both Airbus A330 and Boeing 767s between the mainland and Hawaii– a standout as several carriers are now sending their single aisle planes down to the islands. Hawaiian’s A330s offer domestic style recliners in first class, as well as premium economy (“Extra Comfort”) seating in the fore cabin of the plane. Note: Hawaiian has single aisle Airbus A321s on order that will eventually replace some widebodies from the west coast.

United Airlines

United is the only airline to fly the Boeing 787 Dreamliner within the USA. You’ll frequently find those on flights between Houston and Denver, LAX, and SFO. (The Houston-LAX flights will even get the brand new stretched 787-9 Dreamliner!)

United 767-300ERs jet between Houston and Washington Dulles, Newark and Chicago O’Hare. You can also find them between Newark and Dulles or SFO.

Serendipity intervened last week when TravelSkills editor Chris McGinnis went out to SFO last week expecting to board a United 757 for the four-hour flight to Houston, but ended up in a internationally configured 767 with an upgrade to Business First. :)

US Airways

Before US Airways and its rather elderly 767-200 planes disappear — it’s the only US carrier still using the stubby little widebodies — you can find them between Charlotte and Orlando or Philadelphia, and on Orlando-Philadelphia, but less frequently than the other airlines.

What’s your favorite domestic widebody flight? Which ones did we miss in our quick round up? Please leave your comments below!

–John Walton & Chris McGinnis

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Free inflight texting + Another 747 flies away + Lufthansa’s new premium economy + PreCheck not so special

AIRLINES

T-Mobile CMO Mike Sievert addresses the media at the Un-carrier 7.0 event  in San Francisco. (Photo: Jed Jacobsohn)

T-Mobile CMO Mike Sievert reveals new Gogo partnership in San Francisco. (Photo: Jed Jacobsohn)

Free inflight texting & voicemail. Starting September 17, T-Mobile customers can get free in-flight texting and voicemail service on all 2,000 U.S. aircraft equipped with Gogo Inflight Internet Wi-Fi. “To access the free messaging and voicemail services, T-Mobile customers will need to have their Wi-Fi Calling-enabled phone in airplane mode and connected to Gogo Wi-Fi.  From there, they simply launch their browser, verify they’re a T-Mobile customer, and follow the instructions,” Gogo told TravelSkills. (Interesting side: Gogo’s stock jumped 10% after this new deal became public last week.) If you don’t already use T-Mobile, does this make you want to switch? Leave your comments below. 

Click to see TVOne news report on Air New Zealand's final 747 flight from SFO

Click to see TVOne news report on Air New Zealand’s final 747 flight from SFO

End of an era at Air New Zealand. The latest airline to mothball its last 747 is Air New Zealand, which has flown the Boeing jumbos for 33 years. Its final 747-400 left San Francisco for Auckland last week, then was taken out of service. The carrier now uses 777s and 787s on transpacific routes. Meanwhile, Air New Zealand will add a third daily roundtrip to its LAX-Auckland route three days a week from April through October 2015.

Southwest boosts on-time record. Has Southwest Airlines figured out how to overcome its recent problems with late flights? The airline’s August performance showed a big improvement in on-time operations, up 10 percentage points from July when it (and JetBlue) were stuck at the very bottom of the the DOT’s on-time performance rankings.

Recent: How to choose the best new carry-on bag

Lufthansa's new premium economy seat on display at the Global Business Travel Association convention in August (Chris McGinnis)

Lufthansa’s new premium economy seat on display at the Global Business Travel Association convention in August (Chris McGinnis)

Lufthansa details premium economy service. Star Alliance member Lufthansa will debut its long-promised premium economy section in a few months, and it has posted a new website with details of what the service will provide to passengers and its planned schedule of deployment on international routes. It will be introduced starting in December on 747-8s from FRA to ORD, LAX and IAD; by late April on A380s to IAH, JFK, MIA and SFO; and in May 2015 on A340-600s to LAX, EWR and SFO.

Airline Wi-Fi searches. If you’re flying on United and you’d like to know in advance whether or not your aircraft is Wi-Fi equipped, you can look it up on this United website.  Passengers on Southwest can do the same thing with the carrier’s online Wi-Fi Finder. United & Southwest have taken the proactive step of notifying passengers on the day before their flight if the plane has wi-fi. (Whether or not the wi-fi is operational is another question ….)

Popular on TravelSkills: Another British Airways A380 for the US

The new soy ginger marinated salmon salad now onboard Virgin America (Photo: Virgin America)

The new soy ginger marinated salmon salad now onboard Virgin America (Photo: Virgin America)

Virgin America enhances front cabin menus. First class flyers on Virgin America will see a slate of new menu options this fall from celebrity chefs like Hiro Sone, Staffan Terje, Chris Beerman and Elizabeth Binder. New entrees include things like a grilled mushroom medley, soy ginger marinated salmon salad, roasted chicken with artichokes, ginger pepper noodles, and Marrakesh chicken salad. NOTE: If you fly Virgin America into San Francisco before Dec 14, bring your boarding pass to the Humphry Slocombe ice cream store in the Ferry Building marketplace for a free scoop! (It’s also served onboard flights departing SFO.)

Texas all-you-can-fly air service plans autumn start. A Texas entrepreneur plans to launch a new small-plane air service this fall with an all-you-can-fly policy for flat-fee memberships, according to the Dallas Business Journal. Called Rise, its eight-passenger Beechcraft King Air 350 turboprops will initially concentrate on the busy Dallas-Houston market with high-frequency service. Memberships will cost $1,650 to $2,650 a month, and Rise will use its own terminal at Love Field. The former CEO of California’s Surf Air — which has a similar business model — is executive chairman of Rise.

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AIRPORTS

Mock up of what the new dining terrace at LAX Terminal 2 will look like

Mock up of what the new dining terrace at LAX Terminal 2 will look like

LAX shows plans for T2 overhaul. The Westfield Group, in partnership with Los Angeles World Airports, has created a video showcasing its plans for bringing 20 new retail and dining concessionaires to LAX’s Terminal 2. The revamped T2 will have a dozen dining outlets — twice as many as it has now — and will feature outlets of several local restaurants. The project, now underway, should be finished next year. (Currently, T2 primarily serves international carriers.) Terminal 2 is home to ten domestic and international airlines, including Aeroméxico, Air Canada, Hawaiian Air and Virgin Atlantic. 

Wi-Fi Update: Sites monitor airports, hotels. The folks at Cheapflights.com have compiled a handy guide to Wi-Fi at 25 major U.S. airports, including how to access it, whether it’s free or paid. Meanwhile, hotelwifitest.com — which lets users see the data speeds typically achieved at major hotels — enhanced its service so the results can be viewed directly by users of major hotel booking sites. “After a one-click install, the extension will automatically display the WiFi information block whenever you open a hotel page on Hotels.com, Expedia, Booking.com, or TripAdvisor,” the company told us.

SECURITY

TSA: Most travelers now use expedited lanes. Remember the early days of TSA’s PreCheck program when you were whisked through expedited screening while everyone else lingered in long lines? Those days are gone: TSA now sends more than half of all travelers through the expedited checks — not just PreCheck members, but various categories of low-risk flyers and persons selected randomly from regular lines. This is reportedly reducing wait times for all passengers — but early adopters of PreCheck certainly don’t feel so special any more.

CARS

Volkswagen's sporty new GTI now in the National fleet (Photo: VW)

Volkswagen’s sporty new GTI now in the National fleet (Photo: VW)

New cars at National. Members of National’s Emerald Club will have access starting this fall to new 2015 models in the company’s Emerald Aisle locations nationwide, including the Volkswagen GTI, Chrysler 200, Dodge Challenger, Jeep Cherokee, Mazda6, Mustang and Lincoln MKC. Some locations will also offer new Mazda MX-5 Miatas and Hyundai Velosters.

HOTELS

Marriott innovation: Healthy food from a machine. Hotel vending machines typically dispense candy bars and high-sodium snacks. But the Chicago Marriott O’Hare is trying out a new option: Fresh, healthy food from a vending machine. Priced from $3 to $12, options include things like the Detox Salad (kale, quinoa, fruits and beans); low-fat Greek yogurt with berries; and chicken breast from antibiotic-free, humanely raised birds.

In Case You Missed It…

Chris evaluates Virgin America’s LAX Loft lounge.

British Airways is bringing its A380 to San Francisco.

You can pile up bonus points with these fall hotel promotions

Southwest Airlines unveils a new logo and aircraft livery

–Jim Glab & Chris McGinnis

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Another British Airways A380 for the US

On BA's A380, business class is an upstairs-downstairs affair (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

On BA’s A380, business class is an upstairs-downstairs affair (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

British Airways announced today that it will deploy a brand-new Airbus A380 double-decker between San Francisco International and London Heathrow starting in April 2015.

This will be BA’s third US destination to get the big bird, after Los Angeles and Washington, DC.

BA’s Sean Doyle, EVP, Americas, told TravelSkills that the decision to put the A380 on the SFO run was an easy one, “This helps bring together the burgeoning innovation economies in the Bay Area and London. It’s a logical fit and a sophisticated product for a sophisticated market,” he told us, citing the aircraft’s advanced inflight entertainment system, fuel efficiency and smooth, quiet ride.

The A380’s two decks carry a whopping 469 passengers, with 14 suites in first, 97  seats in business, 55 in premium economy and 303 in economy. (See BA’s A380 page)

What makes BA’s A380 unique is that all premium seats are at the front of the plane: first class is downstairs (“main deck”) in the nose, and business class is both upstairs and downstairs. Economy sections are in the rear half of the plane. Most other airlines with A380s put all business or first class seats upstairs only.

Related: Emirates to bring its big A380 to San Francisco & Houston | Trip Report: LAX-London on a BA A380

Premium economy onboard BA's new Airbus A380 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Economy class on BA’s new Airbus A380 is configured 3-4-3 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

British Airways has two daily flights between SFO and London. Starting in April 2015 (no firm date announced yet), BA will operate the A380 on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays (#286). On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, BA will operate its Boeing 747-400. BA will continue to use a 747 for its second daily flight from SFO (#284).

BA’s Doyle told TravelSkills that the A380 and 747 will share the route “for the moment” but could not elaborate on longer term aircraft deployments in the SFO-LHR market. (Click here for news about a big refurb for BA’s 747s)

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British Airways posh first class suites onboard its new Airbus A380 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

British Airways nice, big first class suites onboard its new Airbus A380 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Fares on both the A380 and the 747 will be the same, but Doyle expects there to be more demand for the newer aircraft. Plus, of BA’s two daily flights, the A380 is the later one in both directions, allowing more time in either San Francisco or London.

When BA launched A380 service from Los Angeles on what it calls the “Red Carpet Route” to London last fall, TravelSkills was there. Here’s our trip report from that fun ride!

Have you flown on an A380 yet? What did you think? Will you give this new flight a try instead of competitors like United or Virgin Atlantic? Please leave your comments below. 

–Chris McGinnis

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British Airways to spruce up its 747s

A British Airways 747 prepares for takeoff at San Francisco International (Photo: Angelo Angelo - Flickr)

A British Airways 747 prepares for takeoff at San Francisco International (Photo: Angelo Angelo – Flickr)

Good news for passengers used to flying British Airways’ Boeing 747 jets from San Francisco, New York and elsewhere. BA is helping the “Queen of the Skies” age gracefully with plans to outfit eighteen 747-400s with new entertainment throughout, and upgrade seats in the economy and premium economy cabins.

BA admits these “much-loved” planes, which “have a special place in the heart of many of our customers” need sprucing up to compare favorably with the draw of younger birds, such as its big new A380s, 787 Dreamliners, or its shiny new 777s like the ones recently put into service on the Atlanta-Heathrow run.

The big news for passengers, especially those whose travel budgets don’t stretch to the airline’s business class cabin, is an upgrade to the entertainment and power systems on board. BA’s “next-generation” entertainment system will offer  twice as much content and a brand new tablet-style interface. BA’s introduced its unusual forward-and-rear-facing business class seats in 2000, but the current version dates to 2006.

Most of BA’s 747s have seen refurbs of the first class section in recent years, and the airline isn’t currently selling the “old” First cabin as First Class. Instead, lucky high-status business class flyers will get to sit in what used to be first class, though they’ll see the business class service. British Airways confirmed to TravelSkills that the very small number of 747s that still carry the “old” first cabin will be withdrawn from service next year.

Related: British Airways adds a new A380 in the US

British Airway's inflight entertainment getting an upgrade in coach (Photo: John Walton)

British Airway’s inflight entertainment getting an upgrade in coach (Photo: John Walton)

British Airways has been concentrating on its inflight entertainment recently, with the addition of content from HBO and the Discovery Channel, with new programming like a “paws and relax” section for the pet lovers, or a video showing the relaxing monotony of the sights you’d see on a Norwegian train journey.

Also in the cards: a full universal (UK, US, EU, etc) power outlet in premium economy, and a USB socket in economy. That’s a big step up from the annoying (and aged) EmPower port in premium economy and a big fat nothing down the back.

