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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More 787 Dreamliners flock to Bay Area + Loss of LAN

Norwegian will fly a brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliner between Oakland, Oslo and Stockholm next year.

Norwegian will fly a brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliner between Oakland, Oslo and Stockholm next year.

The Bay Area has several Boeing 787 Dreamliners headed our way in coming months.

Today, Norwegian Air Shuttle, the Scandinavian low-fare juggernaut, announced that it would add nonstop Boeing 787 Dreamliner flights to Oakland from both Oslo and Stockholm starting next May.

Premium Economy seats on Norwegian

Premium Economy seats on Norwegian

Nonstops between Oakland and Oslo will run three times per week (Mon,Wed, Fri); Oakland-Stockholm flights will run two times per week (Tues, Sat).

Norwegian, the third largest low-fare carrier in Europe says that it can offer fares as low as $236 each way (all in) due to the lower operation costs of the new 787, eight of which it has on order from Boeing.

However, upon checking briefly for Oakland-Oslo flights in May 2014 at www.norwegian.com/us, I could only find the $236 economy fare for the Oakland-Oslo portion. The cheapest fare for the Oslo-Oakland run is $357.50, for a total of $600.50. Not bad, but not $236 each way as promoted in Norwegian’s press materials.

Economy class seating on Norwegian

Economy class seating on Norwegian

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Fares for summer travel (2014) are in the $1000 roundtrip range. Premium economy fares are around $975 each way, or about $2000 round trip.

On Norwegian’s new Dreamliner, premium economy (38 seats) is configured 2-3-2 with larger cradle style seats that recline, but do not go completely flat. All leather coach seats (259) are laid out 3-3-3, with individual seatback video, and touchscreen snack ordering, similar to what we’ve seen on Virgin America.

According to Seatguru, Norwegian’s premium economy seats are 19 inches wide with 46 inches of pitch. Economy class seats are narrow, at 17.2 inches with the standard 31-32 inches of pitch.

Features of the 787: The Boeing 787 Dreamliner has much larger electrochromatic windows that dim like sunglasses if there’s a glare… they can also be electronically blacked out if you want to sleep. There’s mod LED lighting. It also has larger overhead bins. Because of the Boeing’s use of composite materials, cabin pressure can be set at about 6000 feet– most other aircraft are only able to set cabin pressure at about 8000 feet– Boeing says that on those long hauls, the pressure difference along with better ventilation will help reduce passenger discomfort and jet lag.

More 787’s in the wings…

Japan Airlines 787 now touching down at SFO

Over Labor Day weekend, Japan Airlines launched new 787 flights between SFO and Tokyo’s close in and convenient Haneda Airport, located just 30 minutes south of the center of town. Narita is located 90 minutes to the east.

As you know from previous BAT posts, ANA has a 787 flying between San Jose and Tokyo-Narita.

Starting next April, United will fly a 787 between SFO and Osaka-Kansai.

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Have you flown on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner yet? What did you think? Please leave your comments below. 

LAN inaugural Boeing 767  gets a water cannon salute at SFO in 2010

Adios! LAN inaugural Boeing 767 gets a water cannon salute at SFO in 2010

LAN CANS SFO FLIGHTS. After a four-year run, LAN will suspend its nonstop Boeing 767 SFO-Lima flight on April 1, 2014. That’s too bad because the LAN flight was SFO’s only nonstop to South America. SF-based travelers hoping to stick with LAN can now connect with its flights from LAX. But I imagine most of us here in the Bay Area will likely fly United through Houston when headed to South America. Have you flown LAN to Lima or beyond? How was it? How do you get to South America? Please leave your comments below.

Chris McGinnis

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New United nonstop to China 成 都

Chengdu is home to China's giant panda as well as 14 million residents (Photo: Martha de Jong-Lantin)

Chengdu is home to China’s giant panda population as well as 14 million residents (Photo: Martha de Jong-Lantin)

成 都

United Airlines will begin flying nonstop from San Francisco (SFO) to Chengdu (CTU), China’s fourth largest city, starting next June pending approval from the Dept of Transportation. United intends to use its new Boeing 787 Dreamliner on the route, which will run three times weekly.

United will be the first US carrier to serve Chengdu, the capital of the southwestern province of Sichuan with a population of 14 million. Sichuan is perhaps best known for its spicy cuisine such as Kung Pao chicken…it’s also the stomping ground of the giant Panda bear.

