Virgin Atlantic flies only Boeing 787s on its SFO-London nonstops (Photo: Virgin)
Today United and Virgin Atlantic have a great deal on round trip, nonstop flights to London from many major US gateways- just $481 round trip for winter and spring trips!
This is an especially good deal– any time we see nonstops west coast to Europe for less than $500, we jump!
What’s best about this sale is the wide window during which you can get the deal- according to Google Flights, the deal is good for flights from now all the way through mid May 2017. This includes the popular and busy spring break timeframe.
Google flights showing SFO-London for just $481 for winter and spring trips
From SFO, you can now fly on Virgin Atlantic’s two new B787 Dreamliners plying the route across the pond. United flies 777s on the SFO-LHR Heathrow route.
WOW Air’s one-stop flights from SFO to London are as low as $440 (with big fees). From Oakland, Norwegian Air offers fares from Oakland to London as low as $385 roundtrip (with restrictions) so this is clearly a competitive move on the part of the majors. From San Jose, there are competitive fares ($495) on to London on Air Canada and United, but require a stop enroute.
NOTE: Currently British Airways does not seem to be participating in this great deal.
Find these deals on Google Flights. NOTE: If flights are not found on Google flights, try United.com or VirginAtlantic.com, both of which are still showing these fares as of 6 pm Wednesday.
Virgin Atlantic flights SFO LHR
Fares available on Weds January 18 and subject to change.
Alaska Airlines passing out goodies to Virgin Elevate passengers this week (Image: Alaska Airlines)
Today Alaska Airlines sent an email to Virgin America Elevate members with a nice gift: 10,000 miles or a $100 discount.
To get the gift, you must link your Elevate and Mileage Plan accounts by January 31.
If you don’t yet have an Alaska Mileage Plan account, the email provides a new account number for you. Just click the activate button, fill out a few fields and you’re done. If you already have both Alaska and Virgin accounts, you can link them here.
Screenshot of email from Alaska Airlines
I linked my accounts this morning, and while Alaska says that the 10,000 mile gift will automatically show up in my Mileage Plan account, I don’t see them there yet… so it’s not instantaneous.
In addition to linking accounts, the email explains that Alaska will match your Virgin Elevate status with the comparable tier in Alaska’s program– MVP, MVP Gold, and MVP Gold 75K. (Side note: Alaska will match your elite status with several other carriers– just send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and include: your name, Alaska Mileage Plan number, front/back scan of your elite card from other airline, copy of your most recent statement from other airline. The process should take about three weeks.)
If you link your accounts, you do not have to convert points to miles…yet. Once you go through the linking process, you’ll get this reminder: “Your Elevate and Mileage Plan accounts will both remain active. Your balances aren’t going anywhere, and in fact, you can continue to earn Elevate points or Mileage Plan miles when you fly on Virgin America or Alaska Airlines.” For now, I think it’s best to just hold on to your Virgin points and not convert them until you have a specific flight you want to redeem for… then you should examine whether it makes more sense to use miles or points for the transaction.
To help explain things- and brag a bit about how its Mileage Plan is the last remaining mileage (vs revenue)-based program, Alaska created the short video below. It also points to Alaska’s robust roster of partners and destinations where you can now use your Virgin points.
So where can you go on Alaska Airlines- or its many partners and for how many miles? Be sure to check out its helpful interactive award chart here.
Here’s an interesting tip from reader Nick H that should make American AAdvantage members smile… has anyone tried to take advantage of this loophole yet?
For those of you who are Virgin America and/or American flyers, I just discovered a neat trick. Since Alaska now owns Virgin, and Alaska is an American partner (but not in OneWorld) you can actually fly on Virgin America and get full credit as if the flight is on American.
You just have to book on alaskaair.com and make sure to select AAdvantage as the program. AFTER you book, it also pulls in your status, which then makes additional seats available, i.e. premium economy and exit rows.
I still consider Virgin the best domestic airline aside from the Transcon 321T to NYC on American, so this is a neat trick to me. And they fly to Hawaii, so aside from Hawaiian’s new Airbus they are also the best way to fly there!