As for the seats, unfortunately there’s no upgrade planned to bring the seats up to the standard set in BA’s newer A380 or 777-300ER planes — see here— although the airline will try to make them look similar.

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BA's premium economy seats (British Airways)

BA’s premium economy seats (British Airways)

They’ll still be the same seats, but “new seat foams will be installed in World Traveller and World Traveller Plus to increase customer comfort and new style seat covers fitted to improve appearance and match those on the A380 and 787,” BA says.

Related: Boeing 747s slowly disappearing from US

The refurb is going to take a while: British Airways says 18 refits won’t begin until August 2015, and will be completed a year later, in August 2016. Unfortunately, since the seats are a like-for-like refit, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to tell if you’ll have a refurbished bird when booking.

The airline has nearly 50 747s still in use, though as more Airbus A380, Boeing 787 and particularly Airbus A350 aircraft reach the fleet the older planes (which date back as far as 1989) will be retired. According to Flightglobal, BA will speed up the retirement of older planes as larger 787-9 planes and the bigger A350s start arriving from 2017.

In the meantime, hope is not lost for a more modern experience on British Airways, which has finished taking delivery of a fleet of 12 Boeing 777-300ER planes with new seats and all the mod cons. These new planes started flying on BA’s Atlanta flights just this month. And of course, there’s BA’s new A380s from LAX, soon from Washington, Dulles, and from San Francisco next April.

-John Walton

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CLEAR opens security fast lane at SF Giants’ AT&T Park

You'll soon see something like this at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

Starting September 9, you’ll see something like this at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

From frequent flyers to fly balls, a special fast track lane for ballpark security is coming to AT&T Park, home to the San Francisco Giants.

A pilot program starting September 9th and running through the end of the season will be operated by CLEAR, the pay-to-enter trusted traveler airport security company currently operating at nine airports nationwide.

At AT&T Park, all fans have been screened with metal detectors or handheld wands this season, with the Major League Baseball organization requiring that all ballparks begin using metal detectors by the start of the 2015 season. Sometimes all that special screening can lead to backups.

“Ballparks are similar to airports as a lot of fans are going through security in a short time period,” CEO Caryn Seidman Becker tells TravelSkills. “During this pop up pilot, CLEAR members should expect the same great experience they have at the airport. CLEAR is all about making this process more efficient and effective.”

Related: Should I renew my CLEAR card?

How? After registering with the program, “CLEAR’s secure identity platform ensures you are who you say you are and you can use that identity in the airport and beyond. CLEAR is focused on bringing members an easier, faster, more efficient experience where they live, work and travel,” Seidman Becker promises — but wouldn’t say exactly how much time she expects members to save.

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Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 10.40.37 AM

Pre-game queues swell at AT&T Park (Photo: BullCityDave / Flickr)

But here’s how things will work at AT&T Park:

• The CLEAR lane can be found at the Marina Gate.

• The pilot will begin Tuesday, September 9th and run for the last 10 games of the season.

• CLEAR members must bring their CLEAR card to use the new pop up lane.

• If they bring a friend who is not a member, their +1 can use the line directly next to CLEAR.

CLEAR’s usefulness at airports gets a mixed reception from frequent flyers — and TravelSkills readers on our recent article about renewing CLEAR.

TSA PreCheck proved part of CLEAR’s undoing five years ago–  but with PreCheck lines increasingly choked by passengers unfamiliar with how the process works, CLEAR is starting to look more attractive again.

CLEAR lane

Not sure whether you want to spring for the $179 annual membership? “As busy travelers return to the grind, they can enroll with a two month free trial and get other “travel pro” tools as well for free until September 15th,” Seidman Becker tells us. “Just use code PROTRAVEL at checkout.  Members can always add a family member for only $50 more. All children under 18 are free and don’t require a CLEARcard. Kids can accompany CLEARmembers through the pop-up CLEARlane.”

Bottom line: if you fly frequently to the nine airports where CLEAR operates, you might find it useful. That’s especially true at airports where security can be swamped with vacationers, like Orlando or (soon) Las Vegas.

And now, AT&T Park.

–John Walton

UPDATE: Clear has published its own web page about the new fast lane at AT&T Park.

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CLEAR opens security fast lane at SF Giants’ AT&T Park

United’s newest jet + More Delta to UK + New Asian carrier at SFO + Grand plans for ATL & MEX airports

Nail Painting onboard: Illegal or just rude? 

Biz Trip: Copenhagen

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United’s newest jet + More Delta to UK + New Asian carrier at SFO + Grand plans for ATL & MEX airports

 

United's "stretch" version of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is headed for Melbourne (Photo: United)

United’s “stretch” version of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is headed for Melbourne (Photo: United)

AIRLINES

United gets its first 787-9. Seems like just yesterday that airlines started flying the initially troubled 787 Dreamliner. But now United has taken delivery of the first new version, a stretched model called the 787-9 that can accommodate more passengers and fly longer distances (8,550 miles v. 8,200 for the 787-8). United’s version will have 48 BusinessFirst seats and 204 in economy (88 of them extra-legroom Economy Plus seats). The first of UA’s 26 787-9s will initially operate mostly between LAX and Houston, but it will begin regular international service October 26 between LAX and Melbourne.

Related: 5 ways Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner still wows | ANA’s new Dreamliner to Tokyo

Delta adds transatlantic routes. As part of a route realignment with joint venture partner Virgin Atlantic, Delta will take over one of Virgin’s two daily Newark-London Heathrow flights starting March 29, 2015, and start its own daily JFK-Manchester service beginning June 2. For its part, Virgin plans to eliminate its Asian routes from LHR to Tokyo and Mumbai in order to beef up transatlantic services in several markets, as we reported last week.

China Southern to launch new SFO nonstops in December (Photo: Wikimedia)

China Southern to launch new SFO nonstops in December (Photo: Wikimedia)

New Routes: SAS, China Southern, Alaska. SAS has started flying six times a week between Houston Bush Intercontinental and Stavanger, Norway, using a 44-seat Boeing Business Jet (a specially configured 737-700 with all-business-class service, regrettably with angled lie-flat seats) for energy industry execs headed to Scandinavia’s gateway city for North Sea drilling operations China Southern plans to start a new North American route to San Francisco from Guangzhou and Wuhan three times a week starting December 16, with a 787. China Southern is part of the Delta-led SkyTeam alliance … Alaska Airlines last week added a new transcontinental spoke to its Seattle hub, operating one daily roundtrip between SEA and Baltimore-Washington International. Alaska also kicked off daily SEA-Detroit flights last week, and will add SEA-Albuquerque September 18.

Survey: Travelers want fee transparency. Do you have a hard time finding all the details about airlines’ various fees and charges when you book a ticket? A new survey of 1,000 air travelers found that consumers overwhelmingly support a proposed Transportation Department rule that would require airlines to share their fees for baggage and seat assignments through travel agents and on third-party websites. In fact, the survey found most consumers believe airlines should be required to sell ancillary services “wherever they sell their tickets,” and not just on their own websites.

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AIRPORTS

ATL will get more parking, other improvements. An Atlanta City Council committee last week heard a report on planned improvements coming to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Among first — due in the next couple of years — are a project to more than double parking capacity by replacing the existing four-story north and south parking garages with new ones of eight or nine stories; and the addition of a new taxiway that should speed up aircraft movements. Longer term, the master plan calls for building up to nine more gates east of the international terminal and eventually adding a sixth runway.

Futuristic new airport for Mexico City arriving soon (Photo: )

Futuristic new airport for Mexico City arriving soon (Photo: Foster & Partners  )

Mexico unveils plans for new airport. Officials in Mexico City have revealed the winning design for a new airport that will replace the aging Benito Juarez International. Plans call for a $9.2 billion facility that should have three runways operating by 2020 on a dry lakebed site close to the existing airport. Its first phase will handle 50 million passengers a year (vs. the current airport’s 32 million), but expansion plans over several decades call for a six-runway airport that could accommodate 100 million. The design from U.K. architect Norman Foster and Mexico’s Fernando Romero calls for a single large terminal with soaring interior spaces.

Related: BBC Business Trip: Mexico City

HOTELS

Hotel rates keep going up, up, up. Have you finalized your 2015 travel budget yet? Maybe you should allow more for hotel costs. Lodging specialists at PwC US say they expect U.S. hotels to achieve their highest occupancy level in 20 years in 2015 — 64.8 percent — and that will drive room rates up by an average of 5.7 percent next year. That’s on top of a 4.4 percent increase in 2014, and it represents the biggest rate increase since the pre-recessionary boom year of 2006. The company said hotels expect to see especially strong gains in group business — i.e., meetings and conventions.

Big US brands like Hyatt are making major inroads into Asia-- this is the new Hyatt in Suzhou (Photo:  Hyatt)

Sleek designs at the brand new Hyatt Regency Suzhou (Photo: Hyatt)

Rebranding in London; new hotels in China. Less than two years after it opened, central London’s InterContinental Westminster is ending its affiliation with InterContinental this month and taking on a new identity with the Hilton family as the Conrad London St. JamesGot business in China?Three major chains have openings there this month, including Marriott’s Renaissance Beijing Wangfujing, overlooking Beijing’s Forbidden City; Starwood’s St. Regis Chengdu in “the Silicon Valley of China;” and the new Hyatt Regency Suzhou in eastern China’s Suzhou Industrial Park, an hour by car from Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport.

In Case You Missed It …

> Delta partner Virgin Atlantic has revealed U.S. expansion plans for 2015.

> Airline change fees are getting ridiculous. Should they be waived for elites?

> Chris checks out the changes on Larry Ellison’s Hawaiian island of Lanai.

-Jim Glab & Chris McGinnis

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Biz Trip: Copenhagen

Virgin Atlantic adds new ATL, SFO & DTW flights

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Lanai: A billionaire’s work in progress

United streams entertainment + ATL short changed by merger? + Secret spaces on new jets + PreCheck milestone

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Virgin Atlantic adds new ATL, SFO & DTW flights

Upper Class on Virgin Atlantic A330-300 with the 1-2-1 reverse herringbone config (Photo: Tom Mascardo)

Upper Class on Virgin Atlantic A330-300 with the 1-2-1 herringbone configuration (Photo: Tom Mascardo)

Virgin Atlantic announced some major network changes today that will mean more opportunities for Delta flyers to give the popular Virgin product a try…and earn or burn SkyMiles while doing so. 

Here’s what’s coming our way in 2015:

>A year-round daily roundtrip between London Heathrow and Detroit

>A new daily nonstop between Atlanta and Manchester

>An additional summertime nonstop between London and Atlanta and San Francisco 

>Additional frequencies on the busy routes between London and New York JFK and Los Angeles

>An additional daily flight between London and Miami

The Upper Class bar on a new Virgin Atlantic A330-300 (Photo: Tom Mascardo)

The Upper Class bar on a new Virgin Atlantic A330-300 (Photo: Tom Mascardo)

Some notes:

Flights are not yet loaded and bookable, but soon the added capacity will mean more award seats for Delta SkyMiles members.

Virgin’s nonstops between Atlanta and Heathrow (announced last May) begin on October 26 using Airbus A330s.

Virgin has also announced that it will build a new Clubhouse airport lounge at LAX.

It’s aging fleet of Airbus A340s will soon be replaced with 16 new Boeing 787 Dreamliners– the first of which will be deployed 0n Boston-London in October.

In order to bulk up in the U.S., Virgin is withdrawing from several markets elsewhere– it will cease flying from London to Tokyo, Mumbai, Vancouver, and Cape Town.

Related: Virgin Atlantic to fly to Atlanta! 

Here's how Virgin's flights appear on Delta.com

Here’s how Virgin’s flights appear on Delta.com

Here’s a look at Virgin Atlantic’s new long haul network in the U.S. including the new flights which come on board in 2015:

  • Atlanta/Heathrow
  • Atlanta/Manchester
  • Boston/Heathrow
  • Chicago/Heathrow
  • Detroit/Heathrow
  • Las Vegas/ Manchester
  • Las Vegas/Glasgow
  • Los Angeles/Heathrow
  • Miami/Heathrow
  • New York (JFK)/Heathrow
  • New York (Newark)/Heathrow
  • Orlando/Belfast
  • Orlando/Glasgow
  • Orlando/Manchester
  • San Francisco/Heathrow
  • Washington DC/Heathrow
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Here's how Virgin Atlantic flights appear on Delta.com

Here’s how Virgin Atlantic flights ATL-LHR appear on Delta.com

For now, Delta flyers can earn SkyMiles (including MQMs) or burn SkyMiles for Virgin Atlantic flights– when you book flights on Delta.com, Virgin flights are shown as options. However, it’s still uncertain when or if Delta Medallions will be able to use miles or Global Upgrade certificates for upgrades. Delta SkyMiles Gold Medallion (and higher) members get dedicated check in, priority security, boarding and baggage when flying Virgin Atlantic. 

In the past, Virgin’s Upper Class business class product and over-the-top lounges far exceeded anything Delta could offer. But since Delta has been upping its game lately, the product and service gap is narrowing. In what situations would you choose Virgin over Delta… or vice versa? Please leave your comments below.