Current roundtrip economy fares for one-stop flights from SFO to Chengdu are in the $1300 range. Business class is around $4200.

chengduThe proposed flight will depart SFO at 1:35 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays and arrive at Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport at 6:50 p.m. the following day (all times local). Service from Chengdu will depart at 10 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and arrive at SFO 8:50 a.m. the same day.

Flying times will be approximately 14 hours, 15 minutes westbound (phew!) and 13 hours, 50 minutes eastbound.  This new nonstop flight will shave nearly four hours off the current travel time between the two cities which requires a stopover and plane change.

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United’s China flights offer amenities designed for Chinese customers, including: Mandarin-speaking flight attendants; personalized in-flight entertainment options, including Chinese-language services; and Chinese-style cuisine.

Have you ever been to Chengdu? What did you think? Please leave your comments below.

Chris McGinnis

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New SFO flights + United fee hike + SFO Terminal video + 787

Catching up on Bay Area Travel news: New flights to France & China; United hikes fees; video inside new SFO Terminal; flirt on Virgin America flights from San Jose; 787 Dreamliner update, new Routehappy booking site; FlightCar is back.

China Eastern's A330-200 at SFO (Photo Peter Biaggi)

China Eastern’s A330-200 at SFO (Photo Peter Biaggi)

HUANYING AND BON VOYAGE. Last Friday (April 26) was a busy day at San Francisco International.

At 9:30 am, the first China Eastern A330-200 arrived from Shanghai to a water cannon salute and a welcome celebration at the airport. For now, here’s what we know: The Airbus A330 departs SFO at 11:30 am and arrives at Shanghai Pudong airport (PVG) the following day at 4 pm. On the return, the flight departs Shanghai at 1 pm and arrives at SFO at 9:30 am. Three days a week, the flight offers continuing service to Wuhan (pop 10 million), a central Chinese city many refer to as “the Chicago of China.” At the festive inaugural dinner at the Westin St Francis, I learned that China Eastern offers two types of business class seats on its Airbus A330-200—one type is the angled lie flight, the other is a true lie flat (180 degrees flat). China Eastern’s San Francisco manager Charlie Gu assured me that the San Francisco flight will always get the newer plane with the true lie-flat seats. It has to, if it plans on competing for business travelers with United since the deployment of its excellent new business class product on SFO-PVG nonstops. Every seat on China Eastern’s A330 (coach and business) has personal seatback entertainment systems and access to AC plugs. China Eastern is the second largest carrier in China (after Air China), and flies a relatively young fleet—with an average age of just seven years. SFO joins New York, Los Angeles and Honolulu as the fourth US city served by China Eastern—although, oddly, the airline does not have a US website. China Eastern is a member of the SkyTeam alliance, which offers Delta flyers a new way to earn and burn points on flights to burgeoning China. We’ll provide an in depth look at the new China Eastern flight to Shanghai in a future post.

Passengers on United's inaugural Paris flight greet by a 12-ft Eiffel Tower & free French inspired food & drink. (Photo: United)

Passengers on United’s inaugural Paris flight greeted by a 12-ft Eiffel Tower & free French inspired food & drink. (Photo: United)

On Friday afternoon, United recommenced nonstop service between SFO and Paris-CDG. (United discontinued SFO-CDG nonstops in Oct 2005.) Flight 990 departs San Francisco daily at 2:45 p.m. and arrives at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport at 10:45 a.m. the next day. For the return, flight 991 departs Paris at 10:05 a.m. and arrives in San Francisco at 1 p.m. the same day. United operates this new service with Boeing 767-300 aircraft, which offer 30 flat-bed business class seats, 49 seats in Economy Plus and 135 seats in standard economy. The BusinessFirst cabin (configured 2-1-2) includes 15.4-inch touchscreen monitors for personal on-demand entertainment, electrical and USB outlets, iPod jacks and five-course meals. Each seat in Economy features a 9-inch touchscreen with personal on-demand entertainment, and all rows (configured 2-3-2) include access to electrical outlets. Book and fly United to Paris by May 31, and you’ll earn some tidy Mileage Plus bonuses. Air France is currently the only other carrier offering nonstops between SFO and Paris. Paris-based XL Airways offers summer season SFO-CDG flights.