– Chris McGinnis

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Should airlines waive change fees?

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United streams entertainment + ATL short changed by merger? + Secret spaces on new jets + PreCheck milestone

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Awesome Knee Defender animation VIDEO

Big fare sale + Fancy food on United + Uber raises fares + Cuts at Qantas + Better biz class on AA

What golden age of travel?

3 brand new hotels in Chicago

A spin around the new Airbus A350

Delta shuttle changes + Virgin beefs up Dallas + 747 quickly disappearing + Posh NYC hotel perch + DFW gets rapid rail

How to deal with Americans

10 little things some hotels get right

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United streams entertainment + ATL short changed by merger? + Secret spaces on new jets + PreCheck milestone

BYO device entertainment systems working on United flights (Photo: United)

BYO device entertainment systems finally working on more United flights (Photo: United)

AIRLINES

United expands in-flight streaming. Passengers on most United Airlines A319s and A320s can now (finally) stream entertainment in-flight. A United official said at an industry conference in Las Vegas that the airline recently activated in-flight entertainment streaming on almost three-fourths of its 152 Airbus narrow-bodies, with the rest coming soon. In-flight streaming — which is already available on UA’s 23 747-400s and all 777-200s to Hawaii — was dependent on completing the installation of in-flight Wi-Fi equipment, he noted. (Have you tried it yet? How did it work?)

ATL flyers short-changed by merger? Southwest’s acquisition of AirTran could prove to be more costly than beneficial for Atlanta-area flyers, according to an analysis by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The paper said that when the government approved the combination, it didn’t foresee Southwest’s drawdown of service at ATL, giving more of the market to an already-dominant Delta. The report said Southwest/AirTran has already cut competition on more than a dozen routes out of ATL, and that Delta’s market share there has grown from 78 to 83 percent.

Ryanair rolls out business fares. Business travelers have never been too fond of Ryanair, the intra-European airline known for ultra-low fares and its broad range of ancillary passenger fees. But now the carrier has come out with a new category of business fares. They’re significantly higher than base fares, but include a menu of services that would otherwise incur hefty fees, like a checked bag, priority boarding, access to premium seats, and, perhaps most significant: a waiver of change fees.

hawaiianbagtag

Print your bag tag at home, insert it into special bag tag sleeve at airport, and bypass long luggage check in lines. (Photo: Hawaiian Air)

Hawaiian tries out self-checked luggage. The latest carrier to start testing a procedure for passengers to check their own bags is Hawaiian Airlines. For two months, travelers on its flights from Seattle and Oakland to four Hawaiian destinations can use the TAG@HOME option, which lets them print out bag tags at home when they check in for flights. At the airport, they’ll find a stand with reusable sleeves; tags are slipped into them and attached to the luggage, which is taken to a bag drop. Alaska Airlines offers a similar option for home printing called Self-Tag Express, and United has started offering a self-tagged bag procedure at Chicago O’Hare, but with tags printed at the airport.

Earlier boarding for uber elite? This just in from TravelSkills reader EJ: “When the Delta gate agent called for first class boarding on a recent flight to New York, she invited Diamond Medallion members to board the flight with first class passengers. The agent then waited two minutes before inviting other Sky Priority passengers — Platinum, Gold — to board. As a Diamond flyer with Delta, the invite to board with first class passengers was a pleasant surprise. I’ve had issues with Delta over the years, but Delta deserves kudos in this case. Delta seems to me upping its game on multiple fronts.” Has anyone else received special treatment like this?

This week’s most popular post

Hawaiian, Frontier add routes. Members of American’s AAdvantage program in the San Francisco area are getting a new option for award travel to Maui. AAdvantage partner Hawaiian Airlines said it plans to begin four weekly flights between SFO-Maui on November 20, increasing to daily December 17, using a 294-seat A330-200. Meanwhile, Frontier announced new service starting in late October from Cincinnati to DFW, Orlando, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Ft Lauderdale; from Chicago O’Hare to Phoenix and Salt Lake City and from DFW to Memphis.

Secret spaces on new jets: TravelSkills in London’s Daily Mail. Last week, London’s popular Daily Mail website post on a story we brought you two years ago: An inside look at airline crew rest areas. The Mail story included several images as well as our 8 Best Beds video we created in 2012 when invited on a Cathay Pacific B777 delivery flight from the Boeing factory in Seattle to Hong Kong. The post was hugely popular… as a matter of fact, view on our video jumped from around 90,000 to over 240,000 in just a few days.

SECURITY

TSA PreCheck hits a milestone. TSA said last week its PreCheck program, now about nine months old, has passed the half-million mark in approved members. What’s more, Customs and Border Protection now has more than 3 million members in its own trusted traveler programs, which include Global Entry for international airport arrivals. TSA said PreCheck is currently available at 118 U.S. airports, while Global Entry can be used at 51 U.S. airports and at preclearance stations in Canada. TSA has opened more than 300 PreCheck application centers nationwide.

Please join the 50,000+ people who read TravelSkills every month! Sign up here for one email-per-day updates!

HOTELS

Fees on hotel guests hit a new record. A new study by NYU’s Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management finds U.S. hotels are on track to haul in a record $2.25 billion in fees and surcharges from guests in 2014 — up from $1.7 billion just four years ago. “Fees and surcharges are highly profitable; most have incremental profitability of 80 to 90 percent or more of the amounts collected,” the study noted. Hotel charges include things like resort fees, early departure fees, Internet fees, room service surcharges and business center fees, among others. Have you been seeing new hotel fees lately? Which ones irritate you the most? 

In Case You Missed It…

>Check out this amusing video about the controversial “Knee Defender” incident on United last week.

>Check out these interesting facts about airline flight numbers.

Jim Glab & Chris McGinnis

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Check out these popular recent TravelSkills posts:

6 end-of-summer travel deals. Act fast

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What golden age of travel?

3 brand new hotels in Chicago

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Delta shuttle changes + Virgin beefs up Dallas + 747 quickly disappearing + Posh NYC hotel perch + DFW gets rapid rail

How to deal with Americans

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What’s your favorite flight number?

Boarding British Airways Concorde Flight #2 from New York to London back in the day! (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Boarding British Airways Concorde Flight #2 from New York to London back in the day! (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Have you ever boarded a plane with a flight number that made you pause and think, “Hmm, I wonder if they planned it that way?”

Turns out that there are many iconic or unusual flight numbers based on airline history, superstition, luck– or plain old cleverness. For example, United’s new flight #500 from Indianapolis to San Francisco pays homage to the Indy 500.

I’ve spent the last week on the horn with airlines trying to come up with the most clever or iconic… here’s what I was able to snag… I’m sure that there are others, so please share your finds in the comments!

First off, let’s look at JetBlue, which seems to be the most creative when it comes to flight numbers. JetBlue #1600 flies from Washington National to Boston Logan (1600 Pennsylvania Ave being the President’s address). The very patriotic JetBlue #1776 flies from Philadelphia PHL to Boston Logan. (US Airways assigns #1776 to its flight from Boston to Philly). JetBlue #66 flies Albuquerque to New York JFK honoring the famous roadway Route 66 below.  Jetblue flight #212 (also the area code for New York City) flies LAS-JFK.

Singapore Air SQ1 flies SFO to Singapore via Hong Kong (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Singapore Air SQ1 flies SFO to Singapore via Hong Kong (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Flight #1 - There are lots of Flight #1s out there, and they usually signify a key route of the airline…usually historic, or a flight the airline is particularly proud of. For example, British Airways flight #1 flies from London’s close in City (LCY) Airport to New York-JFK and BA #2 flies from New York to London. Those flight numbers used to apply to British Airway’s iconic Concorde flights between London Heathrow and New York Kennedy Airports, but were reassigned when BA launched its classy all-business class A318 flights between these financial capitals.

Other #1s:

  • Delta #1: New York JFK – London Heathrow
  • American #1: New York JFK – Los Angeles LAX
  • Singapore Airlines #1: San Francisco > Hong Kong > Singapore
  • Air France #1: New York JFK – Paris Charles de Gaulle
  • Air New Zealand #1: London Heathrow > Los Angeles > Auckland
  • JetBlue #1: New York JFK – Ft Lauderdale (Its first ever route)
  • Japan Air Lines #1: San Francisco SFO – Tokyo Haneda HND
  • Hawaiian Air #1: Los Angeles LAX – Honolulu HNL
  • Emirates #1: Dubai DXB – London Heathrow LHR
  • Virgin America #1: San Francisco SFO – Washington National DCA
  • Virgin Atlantic #001: London Heathrow – Newark
Flights to Las Vegas frequently get lucky numbers (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Flights to Las Vegas frequently get lucky numbers (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Lucky flight numbers - Both 7 and 8 are considered lucky numbers… 7 is usually associated with flights to Las Vegas, while 8 is applied to many Asia-bound flights.

Appealing to those betting on the lucky 7s are Virgin America’s inaugural flight #777 which flew from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and JetBlue #777 which is flying from Boston to Las Vegas. Spirit Airways flight 777 flies from Ft Lauderdale to Vegas. AirTran #777 flights from Baltimore to Las Vegas.

In a more James Bond-ish vein, Virgin Atlantic’s #007 flies from London to Los Angeles.

The number 8 is considered lucky in many Asian cultures, so it’s frequently applied to key flights to that region. For example, United’s flight #888 flies from San Francisco to Beijing. British Airways flight #8 is on London-Chengdu. KLM’s flight #888 is on Amsterdam-Hong Kong. Hawaiian’s #8 flies from Honolulu to Las Vegas. Cathay Pacific’s #888 flies Hong Kong > Vancouver > New York JFK.

On the flip side of lucky, there are not a lot of Flight #13s out there… but I did find XL Airways #13 on SFO-Paris and American #13 from Chicago ORD to Orange County. How would you feel about boarding a flight #13?

What other unusual or iconic flight numbers did I miss? Please share your favorites below!

–Chris McGinnis

Are you in the market for a new credit card? Looking for a fat points or mileage bonus to sweeten your balance? Then check out our BEST CREDIT CARDS FOR BUSINESS TRAVELERS and scoop up the deals!

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Check out these popular recent TravelSkills posts:

Awesome Knee Defender animation VIDEO

Big fare sale + Fancy food on United + Uber raises fares + Cuts at Qantas + Better biz class on AA

What golden age of travel?

3 brand new hotels in Chicago

A spin around the new Airbus A350

Delta shuttle changes + Virgin beefs up Dallas + 747 quickly disappearing + Posh NYC hotel perch + DFW gets rapid rail

How to deal with Americans

10 little things some hotels get right

Are you in the market for a new credit card? Looking for a fat points or mileage bonus to sweeten your balance? Then check out our BEST CREDIT CARDS FOR BUSINESS TRAVELERS and scoop up the deals!

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Delta shuttle changes + Virgin beefs up Dallas + 747 quickly disappearing + Posh NYC hotel perch + DFW gets rapid rail

The art deco Marine Air Terminal at New York LaGuardia (Photo: Matt Green / Flickr)

The art deco Marine Air Terminal at New York LaGuardia (Photo: Matt Green / Flickr)

AIRLINES

Delta upgrades LGA-BOS Shuttle. On November 2, Delta will move its New York LaGuardia-Boston Logan Delta Shuttle from LGA’s remote (and cooly art-deco) Marine Air Terminal to Terminal C, and will upgrade its aircraft to 110-passenger Boeing 717s. (Those 717s used to belong to AirTran.)  Delta Shuttle’s LGA-Washington and LGA-Chicago flights will remain at the Marine Air Terminal and continue using Delta Connection/Shuttle America E-175s. Besides the larger planes (with three classes of seating, configured 2-3 in the back + wi-fi + power outlets), LGA-BOS Shuttle passengers will enjoy easier connections and a wider array of terminal services. (Any comments on the improvements Delta has made at LGA lately?)

Virgin expands DAL schedule. Virgin America beefed up is flight skeds from Dallas Love Field (DAL) not long after Southwest said it, too plans to start DAL-SFO/OAK flights. These higher daily frequencies are designed to make Virgin more appealing to business travelers. Virgin’s initial schedule at DAL starts in October, with three flights a day to SFO, LAX and DCA, and four to LGA. Now Virgin says it will add a fourth daily roundtrip to SFO, LAX and DCA starting April 29. (Unconfirmed reports suggest Virgin might end its SFO-Ft. Lauderdale route to free up aircraft for DAL; Virgin is also suspending SFO-PHL and LAX-PHL October 6.) It will also continue its twice-daily SFO-Austin service.

Legacy carriers cut routes… Delta and United are both eliminating some key business routes from their networks. At Memphis — once a Northwest hub — Delta plans to end service next month to Denver and to Austin, although it will add two more daily flights to its ATL hub. Meanwhile, United is due to end its daily non-stop Pittsburgh-Los Angeles flight on August 18, and its two daily Chicago O’Hare-Topeka flights on September 2, leaving that Kansas airport without scheduled passenger service.

…While low-cost airlines add them. Southwest Airlines last week kicked off six daily roundtrips between Chicago Midway and Washington Reagan National, plus three a day between DCA-Nashville and two from DCA to New Orleans. Southwest will add Cleveland-Phoenix service November 2, and just took over more Mexico routes from rapidly disappearing subsidiary AirTran … Spirit Airlines has started service from Kansas City to ORD, DFW, DTW, LAS and IAH, and announced new daily service linking Detroit-ATL and Detroit-New Orleans starting in November, as well as new once-daily service between ORD-ATL, ORD-MSY and ORD-BWI … Frontier said it will begin service on 10 new routes from northern cities to sun destinations this winter.

Alaska Airlines

An alert sent to TravelSkills by Alaska Airlines this week

Reminder: At SFO, all Alaska Airlines flights will move to the International Terminal, Boarding Area A, effective Wednesday, August 20. Details regarding lounge access for Board Room members are still up in the air, however. Stay tuned.

INTERNATIONAL

A fond farewell to Cathay's Queen of the Skies (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

A fond farewell to Cathay’s Queen of the Skies (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Cathay Pacific bids farewell to the B747. On August 31, the Cathay Pacific Boeing 747-400 will make its final departure from SFO, marking Cathay’s retirement of the graceful “Queen of the Skies” from long haul service. At a bittersweet farewell event at San Francisco International this week, Cathay’s Americas head Tom Owen said that Cathy is shedding itself of the B747 in “one of the fastest fleet replacements in history.” Why so fast? Owen said that while the company credits the 747 as the tool that made it a truly global carrier in the 1990s, “it was designed in an era when a barrel of oil cost $15-$20.” With oil currently hovering around the $100/bbl mark, Cathay is moving to the Boeing 777-300ER and the soon-to-be-released Airbus A350 (both of which are 25% more efficient than the 747) for its long haul flights. Cathay’s remaining 747s will be deployed on intra-Asia routes for the next two years, and will then disappear.

Related: Sad to see the graceful 747 fade away! 

Mockup of Aer Lingus' new true lie flat business class seat coming in 2015 (Aer Lingus)

Mockup of Aer Lingus’ new true lie flat business class seat coming in 2015 (Aer Lingus)

New biz classes at Aer Lingus, Finnair.  Aer Lingus has detailed its plans for a (much needed) revamped business class to debut in 2015, with fully-flat seats, free Wi-Fi, 16-inch hi-def touchscreens and Irish cuisine. Meanwhile, Finnair has unveiled the interior designs for its long-haul fleet of Airbus’ new A350 XWB (extra wide body) aircraft, which the Finnish carrier will start flying in 2015. The 297-seat A350s will have a 46-seat 1-2-1 business class with flat-bed seats, 16-inch touchscreens, Wi-Fi and more.  (TravelSkills contributor Ramsey Qubein recently flew to Helsinki for a first hand look at the first A350– stay tuned for his review later this week!)

Did you see our post on How to Deal With Americans? This is one of those cases where reader feedback is even better than the post! :) Check it out here.

AIRPORTS

New DART rapid rail connection at DFW

New DART rapid rail connection at DFW (Photo: Dallas Area Rapid Transit)

DFW gets a rail link. August 18 marks the opening of the DFW Airport Station, the terminus for a five-mile extension of Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s light rail. The station, part of DFW’s Terminal A, is opening four months ahead of schedule. The new Orange Line extension runs from the airport to Belt Line Station, with continuing service to Irving-Las Colinas, Dallas Market Center and downtown Dallas. It will make DFW the third-largest U.S. airport with a direct rail link to the city center.

HOTELS

A posh new perch in NYC

The striking new Park Hyatt: A posh new perch in NYC (Photo: Hyatt)

NYC Park Hyatt opens next week. An August 19 debut is slated for Hyatt’s new flagship property, the Park Hyatt New York, across from Carnegie Hall on West 57th Street. The posh property takes up the first 25 floors of a 90-story glass tower that reshapes the Midtown skyline; the floors above contain ultra-expensive condos. The Park Hyatt has 210 extra-large rooms (standard rooms average around 500 square feet), including lots of suite options; rates start at $700-$800 a night.

Rebranded Chicago-area hotels. There’s lots of hotel rebranding in and around Chicago this month. Downtown, the former Crowne Plaza at 160 E. Huron was remade into a dual-branded Hilton — the Hampton Inn and Homewood Suites by Hilton Chicago Magnificent Mile … The former InterContinental Chicago O’Hare Hotel, a 556-room property across from the Donald Stephens Convention Center in suburban Rosemont, has been acquired by Loews Hotels and converted to the Loews brand … In the western suburb of Oak Brook, the former Renaissance has been converted by Starwood into Le Meridien Chicago-Oak Brook Center after a $25 million renovation; and the former Oak Brook Hills Resort & Conference Center is now the Hilton Chicago/Oak Brook Hills.

In Case You Missed It…

>Ten little things that make a difference in a hotel stay.

>Hawaiian Airlines will start SFO-Maui A330 service four times a week November 20, increasing to daily December 17.

>TravelSkills contributor has mixed results with a recent Airbnb booking for a business trip

-Jim Glab & Chris McGinnis

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Check out these popular recent TravelSkills posts:

How to deal with Americans

10 little things some hotels get right

Better Sky Club snacks + New LaGuardia lounge + Marriott MegaBonus back + Nifty new ATL arrivals app

Month #3: A TravelSkills update from Chris

Airbnb for a business trip? Mixed results

SFO runways reopen + Fewer amateurs in PreCheck + Delta cocktails now $8 + United’s cool passport scan app

Mergers that make sense

Serial stowaway finally gets her free flight

3 brand new Los Angeles hotels (& 3 facelifts)

Are you in the market for a new credit card? Looking for a fat points or mileage bonus to sweeten your balance? Then check out our BEST CREDIT CARDS FOR BUSINESS TRAVELERS and scoop up the deals!

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Better Sky Club snacks + New LaGuardia lounge + Marriott MegaBonus back + Nifty new ATL arrivals app

Entering the brand new American Express Centurion Lounge at New York LaGuardia (Photo: American Express)

Entering the brand new American Express Centurion Lounge at New York LaGuardia (Photo: American Express)

Summer’s not even over yet, but business travel news is coming at us from all directions, so we’re offering a double dose of news this week…

AIRLINES

Soup ‘n salad at Sky Clubs. Delta has updated and enhanced the menu offerings at its Sky Clubs, bringing aboard some healthier options like salads and soups that it has been experimenting with over the last year. You can see what’s new at this web page, and check out nutritional information for some selections. Meanwhile, in-flight duty-free shopping is no longer an option for travelers on Delta. The airline has terminated its relationship with the vendor it was using for the program, and reportedly has no plans to find a new one. So from now on, it’s the airport duty-free shop or nothing for Delta flyers. (Did you ever buy anything from inflight duty-free anyway– or see many others doing so?)

Airline cancellation rates vary greatly. According to the latest monthly government numbers, some airlines are much better than others at keeping their flights operating. Delta canceled just 19 departures in June, out of almost 70,000 flights operated. Other carriers with cancellation rates close to zero were Hawaiian, Frontier and Virgin America. By contrast, American’s regional subsidiary Envoy had a 6.5 percent cancellation rate.

Sunny skies for Virgin America. SF-based Virgin America posted a $37 million second quarter profit this week, up significantly compared to the same time last year when it lost $8.8 million. AP pegs the good results on increasing airfares, which are up 5% over the same time last year. We of course peg the results on Virgin’s recent sponsorship of the TravelSkills blog! :)

An 8-passenger SurfAir Pilatus. Have you or would subscribe?  (Photo: Chasen Richardson)

An 12-passenger SurfAir Pilatus. Have you or would subscribe? (Photo: Chasen Richardson)

All-you-can-fly airline expands. California-based Surf Air, a small new venture that lets customers fly as much as they want on its intrastate network for a membership fee starting at $1,599 a month, said it has seen “incredible demand from consumers” — so much that it plans a big expansion. The company has placed an order for up to 65 new Pilatus PC-12 eight-passenger turboprop aircraft, has raised another $73 million in capital, and plans to expand to more destinations. Surf Air claims 900 members already, with 350 more on hold awaiting more planes and routes. (Have you tried Surf Air or do you know anyone who has flown it? Please leave comments below.)

Frontier revamps elite levels. Frontier Airlines plans to replace its EarlyReturns Ascend and Summit elite levels effective February 15, 2015, with a single level called simply Frontier Elite. It’s open to members who accumulate 20,000 miles or 25 segments between January 1-December 31, 2014. Benefits include a free carry-on bag (the airline now charges a fee for them), but no more free checked bags. On October 31, 2014, the airline also plans to start imposing a fee (elites are exempted) for EarlyReturns redemptions booked less than 180 days in advance.

Please join the 50,000+ people who read TravelSkills every month! Sign up here for one email-per-day updates!

.

AIRPORTS

ATL tests international arrivals app. Those self-service Automated Passport Control kiosks — which speed up processing of international arrivals who are not part of the Global Entry program — are popping up everywhere this year, but now Customs and Border Protection is going a step further. CBP just started pilot-testing a free app at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson that lets arriving travelers input their passport data and Customs declaration on their mobile device, then gives them a scannable QR code to present to the CBP officer. Have you tried it yet?

Nice views from the new American Express Centurion Lounge at LGA (Photo: AMEX)

Nice views from the new American Express Centurion Lounge at LGA (Photo: AMEX)

AmEx adds an LGA lounge. American Express cut the ribbon on a 5,000-square-foot Centurion Lounge in New York LaGuardia’s Terminal B (third level, pre-security), offering work spaces with high-speed Wi-Fi and electrical outlets; cuisine from Cedric Vongerichten, executive chef at New York’s Perry St restaurant; and specialty cocktails and wine selections. Entry is free for AmEx Platinum Card and Centurion members; a one-day pass costs $50 for other AmEx cardholders. Other Centurion lounges are in Las Vegas McCarran and Dallas-Ft Worth with additional locations coming to SFO (construction now visible from inside Terminal 3 near the United Premier check in area) and MIA.

HOTELS

Marriott expands app check-in. Marriott unveiled a huge expansion of its new mobile check-in and check-out capability for Marriott Rewards members. Previously available at 500 properties in its Marriott Hotels brand, it’s being expanded to 11 more Marriott brands, from Ritz-Carlton to Marriott Executive Apartments. “With these latest additions, these services are immediately available at 1,200 properties worldwide, and will be live at more than 4,000 hotels worldwide by year-end,” the company said. The app is available for iOS and Android devices.  In other news, Marriott Rewards members can earn up to 25,000 bonus points for stays from September 15-January 15 with the group’s new Fall Megabonus promotion.

CARS

New planning app links with Hertz GPS. Hertz’ NeverLost GPS in-car navigation system has a new companion — a free trip planning app from Navigation Solutions for iOS and Android devices that serves up scads of information about local places and events. The app works in tandem with NeverLost via the cloud, and includes city guides for 40 U.S. cities, with additional data on many more. “The interactive app goes far beyond navigation, including events, local weather, Augmented Reality, social media sharing and much more,” Hertz said. Now that we all have Google maps and apps like Waze, does anyone still use NeverLost? Leave your comments below!)

In Case You Missed It…

>Here’s a progress report on the new TravelSkills after its first three months.

>Are Airbnb properties right for a business trip?

>A new Hilton promotion lets HHonors members earn triple points through October.

— Jim Glab & Chris McGinnis

 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! 

facebook like

Would you rather get TravelSkills Weekly instead of Daily? No probs! click here to sign up for TravelSkills Weekly. 

Check out these popular recent TravelSkills posts:

Month #3: A TravelSkills update from Chris

Airbnb for a business trip? Mixed results

SFO runways reopen + Fewer amateurs in PreCheck + Delta cocktails now $8 + United’s cool passport scan app

Mergers that make sense

Serial stowaway finally gets her free flight

3 brand new Los Angeles hotels (& 3 facelifts)

How to get on earlier flight without paying fee

Trip Report: ANA’s 787 Dreamliner to Tokyo

20 different biz class seats in 1 room- PHOTOS

Frequent travelers love Chick-fil-a

Kicked off flight for a tweet? Southwest responds

Are you in the market for a new credit card? Looking for a fat points or mileage bonus to sweeten your balance? Then check out our BEST CREDIT CARDS FOR BUSINESS TRAVELERS and scoop up the deals!

Please join the 50,000+ people who read TravelSkills every month! Sign up here for one email-per-day updates!

 


SFO runways reopen + Fewer amateurs in PreCheck + Coach cocktails now $8 + United’s cool passport scan app

SFO's new EMAS runaway plane lane is finished! All 4 runways now open (Photo: SFO)

SFO’s new, federally mandated, EMAS crushable concrete “runaway plane lane” is finished! All 4 runways now open (Photo: SFO)

SFO runways reopen early. Good news for Bay Area travelers: San Francisco International goes from two operational runways to four effective today (August 10) as a major construction project wrapped up a month ahead of schedule. The two runways had been closed since May 17 to install federally-mandated Runway Safety Areas (designed to catch and slow down runaway planes), requiring airlines to adjust their summer flight schedules. (More photos here) Luckily, the project had minimal impact on SFO flight operations.