UNITED HIKES CHANGE FEE TO $200. In what appears to be a poorly timed slap in the face to customers just coming off a year a dismal performance by United, the carrier has increased its fee to make changes to nonrefundable tickets by a whopping $50. That means if you want to change a domestic ticket, you’ll now pay $200 (plus any change in fare) for the honor. Want to change an international ticket? That will now be $300, thank you. Shortly after United hiked its fees, US Airways matched, which likely means its future merger partner American will follow suit. That leaves Delta as the hold out, but it’s probably waiting a bit to hike fees after taking so much heat for changing its same-day change fee last week. As we all know, Southwest does not charge change fees at all, but passengers do have to pay any difference in fare if it has increased from the time of purchase. Alaska Airlines and Virgin America still charge a much more reasonable $100 change fee. Is the $200 fee enough to make you switch away from United? Please leave your comments below.

A LOOK AT TERMINAL 3 PROGRESS. SFO has produced a video providing a virtual hardhat tour of the new Boarding Area E at United’s Terminal 3, which is due to open earlier next year. Some interesting facts picked up in the video: The glassy new terminal should be as nice or nicer than SFO’s award winning Terminal 2 (home to Virgin America and American). Expect very wide corridors, high ceilings, giant picture windows with dramatic ramp views, a new “information terrace” at the entryway, environmentally sustainable design and local food vendors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris McGinnis

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No SkyTeam for Virgin + New Delta Jets + 500 miles for middle seats

Upper Class seats on Virgin Atlantic (Photo: Gary Bembridge / Flickr)

Upper Class seats on Virgin Atlantic (Photo: Gary Bembridge / Flickr)

VIRGIN WON’T GO ALL THE WAY. For now, at least. Delta says that its new partner, Virgin Atlantic, won’t be joining SkyTeam any time soon. Seems strange considering joining an alliance was one of the main reasons troubled Virgin said it needed to partner with Delta back in December. Delta paid Singapore Airlines $360 million for its 49% stake in the British carrier. “At some point down the road SkyTeam will come up, and I’m certain that over time it will be viewed favorably, but right now that’s not the priority,” said Delta’s Ed Bastian, as reported by Bloomberg. “Their main priority is addressing their financial needs in respect of the losses they’ve been posting.” So it sounds like everyone who was hoping to be able to once again earn or burn SkyMiles for Upper Class seats on posh Virgin flights are going to have to wait a while.

BIG (NEW) DELTA JETS. Reuters reports that Delta is in talks to purchase small and wide-body jets from Airbus and Boeing in deals potentially worth about $6 billion at list prices. Potential orders involve about 20 each of the plane makers’ most popular jets – the Airbus A320 or Boeing 737 in the medium-haul, narrow-body class and the Airbus A330 or Boeing 777 in the long-range, wide-body category. Sorry folks, no A380s or 747s—or the currently grounded 787 Dreamliner. What’s your favorite Delta jet… and why? Please leave your comments below. 

Middle seat in business class on ANA's Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Look at all that space to spread out and work! (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Middle seat in business class on ANA’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Look at all that space to spread out and work! (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

BOEING 787 UPDATE. Speaking of, Boeing is apparently ready to test batteries on two 787 flights, which could lead to the resumption of flights “in a matter of weeks.” Boeing is also polling frequent flyers on their perceptions of the beleaguered aircraft, but keeping the results of these polls confidential.  Let’s help them out with a poll of our own. (Hover over the “Vote” button to cast your vote...on some browsers the button might appear clear)

Have you noticed an improvement with in-flight wi-fi performance?

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NO FOOD INTO SKY CLUB. Even though the signs posted at Sky Club entrances state that no outside food or drinks are allowed, members are still surprised when they enter a club and get scolded by agents. But, what is a traveler to do if entering a club with food purchased outside but with the intent to eat it on the plane later? Hide it! The no-food policy is intended to prohibit smells, trash, and stains from filling the club, but if you are headed for a long flight, buying food in the airport is a good plan. Typically, coffee and bottled drinks are permitted, but that Big Gulp is not. If you bought a sandwich in the terminal, hide it in your purse or briefcase and promise not to open it until you leave.

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500-MILE MIDDLE SEAT BONUS. Did you know that Delta randomly surprises Medallion level members of SkyMiles when they get stuck in a middle seat on Mondays? Apparently, it’s a practice that’s been around for a couple years, but it was news to us when reader JK emailed to tell The TICKET about his pleasant surprise. Plus, he only had to endure this middle seat for the short flight between Atlanta and Tampa. Would you accept a middle seat for 500 miles? Please leave your comment below.

TICKET POSTS ON CNN! Remember our post a while back about smart strategies for saving money using smart phones overseas? It was one of our most popular posts last year. CNN liked it too, and grabbed TICKET editor Chris McGinnis at the airport for some advice in this segment.

LAX GROWS AGAIN. Delta is beefing up its LAX schedule again with new flights to Nashville, Tenn., San Jose, Calif., and Seattle and Spokane, Wash. Seasonal summer service to Anchorage, Alaska, Boston, Mass., and Bozeman, Mont. bolsters the schedule even further. On the international front, Delta is beginning new nonstop service to San Jose, Costa Rica and adding a flight to Guadalajara, Mexico (the current flight is a sleep-busting red-eye on SkyTeam partner Aeromexico). More frequencies are being added to New Orleans, La., Oakland and Sacramento, Calif., Phoenix, Ariz., and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

BOOKING HOTELS ON DELTA.COM. Did you know that you earn one SkyMile for every $2 spent on hotels when booking your room Delta.com? Not bad! However, remember that you do NOT earn hotel program points when booking on Delta.com.

NEW ATL FLIGHTS. Delta is adding service out west for the summer season with additional nonstops from Atlanta to Bozeman and Kalispell, Montana plus Saturday nonstops from Atlanta to Missoula. The flights begin June 22.

Korean Air A380 floating over Seoul Incheon Airport.

Korean Air A380 floating over Seoul Incheon Airport. (Photo: JangSu Lee)

AIRBUS A380 (FINALLY) TO ARRIVE AT WORLD’S BUSIEST AIRPORT. Korean Air will be the first airline to fly the world’s largest passenger aircraft to Atlanta nonstop from Seoul Incheon. Service was supposed to start earlier this year, but was delayed to August 2. The plane will park at terminal E where the airport spent nearly $30 million to upgrade the gate facilities and taxiways. Korean is a Delta SkyTeam partner and passengers can earn and redeem miles for economy or business class flights. SkyMiles members can earn miles for flying Korean Air first class, but miles cannot be redeemed for Korean Air first class flights (a restriction that Delta has for all SkyTeam international first class flights…business class is going to be as good as it gets!). Watch for the big blue jumbo jet to touch down this summer! Have you flown Korean Air lately? How was your trip? Please leave your comments below.

PHOENIX SKYTRAIN TO PLANE. Starting April 8, the PHX SkyTrain will connect to the Washington & 44th St station for Valley Metro, Phoenix’s light rail system—which means you can get to/from downtown Phoenix or Mesa relatively seamlessly via just two trains.

BRAZIL FLIGHTS COULD DOUBLE. The Brazilian government is permitting U.S. airlines to apply for additional frequencies to its airports. Delta is applying for a second flight to Sao Paulo from both Atlanta and New York-JFK. If approved, both flights would have the same guaranteed flat-bed seats up front as all existing Delta flights to Brazil with the exception of Atlanta-Brasilia.

NEW IDEAS INFLIGHT APP. Facebook users can now have their say on their in-flight experience by submitting ideas for Delta’s marketing department via the new Ideas In-flight App. Other customers can comment on ideas and vote on their favorites in the hope that new practices will be feasible enough to be adopted on a larger scale. Not all ideas are good ones, but it is certainly fun to weigh in with your thoughts and learn what other travelers think about the Delta in-flight experience.

Gettin' cozy on Delta.

Gettin’ cozy on Delta.

SNUGGLE UP WITH DELTA. A new partnership with Westin Hotels and its Heavenly Bed program is coming to a BusinessElite cabin near you. United Airlines was the first carrier to offer such a partnership, but Delta quickly followed suit offering its own version of comfy duvets. The new cushy comforts will also be available on domestic BusinessElite flights from JFK to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle plus from Atlanta to Honolulu. The new duvets and pillows will appear in June, and on ultra-long-haul flights over 12 hours, a special lumbar pillow will be provided.

MORE LIE-FLAT SEATS TO JAPAN. Starting April 1, Delta will offer lie flat seats on its Boeing 767-300ER flights between SFO and Tokyo Narita. Flights between Portland PDX and Narita already have the flatties.

DRIVING TO/FROM NYC AIRPORTS. Hertz on Demand members can drive a Hertz car between airports and several locations in Manhattan for less than half of what you’d pay a cab or car service…and there is no membership fee. Would you?