Fewer amateurs in TSA PreCheck lanes? Now this sounds hopeful: “We’ll start pulling back on the number of people who we include on a random, managed-inclusion basis, because we want to, frankly, cater to those who have actually signed up, and who we have the highest confidence in because we know the most about them,” John Pistole, TSA Administrator told the New York Times when asked about overcrowding in TSA PreCheck lanes. This is music to the ears of the 440,000 people who have actually paid for the service, and who have been complaining loudly about the increasing number of “random” travelers chosen to pass through the speedy lanes. Have you noticed any improvements?

More kiosks speed re-entry. The latest expansion of Customs and Border Protection’s Global Entry kiosks is at Mineta San Jose International Airport, where two of the self-service devices are now in place for program members. Meanwhile, Detroit Metro Airport has installed 30 Automated Passport Control self-service kiosks for inbound international passengers who aren’t part of Global Entry, and Minneapolis-St. Paul now has 10 of the kiosks in its Lindbergh Terminal. (Have you noticed any change in immigrations and customs processing in the US lately? Are the kiosks helping? Please leave your comments below.)

Are you going to try flying into Dallas Love Field starting in Oct? Let us know! (Photo: Justin Terveen)

Are you going to try flying into Dallas Love Field starting in Oct? Let us know! (Photo: Justin Terveen)

No surprise: Southwest adds DAL-SFO/OAK. Southwest’s big expansion of service at Dallas’ close-in Love Field later this year is adding two more business destinations: San Francisco and Oakland. Starting January 6, the carrier will initially operate only one daily roundtrip in each market, but that’s still enough to give some competition to Virgin America Airlines, which plans to launch its own DAL-SFO service on October 13 with three flights a day — and three classes of service, something Southwest lacks. Will you start to fly into Dallas Love (DAL) or stick with DFW? Leave your comments below, please.

United app will scan passports. A big hitch in checking in for international flights with an app has been the need for a passport scan. But now United has come up with a solution: It’s testing an upgrade to its mobile app (for both iOS and Android) so customers can do just that. “After initiating the app’s check-in feature, customers will have the option of verifying their existing stored passport data or scanning their passport. The app uses the mobile device’s camera feature to capture travelers’ passports, similar to a mobile banking deposit,” United said.

In-flight service squeeze at DL, AA. Flying on Delta during the cocktail hour? Be prepared to shell out $8 for that mixed drink in coach, up from $7, the airline confirms … Starting next month, American Airlines will discontinue serving meals to first class passengers on most flights under two hours 45 minutes, replacing them with snacks (exception: some of the most popular routes, like ORD-LGA).

Emirates arrives at Chicago ORD (Photo: Emirates)

Emirates arrives at Chicago ORD- that’s the Chicago city flag (Photo: Emirates)

Emirates to Chicago ORD; AA juggles Brazil service. Emirates last week started new daily 777-200LR non-stops between Chicago O’Hare and Dubai … American will discontinue Charlotte-Sao Paulo service Oct. 1, but will add new routes in December from JFK and MIA to Viracopo Airport in Campinas, Brazil; on October 25, AA will start seasonal suspensions of JFK-Dublin, ORD-Dusseldorf and PHL-Zurich flights … Air France now offers international first class travelers onward connections by four-seat private jets at Paris CDG. (Trivia Question: What do the four stars on Chicago’s city flag represent? Answer here.)

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CARS

Uber continues to disrupt ground transport with a new carpool sharing option (Photo: Uber)

Uber continues to disrupt ground transport with a new carpool sharing option (Photo: Uber)

Uber, Lyft try ride-sharing. Popular ride-finding service Uber is adding a new feature for users: Share your ride and both customers can save money. Called Uberpool, the feature is currently in beta; Uber still promises a ride in five minutes if you opt for Uberpool, and if it can’t find a ride share, it will give you a discount anyway. Competing ride-finder Lyft introduced a similar service called Lyft Line, initially available only in San Francisco and only via iOS devices. Meanwhile, an app called TaxiMagic — used to summon licensed taxicabs — is changing its name to Curb and upgrading its service to include higher-priced black car and limo rides. How do you get around on the ground? Leave your comments below. And if you’ve not tried Uber, do so from our links and you’ll get $30 off your first ride!

In Case You Missed It…

>Should JetBlue and Virgin America merge? How about Lyft and Uber? (Reader comments are great here!)

>Here’s what’s new and cool in the Los Angeles hotel scene.

>Think it’s impossible to sneak onto a flight? Think again.

–Jim Glab & Chris McGinnis

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Serial stowaway finally gets her free flight

UPDATE: THURSDAY AUG 7: After her arrest and incarceration in LA on Monday, Hartman went BACK TO THE AIRPORT on Thursday, and was arrested again. Full story here. 

Original story here:

After six thwarted attempts at stowing away on planes bound for Hawaii, San Francisco’s now famous Marilyn Jean Hartmann has finally done it.

NBC Bay Area news is now reporting that Hartman breached TSA security, boarded a Southwest Airlines plane in San Jose on Monday night and flew to Los Angeles where she was arrested. KTVU is reporting that she made it through security and on to the plane without a ticket by sneaking behind a family.

NBC provides a bit of the woman’s background here:

The San Francisco woman has a history of trying to get on flights without a ticket. Three times in February, twice in March and at least once in April she attempted to board flights at SFO. At least twice she was able to breach Transportation Security Administration security and make her way into the boarding area.

The San Francisco Chronicle has uncovered new information that shows Hartman has been up to these antics since 2010, and has even blogged about it.

(Photo: San Francisco Police Dept)

Marilyn Jean Hartman, 62, finally got on a plane. (Photo: San Francisco Police Dept)

This is the second time this year that Mineta San Jose Airport has been in the news due to people successfully stowing away on planes there. As you may recall, a teenager breached airport perimeter security and hid in a wheel well of a Hawaiian Airlines plane for an icy trip to Hawaii. 

The TSA made the following statement in light of this latest incident:

“Following an initial review by TSA at San Jose International Airport, the agency has initiated minor modifications to the layout of the document checking area to prevent another incident like this one.”

Hartman’s multiple attempts to stowaway on planes bound to Hawaii have landed her on probation and slapped with a court order to stay away from all airports unless she has a valid ticket. But the publicity around her attempts to fly  have also prompted Silicon Valley types to set up funding sites to help buy her a ticket to Hawaii. For example, a GoFundMe.com page has raised nearly $1,300 although it’s not clear how or if that money has been disbursed.

The San Jose Mercury News reported in May that Hartman would “spend two years in a mental health facility to receive treatment for major depressive disorder.” The paper went on to say that Hartman,

was determined to be suffering from a ‘major mental illness’ and deemed a suitable candidate for the residential mental health program, prosecutors said. She was sentenced to two years supervised probation and will remain under strict supervision in the program for the next two years.

Sounds like that strict supervision wasn’t enough to quash this lady’s wanderlust and stated desired to “go somewhere warm.”

In the last year, we’ve seen a teenager slip through airport fencing at San Jose International and hide in a wheel well for a flight to Hawaii. At SFO, a drunk business traveler masquerading as a TSA agent lured two unsuspecting travelers into a private booth for a pat down.

Now this.

This latest incident poses a LOT of questions about the state of airport security. It also provides plenty of fodder for jokes on late night talk shows. :)

What do YOU think about this situation?

Leave your comments below!

–Chris McGinnis

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Southwest pads schedules + New airline for SFO + Chris at GBTA + Salt Lake makeover +

Turkish Airlines's exotic business class lounge at IST (Photo: Turkish Airlines)

Turkish Airlines’s exotic business class lounge at IST– soon to connect nonstop to SFO (Photo: Turkish Airlines)

AIRLINES

Southwest’s on-time strategy. Southwest Airlines has seen its on-time performance suffer in recent months, dropping from 83 percent to 70. So it will turn to a favorite airline strategy for dealing with the problem: Starting next month, it will revise its schedules to allow for longer travel times—i.e. it will “pad its schedule.”

Turkish comes to SFO. Rapidly expanding Turkish Airlines will start San Francisco-Istanbul non-stops on April 13, 2015. Introductory fares for the 16-hour flight are already on sale for $699 in economy. Business class is running $4,000-$6,000. Turkish Flight 80 will depart SFO at  6:10PM and arrive in Istanbul at 5:05PM the next day. Flight 79 departs IST at 1:15 PM and arrives SFO at 4:25 PM on the same day. Turkish will use a Boeing 777-300ER on the 13-hour flight with business class in a 2-3-2 configuration and coach in a 3-3-3 configuration and no first class. Turkish Airlines is a member of the Star Alliance. Do you think of Turkish Airlines as “exotic?” I do and that’s how I described it on SFgate last week- but many readers felt that description was wrong. What do you think? Leave your comments below! 

JetBlue weighs a bag fee. JetBlue and Southwest are the only two major airlines that don’t charge a fee for a passenger’s first checked bag (Southwest allows two checked bags free).  But JetBlue officials, concerned about all that lost revenue,  are hinting that they might reconsider their policy and start charging for that first bag. If they do, can Southwest holdout on its own?

US Airways shuffles partnerships. US Airways has started code-sharing with Finnair, a member of sister company American Airlines’ transatlantic joint venture. US Airways’ code goes onto Finnair flights to Helsinki and beyond, from JFK and Toronto, and members of the two carriers’ frequent flyer programs now have mutual benefits. Meanwhile, Dividend Miles will end its partnerships with Singapore Airlines and Turkish Airlines effective August 1. They were holdovers from US Airways’ former Star Alliance membership.

Briefs: Like British Airways, Swiss has started charging fees for advance seat reservations; on long-haul flights, fees are $32 for a “standard seat,” $54 for a “preferred-zone” seat, and $109 for an extra-legroom seat. Unreserved seats can be selected for free within 23 hours of departure … Virgin Australia will end its Los Angeles-Melbourne service in late October, but will boost LAX-Brisbane from four flights a week to daily (and in SF we still waiting for Virgin Australia to link with Virgin America and bring some much need competition on SFO-Australia routes)… Qantas will replace the 747 on its Dallas/Ft. Worth-Sydney route with an A380 in September.

GBTA CONVENTION:

TravelSkills editor Chris McGinnis is attending the big Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) convention in Los Angeles this week. The giant expo attracts about 7,000 travel industry professionals for educational sessions, speeches and panels with the likes of United’s Jeff Smisek or Delta’s Richard Anderson. It also offers an outstanding exposition where travel suppliers display and boast their latest, greatest products and services for business travelers– to me, the coolest part is the ability to check out about 20 business and first class seats in one place! Stay tuned to my Twitter feed to see what I’m seeing and hearing. Find me say HEY if you are there, too!

AIRPORTS

A mock up of the new terminal at Salt Lake City International

A mock up of SLC’s brand new terminal provided by Salt Lake City International

Salt Lake City starts massive reconstruction. Work started last week on a $1.8 billion, years-long overhaul of Salt Lake City International Airport that will replace its existing three terminals with a single extra-large one. One level of the three-story facility will be reserved for international travel and Customs. The existing airport opened 50 years ago — well before Delta started using it as a hub. The first half of the new SLC airport is due to open in 2019 and the second in 2022. Delta announced this week that it will add SLC-Amsterdam nonstops using a B767 starting next May.

CBP boosts staffing at five airports. U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it has forged partnerships with five major airports that will mean increased CBP staffing for processing international arrivals, leading to reduced waiting time. The new pacts are with SFO, LAX, MCO, LAS and DEN. The agency said similar arrangements that it has in place with DFW, IAH and MIA — combined with the new Automated Passport Control kiosks — have reduced line time at those airports by 30 percent. Have you noticed?

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Atlanta Airport gets another PreCheck center. The TSA has opened a second PreCheck application center at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson, located pre-security in the main terminal so the general public can access it without having a boarding pass. The new TSA facility is in Terminal South near Delta’s ticket counters. (The earlier facility is at Gate A19.)

Possible LAX mess. This item appeared on TravelSkills two weeks ago, but it bears repeating: This weekend, July 25-28 in Los Angeles, is being dubbed the “Century Crunch”, when Century Blvd. — a main road into LAX, used by one-third of all passengers — will close for demolition of an old railroad bridge. Officials advise everyone to avoid the area. 

sfo cab

(photo: Alfonso Jimenez)

Taxi app starts airport bookings. An app called Flywheel — which lets users hail a cab electronically, track its position, and pay with a smartphone — has started taking advance bookings for taxi rides to San Francisco-area airports, including SFO, OAK and SJC. By the end of this month, the company said, the app will provide the same service in Seattle and Los Angeles, with more locations to be added “in the coming weeks.” Interesting to watch cab companies add technology to help them compete with the likes of Uber and Lyft (which by the way are two ride-sharing companies we’ve heard are feeling the urge to merge. Stay tuned to TravelSkills for more on that as we investigate!) Don’t forget that you get $30 off your first ride if you sign up for Uber via TravelSkills links. Just do it! 