STARWOOD CROSSOVER REMINDER. If you have not yet linked your Delta and Starwood accounts, be sure to do so here. Starwood Gold and Platinum members can begin earning Starwood points on all Delta purchases made through delta.com or a travel agent (third-party opaque sites like Hotwire or Priceline do not qualify) and Medallion members can earn SkyMiles on all of your Starwood hotel stays (one mile per dollar spent although the same restriction on third-party opaque sites still applies). This double dipping will prove to be a great partnership for travelers looking to rack up points. Platinum and Diamond Medallion members will also benefit from free Internet access at Starwood hotels while Starwood Platinum members can enjoy SkyPriority access and a free checked bag.

Dramatic rooftop pool at the brand new Okura Prestige hotel in Bangkok (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Dramatic rooftop pool at the brand new Okura Prestige hotel in Bangkok (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

BUSINESS TRIP: BANGKOK. Are you headed to Bangkok…or do you just dream about going there? Check out  the advice and photos inChris McGinnis’s latest BBC Business Trip: Bangkok– read up on the rash of new luxury hotels, where to get great Thai food, where to get a suit made, and why you should NOT ask for chopsticks.

DELTA IN AFGHANISTAN. Flyers may find it interesting that Delta has opened its first sales office on the Bagram Military Base in Afghanistan to help facilitate travel for civilians and military personnel to and from the country. While this does not indicate new Delta service to Kabul, it does mean that Delta is trying to attract military and civilian flyers to its overseas flights by connecting them on other carriers to Delta flights (notably from Dubai to Atlanta). The two-person sales office helps Delta travelers with SkyMiles accounts, ticket purchases, and other travel-related issues. Next time you are in Kabul, be sure to stop by!

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787 issues affecting United SFO flight plans

United's  Boeing 787 Dreamliner (Photo: United Airlines)

United’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner (Photo: United Airlines)

The ongoing technical issues and grounding of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner are having multiple repercussions for TravelSkills Readers (BATs).

In addition to the cancellation of ANA’s flights between San Jose and Tokyo (currently through at least May 31), United is having to alter its plans to add new transoceanic nonstops from San Francisco International (SFO) this spring due to the grounding of its six 787s.

Last year, United announced that it would add new nonstop flights between SFO and both Paris and Taipei this spring. Initially, its Boeing 777-200ER nonstops to Taipei were to have started on April 9. Nonstops to Paris (using a 767-300ER) were to have started April 11.

Since the aircraft United was planning to use on those routes are being used to plug holes in its flight schedule due to the 787 grounding, those dates have been pushed back to April 26 for Paris, and June 6 for Taipei.

In a statement to TravelSkills, United said, “While the grounding of Boeing 787 aircraft worldwide is delaying the launch of United’s service from San Francisco to Paris and Taipei as we reallocate aircraft, we remain committed to that service and believe they will both be successful when they launch on April 26 and June 6, respectively. We will work to offer alternate flight options to ticketed customers.”

Currently, the period to take advantage of United’s 50%-100% Mileage Plus bonus offers on these new flights reflects the original start dates…United has not yet made any changes to effective dates on the promotional pages, but told TravelSkills:  “We will be adjusting the promotions and will accommodate those that have already registered accordingly.” Keep an eye on that here:  Paris bonus page.   Taipei bonus page.

We also asked United if the start dates for this service could be pushed back again if the 787 is still not flying by late April or May– so far, no response.

Have you been inconvenienced by the grounding of the 787 yet? Please leave your experiences or comments below!

–Chris McGinnis

 

 

Catching up on Bay Area Travel news (Feb 10)

New fees on the way at Southwest Airlines (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

New fees on the way at Southwest Airlines (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Here’s what TravelSkills Readers (BATs!) need to know this week….

United Mileage Plus in court. A federal judge has rejected United’s attempt to throw out a lawsuit accusing the world’s largest carrier of taking benefits away from some of its most loyal fliers. The suit claims United revoked Million Milers’ “Lifetime Premier Executive” status, which entitled them to favored treatment in bookings, seating priority and upgrades, and demoted them to lower-tier “Gold” status.