TSA seeks queue tips. The TSA is shifting so many passengers to PreCheck lanes that it is getting concerned about how fast the lines move. So the agency has turned to Innocentive.com, a “global innovation marketplace,” to offer $15,000 in prizes to persons who can come up with the best ways to overhaul TSA’s airport lines. “The concept will be used to develop a model to be applied in decision analysis and to take in considerations of site specific requirements, peak and non-peak hours, flight schedules and TSA staffing schedules,” TSA said.

In Case You Missed It…

>Delta is building a new Sky Club at San Francisco International.

>New studies determine the best and worst airports and hotels for Wi-Fi.

>”I cringe when I hear people talk about the so-called golden age of travel.” Check this InsideFlyer Q&A with Chris about his career and the travel biz. A good read!

>A leading business hotel in London will join the Hilton family in September

>New report shows where business travelers spend money. Would you believe Chick-fil-a? (Check out the controversy this post elicited in the comments!)

–Jim Glab & Chris McGinnis


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New global carrier for SFO with an Indian twist

Bigger bins + Check-in not required + Beware LAX traffic mess + New low fare O’Hare flights + Big new build hotel LA Live +

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New Delta Sky Club rising at SFO

Delta's new post-security Sky Club rising in the shadow of SFO's new ATC Tower (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Delta’s new post-security Sky Club rising in the shadow of SFO’s new ATC Tower (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Delta has confirmed to TravelSkills that it will open a brand new Sky Club at San Francisco International Airport in 2015.

In the photo (above) that I snagged while boarding a Virgin America flight from a Terminal 2 jetway last week, it appears that the new club will be located on the upper level and will have a large picture window opening up to the tarmac.

From the inside of Delta’s Boarding Area C in Terminal 1, you can’t miss the construction of the new Sky Club as you enter the terminal just after security.

The Sky Club will be located in the area above what was once a luggage store near Gate 41. (It’s to the left as you walk down the ramp from security.) Since the club will be located one floor above the gate area, I assume we’ll access it by an elevator or escalator. 

The current Delta Sky Club at SFO is inconveniently located outside the T1 Boarding Area C checkpoint and its location has long been a thorn in the side of Sky Club members. 

Related: What’s next for SFO? 

If you look closely at the photo above, you’ll also see that SFO is building a new post-security corridor that will connect Boarding Area C with Terminal 2 (home to Virgin America and American Airlines).  This is big boost for Delta flyers cooling their heels in the somewhat drab Boarding Area C– they will now have access to all the excellent post-security amenities of T2 (like a yoga room, fine dining restaurants and museum exhibits).

Stay tuned to TravelSkills for more details (including opening dates) as we get them… 

A new Delta Sky Club built in the shadow of SFO's new control tower (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

A new Delta Sky Club built in the shadow of SFO’s new control tower (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

–Chris McGinnis

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Unusual ways to earn hotel rewards points

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New global carrier for SFO with an Indian twist

Etihad will use a Jet Airways 777 on its new SFO-Abu Dhabi run (Photo: Aero Icarus / Flickr)

Etihad will use a Jet Airways 777 on its new SFO-Abu Dhabi run (Photo: Aero Icarus / Flickr)

Abu Dhabi based Etihad Airways announced on Monday that it will fly to San Francisco International starting November 18. SFO will be the sixth U.S. city served by the rapidly expanding UAE carrier. Kinda….

This comes on the heals of Emirates Airline’s recent announcement that it will add double decker A380 flights at SFO starting this December.

Etihad is perhaps best known now as the carrier that recently said it will offer a spacious three bedroom suite (with shower) on board its A380 on flights between Abu Dhabi and London at the cost of $40,000 round trip.

Be sure to note the column "Operated by:"

Be sure to note the column “Operated by:”

Don’t get your hopes up that SFO will see that suite, or even an Etihad-liveried jet any time soon. 

Instead, SFO will see a return of Jet Airways planes, which is now 24%-owned by Etihad. Etihad is growing so fast that it is unable to deploy one of its own aircraft on the route.

An Etihad spokesperson tells TravelSkills that flights will use a three-class Boeing 777-300ER aircraft leased from India’s Jet Airways, which will have the livery, layout and seats of Jet Airways, but that Etihad crews will staff the flights. The spokesperson did not know when or if Etihad may deploy one of its own aircraft on the route.

The Jet Airways 777-300ER used by Etihad has eight first class seats (1-2-1), 30 in business (1-2-1) and 308 (3-4-3) in economy.

Jet Airways flew SFO-Shanghai-Mumbai back in 2008-2009.

Fares: For flights in November, economy runs from about $780 to $1380 round trip. Business class is around $5,000-$7000. First class is $14,515.

Etihad LogoEtihad is one of three Gulf carriers (the third being Qatar Airways) that seem to be taking the world by storm and freaking out large global carriers in the US, Asia and Europe with their posh planes, modern airports and excellent inflight service. Etihad recently launched daily nonstops from LAX to Abu Dhabi and says that in addition to San Francisco, it will launch nonstops to Dallas starting in December.

Related: Biz Trip: Abu Dhabi 

“We cannot be more thrilled to welcome Etihad to San Francisco,” said Tom Kiely, executive vice president of the San Francisco Travel Association. “Having just attended the Arabian Travel Market convention in Dubai, I saw first hand what Etihad’s revolutionary premium product is like. It will complement SFO’s existing service from India, southeast Asia and the Gulf region.”

India is indeed a key (if not THE key) market for these flights. As a matter of fact, The Times of India headline about the service reads Etihad to link Delhi, San Francisco via Abu Dhabi on planes leased from Jet. It is estimated that nearly 250,000 Indians reside in the Bay Area.

“San Francisco is another strong addition and provides our first direct link to Northern California. Given its global prominence as a tourism and business centre, we anticipate strong demand in First, Business and Economy Class, not only between San Francisco and Abu Dhabi, but onwards to destinations across our network and the networks of our codeshare partners,” said Etihad’s president and CEO James Hogan. Etihad’s codeshare partner in the US is American Airlines.

Chris McGinnis

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Bigger bins + Check-in not required + Beware LAX traffic mess + New low fare O’Hare flights + Big new build hotel LA Live +

World’s 5 most popular cities (and my comments)

Are frequent flyer programs designed to fail?

Are Uber, Airbnb or Lyft safe?

More TSA scrutiny on cell phones + Southwest overseas + United carry-on enforcement + SF hotel rates soar + More Silvercar

7 ways to avoid summer storm delays (TravelSkills on CNN)

Traveling with Carly Simon (reprise)

Free wi-fi NYC airports + New Star Alliance member + More food at ATL + Clear card in Vegas + UberX on sale

5 ways Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner still wows

How to save $$ on pricey inflight wi-fi

5 key questions to ask at hotel check in

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Are frequent flyer programs designed to fail?

This clever new 30-second video from Virgin America hits the nail on the head when it comes to traveler irritation with frequent flyer programs. The video uses the popular “crane game” to depict how travelers feel when trying to redeem miles for trips or perks. It arrives at a time when we’re more frustrated than normal due to summer blackout dates and the seeming impossibility of ever getting that “free” round trip for 25,000 miles.

Today Virgin launched a new campaign to play off frequent flyer frustration. The #loyaltymademedoit microsite asks: Has loyalty got you trapped in a dysfunctional relationship?

I would say “yes” based on the way many TravelSkills readers seem to have a love/hate relationship with their airline of choice. I see it on the blog’s comments and I hear it almost daily in emails.

The angst came in loud and clear when giant programs like Delta SkyMiles and United MileagePlus announced that they would be tying loyalty programs to spending instead of miles flown earlier this year.

I hear it about this time of year when people try to redeem those hard earned miles for trips home for the winter holidays.

In the business section of the New York Times this week, the headline read, “Fliers facing fewer rewards” and was full of angry words like these:

“I was like, ‘Seriously, you’re taking another thing away?’ ” Ms. Martin said. The changes, she said, have left her frustrated, but she feels that she has no choice but to take whatever miles she can, “mostly to pay for upgrades so we can get back some of the perks like more legroom that we used to get for free.”

So I think Virgin’s on to something here.

Do you love…or hate your primary frequent flyer program? Why? Please leave your comments below.

–Chris McGinnis

Disclosure: Virgin America is a sponsor of the TravelSkills blog

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Are Uber, Airbnb or Lyft safe?

More TSA scrutiny on cell phones + Southwest overseas + United carry-on enforcement + SF hotel rates soar + More Silvercar

7 ways to avoid summer storm delays (TravelSkills on CNN)

Traveling with Carly Simon (reprise)

Free wi-fi NYC airports + New Star Alliance member + More food at ATL + Clear card in Vegas + UberX on sale

5 ways Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner still wows

How to save $$ on pricey inflight wi-fi

Is Chengdu China’s Chicago?

Delta waffles on transcon upgrade policy

6 most irritating actions of infrequent flyers

Pay more for fewer hassles? + Delta’s big boast + United expands in Latin America + Lush new LAX lounge

Newer, lighter Emirates A380s coming to SFO, IAH

Trip Report: SAS business class SFO-Copenhagen (PHOTOS)

Is Uber illegal?

5 key questions to ask at hotel check in

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San Francisco airport runway construction update

You must see this mesmerizing video of fog rolling over SF from Simon Christen.

On May 17, San Francisco International Airport shut down two of its four runways for federally mandated safety upgrades.

Since then, summer fog and heavy air traffic have caused occasional minor back ups, but significant delays have been minimal. Over the last month, I have noticed longer taxi times and airplane “traffic jams”  as they wait in line to depart at peak times. I’ve kinda enjoyed the new flight path for departures (a hard right immediately after take off). But I’ve heard from few travelers experiencing anything major, or ongoing. Have you? 

Due to a combination of weather and outdated runway design, SFO has one of the worst reputations for on-time performance among all major airports. That’s not great. But the fact that things have not gotten worse due to the construction project is good news.

“The project is moving along well; we’re a bit ahead of schedule, now looking at completion in late August. Delays are on-track with our expectations; averaging about 15-20 minutes when weather is not a factor, 30-35 minutes when we start the day with low clouds and fog,” airport spokesperson Doug Yakel told TravelSkills. 

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New flight paths are about the biggest change fliers have felt during SFO runway shutdow (Courtesy SFO)

New flight paths are about the biggest change fliers have felt during SFO runway shutdow (Courtesy SFO)

Virgin America says that the impact of the construction project on travelers has been eased through a combination of carriers altering summer schedules ahead of time and its proactive notification to guests. 

Last month TravelSkills obtained data from FlightStats that show that not much changed between April (prior to the shutdown) and early June (after the runway shutdown). Before the project began, 75-80% of arrivals and departures were on time, and the same held afterwards. When arrivals and departures are delayed, the average wait before and after the shutdown remained about the same, too, in the 45-60 minute range. Not great. But not bad enough to spoil a business trip. And not all that out of the ordinary. 

So it appears that so far, we have a non-event on our hands in San Francisco. What do you think? Have you experienced significant delays this summer at SFO or elsewhere? Leave your comments below. 

–Chris McGinnis

Are you in the market for a new credit card? Looking for a fat points or mileage bonus to sweeten your balance? Then check out our BEST CREDIT CARDS FOR BUSINESS TRAVELERS and scoop up the deals! Top off that mileage balance for a free trip home for the holidays!

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Check out these popular recent TravelSkills posts:

Free wi-fi NYC airports + New Star Alliance member + More food at ATL + Clear card in Vegas + UberX on sale

5 ways Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner still wows

How to save $$ on pricey inflight wi-fi

Is Chengdu China’s Chicago?

Delta waffles on transcon upgrade policy

6 most irritating actions of infrequent flyers

Pay more for fewer hassles? + Delta’s big boast + United expands in Latin America + Lush new LAX lounge

Newer, lighter Emirates A380s coming to SFO, IAH

Trip Report: SAS business class SFO-Copenhagen (PHOTOS)

Is Uber illegal?

5 key questions to ask at hotel check in

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5 ways Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner still wows

The crew on my 787 Dreamliner flight from San Francisco to Chengdu (and back!). (Photo: Nancy Branka

The crew on my 787 Dreamliner flight from San Francisco to Chengdu–and back (Photo: Nancy Branka)

The shine has not come off Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner.

It’s been almost four years since ANA, the inaugural customer for the 787-8, took possession of the first aircraft and flew its first commercial flight from Tokyo to Hong Kong. Yet, while 150 or so Dreamliners are currently in service, the plane is used primarily on international routes. And United Airlines is the only U.S. carrier to own the aircraft, with just 10 in the fleet right now. That means the number of North American passengers who have experienced the 787 remains small. I had flown on the 787 twice, three years before, but when I boarded the Dreamliner for United’s inaugural 14-hour flight from San Francisco to Chengdu, China (CTU), it thrilled me.

Over time, as more and more 787s go into service, it will be just another aircraft. But in the meantime, here are five things still worth getting excited about on this pretty plane:

Humidity – One of the big benefits for passengers of the 787’s 50-percent-composite-material construction is that the cabin can be pressurized to allow higher humidity. That lovely humidity is what I heard most about from passengers and crew on my SFO-CTU-SFO 787 flights. In the moister air, nasal passages do not get that burning, dried-out feeling. Eyes feel less irritated. Another benefit of higher humidity: It may lessen your chances of getting sick because germs “stick” more in dry nasal areas. Some say the lower pressure and higher humidity may reduce jet lag, but that’s a hard one to measure and I didn’t speak with anyone who experienced a noticeable difference.

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The 787’s birdlike wings that bow up during flight capture the imagination. (Photo: United Airlines)

Wings – There’s absolutely no passenger comfort benefit to the wing design, but it’s what I love most about the aircraft. For aviation aficionados, it’s breathtaking to see the shape of the 787’s wings change as the plane takes off. Positively birdlike! In fact, during our return flight, two experienced aviation journalists and I took turns gaping at the window when the angle of lift was particularly striking. If you can, take a look out the window during turbulence and see how the wings respond. A search on YouTube yields lots of passenger videos, too, of the wing flex during turbulence and takeoff.

Related: TravelSkills editor Chris McGinnis recounts his unusual experience in Tokyo during the grounding of the Dreamliner in early 2013

Spaciousness – The 787’s overhead bins sport a groundbreaking design. Strangely, overhead bins have become the battleground of the passenger experience. But these bins are exceptionally roomy, easily able to accommodate standard rollaboards. Even better is the fact that their deep curve and the way they fold into the ceiling create unusually spacious headroom in the aisle seat. Even if you’re not sitting in the aisle, the sense of roominess makes you feel like you have more headroom and even more legroom (that one’s an illusion). The fellow next to me, who was 6’3”, could easily stand in the aisle seat area. I have noticed similar design on other aircraft models as their cabins are refreshed.

Quiet – The Dreamliner is substantially quieter than its aircraft relatives, and it’s a noticeable difference. My seatmate, who was a frequent international flier, had never flown a 787 before and commented on that. Reduction in noise, besides all the environmental benefits, is a stress-reducer for passengers.

The size and lighting of the Dreamliner's windows add to the visual comfort of the flight. (Photo: Flickr/ChicagoKoz)

The size and lighting of the Dreamliner’s windows add to the visual comfort of the flight. (Photo: Flickr/ChicagoKoz)

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Mood – What a view! The windows on a 787 are the largest in civil aviation, bringing in more natural light and providing an unparalleled look at the heavens. During the flight, the color and tint of the windows changes, creating a soothing visual effect. Also unusual, Boeing has eschewed the window shade. Instead, a large button controls the light. However, when my seatmate wanted to nap and attempted to go “lights out,” we found it impossible to completely black out the window. Frustrating. I guess that’s what eye shades are for.

Bonus: Hands-free – I can’t resist mentioning this, because it does wow: In the lav, the toilet seat automatically closes and flushes, hands-free. Enough said.

Some say the 787 provides one of the best passenger experiences of any aircraft. What do you love about the Dreamliner? What not-so-much? Share your comments!

--Nancy Branka 

Disclosure: Nancy was a guest of United Airlines on the SFO-Chengdu inaugural trip. 

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Is Chengdu China’s Chicago?

Chengdu's modern airport is the fourth busiest in China (Photo: Christian Ortiz / Flickr)

Chengdu’s modern airport, 10 miles from downtown, is the fourth busiest in China (Photo: Christian Ortiz / Flickr)

Chicago’s “Second City” nickname reflects an age-old inferiority complex– it was the second largest city in the U.S. until overtaken by Los Angeles. So, when I began a trip from San Francisco to Chengdu, in southwest China and the capital of the Sichuan province, I wondered if what I’d heard about Chengdu was true.

What I had heard is that Chengdu could be considered “The Chicago of China” due to its central location and big industrial/manufacturing/transportation base as well as its “second tier” status (compared to Beijing and Shanghai) and laid back feel.

Would I find Chengdu to be at all like Chicago?

United Airlines is betting on Chengdu to be more than that. On June 9 the airline began nonstop service between San Francisco (SFO) and Chengdu (CTU) on Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft, and I traveled on the inaugural flight (as a guest of United). The 14-hour flight is the first of any U.S. airline beyond Beijing or Shanghai and into China’s interior. United’s hope is to grow service from three times a week to daily.

Chengdu is the capital of the Sichuan province (PATA.org)

Chengdu is the capital of the Sichuan province (PATA.org)

My pre-trip question reflected my naïveté about China. And perhaps the biggest lesson is that there are few parallels between the U.S. and China.

True, Chengdu is considered a “second tier” city in China (an official government designation), and, to the casual observer, Chicago could be said to sit on the same tier. But the numbers show there’s no comparison: Chengdu’s population is 14 million, while Chicago’s is 9.5 million. (Updated) It’s important to note that those numbers are for “metro areas” (for Chengdu, the sub-provincial city population, and for Chicago the U.S. Census Bureau’s Consolidated MSA that includes counties in Indiana and Wisconsin). However, Chengdu’s metro area of 4,684 square miles is less than half of Chicago’s 10,874 square miles. So you can only imagine how dense Chengdu feels.

Like Chicago, Chengdu sits in the interior of a huge country and is often overlooked by travelers. An Asia-based United Airlines sales executive I spoke with said he finds the Chinese who have traveled to New York and Los Angeles, for example, feel they have “done” the U.S. The same could probably be said of Americans who’ve been to Beijing and Shanghai.

However, like Chicago, Chengdu offers a different kind of experience and an interesting jumping-off point for other travel. And according to my seatmate on one flight, a Brit who has lived five years in Chengdu, the city is an excellent starting base from which to explore the rest of Asia: Bhutan, Nepal, Singapore, Thailand.

Living the "panda life." Chengdu's relaxed lifestyle centers on its teahouse culture. (Photo: Nancy Branka)

Living the “panda life.” Chengdu’s relaxed lifestyle centers on its teahouse culture. (Photo: Nancy Branka)

It could also be said these two cities share a relaxed lifestyle, relative to larger cities. Chicagoans are known for their friendly, aw-shucks nature, with pace a little slower than in New York. I found the same in Chengdu. Riffing on the popularity of the region’s largest tourist draw—the giant panda–Chengdu’s residents pride themselves on living “the panda life.” Pandas do little else but eat and sleep, and the lifestyle in Chengdu–with its dominant teahouse and mahjong cultures–is considered much slower-paced than Beijing or Shanghai’s.

But parallels stop there, I found.

What Chicago lacks in population, it makes up with charm. Chengdu does not. While I was pleasantly surprised by some tree-lined streets in Chengdu, the Gingkos do little to mitigate the concrete and steel as far as the eye can see. Compare this to Chicago’s anchor at Millennium Park and its long sweep of Lake Michigan shore, which make the city feel so livable. And once you’re out of the Loop and Magnificent Mile, brownstones and bungalows comprise friendly neighborhoods. By contrast, Chengdu is an intense city of high rises and more high rises. The only “charm” is the Chinese affection for lighting these skyscrapers: At night the Chengdu skyline is as jaw-dropping as Hong Kong’s.

Shopping is an obsession for the Chinese, but in Chengdu the luxury brands are everywhere, making Chicago’s Magnificent Mile feel focused and limiting. One of my favorite scenes in Chengdu is Tianfu Square, the city’s center plaza, where the almost-100-foot-tall statue of Mao Zedong stands squarely across from French jeweler Cartier. Such contrast–the story of a nation.

Chengdu will need to prove itself as a transport hub for Chinese travelers to the U.S. and vice versa. But as I said, it’s a pretty safe bet for United. San Francisco is a particularly favorable half of the city pair, with the route connecting the high-tech business of Silicon Valley with one of Asia’s major tech cities. (Seventy percent of the world’s iPads, for example, are manufactured in Chengdu.) But it’s also an untapped market for interior China’s new travelers to launch into the U.S. In fact, I met a number of people in Chengdu who had already booked the flight, thrilled to eliminate the need to connect elsewhere in Asia.

The 353-room Ritz-Carlton Chengdu opened October 2013 (Photo: Chris Cypert)

The 353-room Ritz-Carlton Chengdu (pictured here) opened October 2013 (Photo: Chris Cypert)

For American travelers like myself, the opportunity to visit a second-tier city was particularly interesting. One expert on China who was traveling with our group said the Chinese government is promoting the growth of “medium-sized” cities now, to take the heat off first-tier cities. American businesses investing in China are also seeing the growth opportunities in second-tier cities. For example, in October Ritz-Carlton opened properties in Chengdu (where I stayed) and Tianjin. The luxury market is robust in these cities.

If I had money to put on the table, I’d place United’s bet, too. The Chengdu/Chicago comparison may lose its parallels quickly, but both cities have matured to earn their place at the world economic table.

Have you been to Chengdu? If so, how do your impressions compare? Let us know in the comments.

–Nancy Branka

Disclosure: Nancy was a guest of United Airlines and Ritz-Carlton for this 3-day business trip. 

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Newer, lighter Emirates A380s coming to SFO, IAH

The business and first class lounge on upper deck of Emirates A380 (Photo: Emirates Airline)

The business and first class lounge on upper deck of Emirates A380 (Photo: Emirates Airline)

Emirates is deploying  its giant double-decker Airbus A380 on nonstop routes from both San Francisco International and Houston Intercontinental to Dubai (DXB) on December 1 and 3 respectively.

The new aircraft comes with showers, wi-fi and, yes, even the option of using your mobile phone during the flight. (Oh my!) The A380 also brings true lie-flat business class seats to these markets– Emirates Boeing 777s currently on the routes offer the less desirable “angled lie flat” version.

The A380 will offer 14 posh and private first class suites and 76 lie-flat business class seats, and 400 economy class seats. Business class seats are configured 1-2-1 and economy class seats are 10-across, configured 3-4-3. See configuration here.

Emirates' depiction of its first class shower suite (Photo: Emirates Airline)

Emirates’ depiction of its first class shower suite (Photo: Emirates Airline)

The 16 hour SFO-Dubai flight (which takes the polar route) will be the third longest route for an Emirates A380. (Flights from DXB  to LAX and IAH are longer.) These newer versions of A380 aircraft are lighter and more efficient than previous versions which were unable to fly that far.

San Francisco and Houston will be Emirates’ fourth and fifth U.S. gateways served by an A380, joining New York, Los Angeles, and Dallas/Fort Worth starting October 1.

The entire upper deck of an Emirates A380 is for business and first class passengers only. Passengers riding in first class have access to two shower suites. There’s also Emirates’s popular onboard lounge for business and first class passengers on the A380 (see photo) serving wine, beer, cocktails and canapes.  Check out the onboard experience via Google’s Street View here.

In coach, all passengers get 12 inch touch-screen entertainment, power outlets, and access to wi-fi. Also, Emirates is one of the few airlines in the world to allow passengers to use their mobile phones during the flight.

“Adding the A380 to these two important US cities illustrates the intensity of the battle being fought for the ultra long haul passenger, especially those in first and business class,” Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst and founder of Atmosphere Research told TravelSkills. “The A380 has clearly become Emirates’ long-haul workhorse. We’re witnessing a new kind of airline dogfight. But this time, instead of cheap prices, the battle is being fought with in-flight entertainment, lie-flat seats, and extensive connections via Emirates’ Dubai hub,” he said.
With announcements like this, it seems like Emirates is taking over the world…what do you think about the rapid rise of UAE carriers? Would you fly Emirates via Dubai to get to India, Africa or the Middle East? Please leave your comments below.


Chris McGinnis

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Trip Report: SAS business class SFO-Copenhagen (PHOTOS)

SAS light attendants change into chef outfits when serving dinner (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

SAS flight attendants change into chef outfits when serving dinner (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Throughout this summer, I’ll be sharing a handful of trip reports from unusual or interesting flights I’ve taken over the last year. Some of these are reprises of previous posts. Enjoy!

The flight from San Francisco International (SFO) to Copenhagen (CPH) is the longest flight operated by SAS. It lasts about 11 hours. From the US, SAS also flies to Chicago, Houston, Washington DC and New York.

My notes from the trip: 

>First of all, thank you to SAS for inviting me, free of charge, to check out its business class service between SFO and CPH, which launched last April.  Tak!

>SAS flies an Airbus A340-300 on the route with 46 seats in business class, 28 in premium economy and 171 in economy. There is no first class on this flight. The flight I took was completely sold out.

>The lowest roundtrip fares this summer are running in the $1,800 range in economy, $2,000 in premium economy and $3,028 in business class (this summer business class fare is a remarkably good deal from the west coast!). SAS is a Star Alliance carrier.

Yes, that's a reindeer sandwich served onboard SAS flights from Copenhagen (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Yes, that’s a reindeer sandwich served onboard SAS flights from Copenhagen (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

>SAS Flight 936 departs San Francisco six days a week (no Tuesday flights) at 5:35 pm and arrives Copenhagen at 1:15 pm. On the return, SAS flight 935 departs CPH at 12:25 pm and arrives at SFO at 2:45 pm the same day.