Superstorm Nemo forces airlines to waive fees. The giant snowstorm that swept through the Northeast this weekend forced airlines to waive change fees for travelers holding tickets for air travel through Monday Feb 11. United was the last major carrier to join the gang offering to waive the fees, and then had to expand the window for waivers from 8-9 Feb to 8-11 Feb. Remember, if your flight is canceled and you decide to not take a trip at all (instead of accepting the airlines’ offer to re-accommodate you on another flight) you can ask for a full refund.

Spring break could be pricey, dicey this year. An early Easter (Sunday, Mar 31), that cold winter back East, and an improving economy means that travelers should brace for an expensive and crowded Spring Break travel season this year. Whether you have business trip plans or beach trip plans, if you plan to travel during the last two weeks of March—you need to make reservations now… and plan to deal with crowds and high prices. Listen to BAT editor Chris McGinnis discuss this news on KCBS last Friday.

Earn Virgin Elevate points when dining out. Virgin announced a new partnership with Mogl, allowing Elevate members earn points for something we all do a lot of in the Bay Area—dine out. All you have to do is register your credit card with Mogl, and then dine out in participating restaurants (good selection in SF and other California cities) The offer’s a bit complicated, but why not sign up? Details here.

American + US Airways merger expected this week. It’s been a long time coming, but most industry watchers say that a merger between American Airlines and US Airways will finally be announced this week. Most expect the new airlines to be called American, but the new CEO will be US Airways current CEO Doug Parker. The airline will be based in Dallas. Since both American and US Airways have little presence in the Bay Area, the impact here will be negligible.

Winter hotel promos: Marriott’s Megamiles promo is back—you can earn double airlines miles for every stay through April 30. Stay at Best Western three times between now and April 14 and you’ll get a certificate for one free night good for those price spring or summer peak season stays later this year.

Fly American from the Bay to Hawaii? An enhanced codeshare agreement between American and Alaska Airlines will allow American to put its code and sell tickets on the 22 Alaska Airlines flights from the Bay to Hawaii. For those of you with big banks of unused AAdvantage miles with dreams of tropical paradise, now’s the time to redeem.

ANA Dreamliner cancellations at San Jose extended. Until the root cause of battery malfunctions and fires can be determined, the Dreamliner will not fly to San Jose (or anywhere.) While investigators seem to be making slow progress, ANA decided to go ahead and cancel Dreamliner flights all the way through March 30 (That’s nearly 10 weeks of no flights.) TravelSkills asked ANA why they don’t substitute another aircraft on the route, they said that they only have certification to fly the 787 on the route and that applying to use another aircraft could take weeks or months. In addition, ANA is likely having a tough time filling the holes in its schedule by the grounding of 17 of its aircraft, and for now, its easier to bus San Jose passengers up 101 to catch their flights at SFO.

New fees at Southwest. Southwest Airlines passengers who are used to not showing up for a flight and then requesting full credit for that flight for future use later are in for a surprise. Southwest says it will soon impose a no-show fee on cheaper restricted tickets if you don’t contact the airline and cancel your plans within 24 hours of flight time. Southwest’s “Early bird” check in fees have increased to $12.50 from $10. In addition, if you want to nab an open position in the first boarding group, Southwest now charges a $40 fee for that. In addition, the fee for oversized or overweight bags, or a third checked have increased from $50 to $75 each. Southwest still does not charge for the first or second checked bag…but industry scuttlebutt is that Southwest will likely join other carriers in charging bag fees starting next year.

Business class to Orange County. Did you know that AirTran flies daily a 2-class Boeing 737 (business and coach) with Gogo wi-fi between SFO and Orange County? Coach class roundtrip fares are in the $150 range, and business class is only $315. (The flight stops at SNA, then continues on to Cabo)

BAT headlines from this week:

10 things about Singapore Airlines A380 at SFO (Photos)

United maintains dominance at SFO

Virgin America CEO David Cush: Why San Jose?

 

 

 

Boeing’s 787 grounded: My report from Tokyo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Chris McGinnis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

SFO gets United Boeing 787 Dreamliner after all

United’s new baby: The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is coming to SFO! (Photo: United Airlines)

United will deploy its shiny new Boeing 787 Dreamliners on get-acquainted runs between domestic hubs and Houston for two months this fall, including one route to/from San Francisco International. Eventually, the planes will fly off on previously announced international routes. But in November and December, they’ll be making calls here at SFO.

From November 4 through December 2, a United Dreamliner will depart SFO at 12:15 am, arriving Houston at a painful 5:41 am five times per week. The return flight from Houston will depart at 5:45 pm, arriving SFO around 8 pm. From December 3 through January 3, the flights will be daily.

Yes, you read that correctly, United is positioning its shiniest, newest plane on a red-eye flight from SFO to Houston. Yuck. The upside is that there will be plenty of room in business class to lie flat and sleep (if you get upgraded to one of the 36 true lie flat seats). But if you are sitting in the back, looking out of those 30% larger windows, all you will see is the black of night. The same goes for the return flight from Houston… at that time of year, the sun has set by 5:45 pm.

A United spokesperson did not have a ready answer when I asked about this owly-bird scheduling for SFO flights. Dreamliner debut flights between Houston and Los Angeles (LAX), Chicago (ORD), Cleveland, Denver and Dulles are all during daylight hours, so it seems odd that SFO’s are all at night. Too bad. (United’s release does say that scheduling is subject to change, so maybe we’ll get lucky…)

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Nonetheless, the allure of the new 787 is definitely going to draw interest among die-hard aviation geeks. However, flying between SFO and Houston is not cheap– mid November round trip fares are currently running about $480. For those interested in booking a seat on the new bird, these 787 flights will go on display on United.com starting September 1.

United has 50 Dreamliners on order– it will get five of them by the end of this year.

Below is an interesting infographic about United’s new bird.  Will you go out of your way to fly on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner? Please leave your comments below. 

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United reveals routes for new Boeing 787 Dreamliner

You’ll be able to spot United’s new 787 by the serrated edge of its jet engines. (Photo: United Airlines)

But unfortunately, none of the new routes are to or from United’s big hub at San Francisco International.

Here’s the statement from United about where it’s positioning its shiny new bird:

United Airlines today announced the first international routes for the airline’s newest addition to its fleet, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. In addition to the previously-announced service from its Denver hub to Tokyo Narita, starting March 31, 2013, the airline will operate nonstop 787 service five days a week between its Houston hub and Lagos, Nigeria, beginning Jan. 7, 2013. United will also operate daily, nonstop 787 service between its Los Angeles hub and its Narita hub, beginning Jan. 3, 2013, and Los Angeles to Shanghai, beginning March 30, 2013.United will also operate daily, nonstop 787 service from its Houston hub to Amsterdam and London Heathrow on a temporary basis. Houston to Amsterdam service begins Dec. 4, 2012, and Houston to London Heathrow service begins Feb. 4, 2013.

Gosh, why do B.A.T.s (Bat Area Travelers) feel so left out? As it stands right now, SFO is not scheduled to get Dreamliner service from ANY airline as of today. As I reported here earlier this week, ANA has announced that it will bring the Boeing 787 Dreamliner to the Bay Area when it introduces new flights between San Jose and Tokyo Narita in January 2013.

When TravelSkills called United and asked, “Hey, what about SFO?” spokesperson Mary Ryan said, “Please keep in mind that today’s route announcement is only the first of several routes that will ultimately be flown using the 787. We also have yet to announce 787 domestic service…With 50 787s on order, United customers around the world can expect to see the aircraft on both existing and new long-haul routes in the future.”

Business class onboard United’s new Boeing 787 Dreamliner– note the “dimmer switch” under the window? (Photo: United Airlines)

Of course, most frequent travelers from the Bay Area would love to give the new bird a try. It’s got much larger electrochromatic windows that dim like sunglasses if there’s a glare… they can also be electronically blacked out if you want to sleep. There’s mod LED lighting. It also has larger overhead bins. Because of the Boeing’s use of composite materials, cabin pressure can be set at about 6000 feet– most other aircraft are only able to set cabin pressure at about 8000 feet– Boeing says that on those long hauls, the pressure difference along with better ventilation will help reduce passenger discomfort and jet lag. However, after an overnight 787 flight in Asia a Wall Street Journal reporter wrote that the ride was “a modest improvement, not dramatic difference.”

In terms of size, the Boeing 787 is about the size of a Boeing 767…the plane only holds 219 passengers and is configured with 36 seats in BusinessFirst, 72 seats in Economy Plus and 111 seats in Economy. By comparison, United’s internationally configured Boeing 777 holds about 250 passengers. A big Boeing 747 holds 374.

For a detailed view of United’s rollout of its new B787 earlier this month, check out this slideshow from USA Today. 

What’s your favorite long haul aircraft? Why? Would you fly a United Boeing 787 Dreamliner from SFO? Please leave your comments below. 

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