>To understand a lot of what I’m going to say about the business class experience on SAS, you must first know about the Danish concept of hygge. (Sounds like “hoo-guh”) There is no word in English that truly captures the meaning of hygge; the closest we get to it would be “cozy.” But from what I picked up from the Danish, hygge is all about warmth, camaraderie, familiarity and comfort. Think about the feeling you get when you see candles burning in a window on a cold, wet night. The smell of baking bread or cookies. Or an afternoon cuddled up next to a fireplace in a big chair with a blanket, a cup of tea and a chat with your grandmother. In nearly everything they do, Danes seem to aspire to create a feeling of hygge—even on an Airbus A340!

Here’s the slideshow! Read below for my take on the flight…

>The timing of the departure of SAS at 5:35 pm from SFO is near ideal. Taking off at 5:35 pm means you can have a full day at work. Then a nice cocktail after take off (see slideshow for eclectic bar menu), a lengthy dinner service, watch a movie and get some rest prior to arrival. (Returning the flight departs CPH at 12:25 and arrives SFO at 2:45.)

>Looking out the window at SFO’s International Terminal, the SAS Airbus A340 sports a grayish silver fuselage with the word “Scandinavian” in white and barely detectable along the side. The tail of the aircraft is navy blue, and each of its four engines is bright red.

>Upon entering business class, the best thing I can say is that it’s well, hyggelow-slung seats are configured 2-2-2, and the cabin feels open and airy, yet cozy with deep red curtains and light brown suede-ish walls. Although well maintained and clean, the blue fabric seats trimmed in gray plastic and light brown leather look and feel dated.

>Inflight entertainment screens are small, distant from the seat, and grainy—a far cry from the crisp, newer generation video screens now installed on most international carriers. Additionally, there is absolutely no in-seat storage space—all bags, purses and briefcases or laptops must be stowed in smallish overhead bins for takeoff.  On the positive side, every business class seat has a 110-volt electrical outlet.

Angled lie-flat seats in SAS business class (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Angled lie-flat seats in SAS business class (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

>SAS joins fellow European carriers Lufthansa and Air France with an angled lie-flight seat, unlike the preferred truly horizontal lie-flat seat we know and love on transatlantic flights from SFO on United, British Airways and Swiss.

>Later in the flight, a fellow passenger muttered to me, “this is like trying to sleep on stairs.” However, the passenger next to me had no problem sleeping at all. Minutes after take off, he pulled a wool cap over his head, covered up with one of the nice blue and white all cotton duvets, and slept for the duration of the flight. (I took a photo! See the show!)

>Prior to take off, a crew of cheerful flight attendants served champagne, juice or water in mod, curvaceous Orrefors crystal glassware. Once we took off, an unusual selection of cocktails was served in the same cool glasses. (See slideshow above) I had a tart and tasty concoction made with “pure green organic vodka.”

>About half an hour into the flight, cabin stewards changed into chef outfits to serve meals! They come out serving in starched tan shirts with black and white checked scarves (or kerchiefs of some sort)  tied around their necks, and full length aprons. Very cute and classy, and very hyggelig!  There was even a mom-like purser who walked around, smiled, passed out blankets and pillows and made sure everyone felt comfortable and attended-to. I have to admit that these nice soft touches turned my attention away from the hard product described above. This was fun…and felt good.

Outstanding peppered salmon starter onboard SAS (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Outstanding peppered salmon starter onboard SAS (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

>Business class meals were hearty and very good. I was especially impressed with the array of bread and crackers in the frequently passed basket. See the slideshow for some close ups of these tasty meals. I’m not sure if flight attendants do this for hygienic reasons, but they served all plates covered in clear plastic wrap that passengers had to remove. Why?

>After a nice meal and a glass or two of wine, I became tired, donned my Bucky eye mask and the noise canceling headsets provided, and fell asleep… for nearly five hours! The angled lie-flat seat did not prove to be as uncomfortable as I expected.

>For breakfast service, flight attendants changed once again… this time into suits and ties… to serve.

>I took some time to crawl around the plane and snap photos of nearly everything. Be sure to see the slideshow for a look at the oversize business class lavatory—with two windows, a full length mirror and a toilet positioned at an unusual angle.

>The SAS premium economy section is located in the first few rows of the coach section. Seats are slightly large and wider than regular economy, and configured 2-3-2. I saw that many passengers had enough room to stretch out and work on laptops. Each seat has its own video screen. (See slideshow)

>The economy cabin is configured 2-4-2 and each seat has its own inflight entertainment screen.

>Arrival in Copenhagen airport was easy. I was very impressed with the warm, sustainable and gorgeous stained wood flooring used throughout terminals. (See slideshow) The airport is small and manageable…and there’s a quick (15 mins) and easy rail link to Copenhagen Central Station.

A big bright airy business class lounge at CPH is outside security (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

A big bright airy business class lounge at CPH is outside security (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

>On my return, I took a quick look at the SAS business class lounge at CPH. It’s a big, bright and airy 2-story affair, with a very generous selection of food, salads, Carlsberg beer on tap. All tables in the dining area are topped with pots of live herbs. There are several cozy seating areas, a fireplace (see what I mean about hygge?) plenty of workspace, free wi-fi and a table full of new Macs and printers.

>Word of warning: The SAS lounge is located before passport control. And since there are several international flights departing at about the same time as the San Francisco flight, back ups and long lines are frequent—be aware of this before you get too comfy in the lounge and don’t leave enough time to get to your flight. (See slideshow for a look at what this line on the day of my departure.)

>The SAS lounge at CPH is head and shoulders above the hospital-like environment of the United Business Class lounge at SFO, which could use a little hygge help!

Overall, I really enjoyed this trip—in both directions. Despite the angled lie-flat seat, I was able to sleep, work, and enjoy meals. The quality and cheerfulness of inflight service made up for the less-than-stellar hard product.

Chris McGinnis

Disclosure: I was a guest of SAS on this flight. 

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Is Uber illegal?

(Photo: Jason Tester Guerilla / Flickr)

(Photo: Jason Tester Guerilla / Flickr)

The recent brouhaha between popular ride sharing services (such as Uber or Lyft) and airport authorities may have frequent travelers uneasy about using them for airport runs. San Francisco seems to be the locus of the current controversy, but airports are taking action in other cities, too. For example, San Antonio airport authorities cited drivers and impounded cars last week.  

Ride sharing services and apps have changed the landscape of business travel like nothing else since, say, the proliferation of mobile phones in the 1990’s.

I’m a huge fan and frequent user when I’m home or when I’m on the road. And I’m a particularly heavy user on airport runs– it’s just too easy, simple and comfortable compared to a clunky cab ride.

But I’ve wondered, and I know that many law abiding business travelers out there have wondered, too:

As much as I love my Uber rides to the airport, is it illegal? If I’m a passenger in car that’s pulled over at the airport for violating public utility commission statutes, can I be penalized?

Of course, the answer lies in a gray area.  So let’s break it down.

First off, if you use Uber Black (limo, sedan or SUV), your rides to or from the airport are legal. That’s because Uber Black drivers are professional livery drivers licensed by the Public Utilities Commission for airport runs. UberTaxi drivers are also authorized to make airport runs.  

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Uber Black cars are okay for airport runs (Photo: Adam Fagan / Flickr)

Uber Black cars are okay for airport runs (Photo: Adam Fagan / Flickr)

It gets gray when you choose the less expensive services that utilize private or “citizen” drivers (like UberX, Lyft) using their own cars, and not holding airport permits. The California Public Utilities Commission recently granted these companies (called Transportation Network Companies or TNCs) permits to operate in the state, but their permits specifically disallow airport runs. Here’s what UberX’s permit states:

UberX permit

There lies the crux of the issue: No airports have authorized the services to operate on their grounds. But in flagrant violation of the permit, they continue to drive thousands of us to and from airports across the US every single day. Now that UberX is cheaper, more convenient, and more comfortable than a taxi ride to the airport, I use it all the time. No one has ever told me what I’m doing is illegal.

And now it sounds like some, but not all UberX drivers have airport permits. In a statement to TravelSkills, an Uber spokesperson said, “We are currently working with SFO on permitting for all uberX drivers. Right now, travelers can request any driver partner that currently has an airport permit. This includes driver partners who are on both uberX and Black platforms. We encourage travelers to open the app, request a ride, and they will be connected to a ride.”

But a rash of recent reports state that airports are getting aggressive with enforcement action on UberX and Lyft. So, as a law abiding business traveler, I’m wondering, as I know you are:  If it is illegal for these companies to be operating at the airport, what happens to me if my driver gets pulled over? Could I get fined or penalized, too? As it stands right now, it sounds like the answer to that question is NO.

“Under the law as it stands right now, I don’t see any liability on the part of a passenger for an UberX or Lyft ride to or from the airport,” said travel law attorney Adam Anolik of the Anolik Law Group in Sausalito, CA. “The issue really comes down to whether what Uber and Lyft are doing is illegal. If it is, then technically passengers are conspiring with drivers to break the law.  But, since the law has never been applied to passengers in the past, passengers should feel safe using these services until the enforcement methods are changed,” he said. 

Which credit card is currently offering $500 in free travel (among many other bennies) when you sign up? Click here to find out about this “no-brainer” offer! 

So the biggest threat to your business travel schedule right now is the possibility of delay–  you might be in a car that is pulled over by police at a California airport for the driver to get an admonishment– airport police at SFO have nabbed at least 300 drivers in the last month

“Our enforcement effort is focused on the driver, with a verbal admonishment,” Doug Yakel, spokesperson for SFO told TravelSkills. “If the same individual has been given two admonishments, the third offense would lead to a citation. The citation is a notice to appear in court, where a judge would determine the fine, etc. So while this doesn’t affect riders, the fact remains that TNC operations at any airport in California require the specific authorization of that airport.”

Do you use UberX or Lyft to get to the airport? Have you seen a driver get an admonishment yet? Who do you think is going to win…or lose…in this struggle? Please leave your comments below.

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Minty fresh transcons + AA US Upgrades + Salt Lake fight + United SFO consolidated + Amex/Uber tie up + Tokyo’s newest hotel

New JetBlue Mint class cranks up on LAX-JFK; coming to SFO in October (Photo: JetBlue)

New JetBlue Mint class cranks up on LAX-JFK; coming to SFO in October (Photo: JetBlue)

AIRLINES

JetBlue introduces transcon business class. This week JetBlue operated the first transcontinental A321 equipped with its new Mint business class, offering 16 lie-flat seats (including four privacy suites) and an array of special amenities and perks. It’s designed to compete with the recently upgraded premium cabins of its transcon legacy competitors, but at a much lower price (currently starting at $599 one way). For now, it’s only on one daily JFK-Los Angeles flight, but will expand as the airline takes on more of the 11 specially-equipped A321s. It will start on the JFK-SFO route on October 26.

AA, US Airways start reciprocal upgrades. American said last week that AAdvantage elites can now upgrade to first class on US Airways within 24 hours of departure on domestic flights (except Hawaii) and those to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Bahamas, Bermuda and Central America. And Preferred-level members of US Airways’ Dividend Miles can do the same on American. The size of carry-on bags on both was also standardized at 45 inches of combined dimensions. The programs are expected to merge fully in 2015, AA said.

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Salt Lake City Airport (Photo: Jim Glab)

Salt Lake City Airport (Photo: Jim Glab)

Alaska invades SLC. Slapping back at Delta for encroaching on its Seattle base, Alaska Airlines last week and this week is laying on seven new routes from Delta’s Salt Lake City hub — Portland, Boise, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose, plus a third daily SLC-SEA flight…Is American’s plan to put a two-class A321 onto the DFW-SFO route this fall a response to Virgin American’s new DAL-SFO service? … Since Delta failed to get the Love Field slots it wanted, it’s now planning four daily DFW-LAX flights instead, starting this fall.

More new international routes open up. Besides its new Dallas/Ft. Worth-Shanghai route, American also kicked off new daily service last week from DFW to Hong Kong with a three-class 777-300ER…Air China last week started flying from Washington Dulles to Beijing’s Capital International Airport four times a week, also with a 777-300ER … Qatar Airways has launched the only non-stops from Miami to the Mideast, flying a two-class 777-200 to Qatar’s new Hamad International Airport … AA’s US Airways unit began code-sharing with joint venture partner Iberia, putting the US code onto the latter’s flights to Madrid from JFK, MIA, BOS, ORD and LAX.

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AIRPORTS

United consolidates at SFO. Just a reminder: Now that United has finished renovating its Boarding Area E in Terminal 3 and added a new United Club there, all of its domestic flights now operate from T3, eliminating the need for connecting travelers to take that awful shuttle under the airport to or from Terminal 1.

Dramatic skyline view from the newest Hyatt in Tokyo (Photo: Hyatt Hotels)

Dramatic skyline view from the newest Hyatt in Tokyo (Photo: Hyatt Hotels)

HOTELS

New luxury hotels in Tokyo, Taipei. Hyatt has