All of these are signs that business travelers stand to benefit most from the Alaska-Virgin combo. With its acquisition of Virgin, Alaska hopes to build a West Coast powerhouse. To do that, it’s going to have to win the hearts, wallets and repeat business of Virgin loyalists in the Bay Area.
Shortly after the deal closed last month, Alaska offered Virgin Elevate elite members access to benefits such as priority check in and boarding on Alaska Air flights. Last week it invited Elevate members to join its Mileage Plan program and convert Virgin points to Alaska miles at a relatively generous rate of 1.3 to 1. Then it even reduced the mileage cost on many award flights. It also recently added free movies, chat and texting on flights equipped with Gogo. I expect that frequent travelers will see even more coddling like this over the next year.
So it’s good news on the points/miles front. But time will tell regarding something more important: fares. We’ll be keeping an eye on those markets where Alaska and Virgin have competed keenly on price, such as SFO-SEA or LAX-SEA. Right now, you can fly roundtrip on those routes for as little as $120-$150 booked in advance, or around $250-$300 at the last minute. Let’s see if that will last.
Starwood is shifting its Virgin America loyalty link to Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan. (Image: Alaska Airlines)
Members of the Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) loyalty program won’t be able to participate in Virgin America’s Elevate plan in about a week.
John Wolf, a loyalty marketing executive at Starwood parent Marriott International, tells TravelSkills that SPG “has decided to focus its partnership on Alaska (Airlines’) Mileage Plan and end its partnership with Virgin America’s Elevate program.”
The company is encouraging SPG members who participate in Elevate to join Alaska’s Mileage Plan if they’re not already in it.
After January 6, Wolf told us, SPG members won’t be able to earn Elevate points on their hotel stays, or directly transfer SPG Starpoints into Elevate accounts.
“SPG members will be able to use Starpoints to travel on Virgin America by transferring Starpoints to Alaska Mileage Plan miles and redeeming them for Virgin America flights on alaskaair.com starting January 9, 2017,” he said.
“Furthermore, SPG members can continue to transfer Starpoints to Alaska Mileage Plan at a 1:1 ratio – and earn 5,000 bonus miles when they transfer 20,000 Starpoints to Alaska Mileage Plan.”
Alaska Airlines has already said that starting January 9, Elevate members will be invited to start new accounts in Mileage Plan so they can earn award travel on Alaska and its international partners. The airline said Elevate members will be able to convert Elevate points into Mileage Plan miles at a rate of 1.3 Mileage Plan miles per Elevate point.
Marriott Rewards is also an Elevate partner, but Wolf noted that there is no change in the Marriott-Elevate relationship. “The two programs (SPG and Marriott Rewards) continue to be run separately until a new program is introduced,” he said.
Delta’s food got healthier with things like wraps from Luvo. (Image: Delta)
A nutritionist rates Virgin America’s and Delta’s main cabin food as the healthiest.
Do you care about the calories and nutritional content of the food and snacks you eat on airlines? Charles Platkin PhD does. He’s a nutritionist with the online nom de plume ‘The Diet Detective’, and his latest annual study of airline food content for economy class travelers has Virgin America and Delta ranked at the top.
Virgin America’s offerings rated 4-1/4 stars overall in his study (on a 1 to 5 scale), while Delta pulled down 4 stars and a “most improved” designation. The bottom-dwellers in the study were Frontier and Spirit, each earning just one star and a “shame on you” catcall.
Platkin says Virgin America – which also took top honors in his 2015 study — continues to do “a very good job of creating interesting, thoughtful food in all categories except for individual snacks.” In fact, he says, “all the airlines could do better with their snack choices – there is no clear leader in this category.” (His data was gathered before Delta’s recent announcement of new snack choices.)
An edamame wrap on Virgin America. (Image: Virgin America)
Overall, “This has been a slow year in general for innovation in terms of healthy foods, transparency, and food consciousness (no GMOs, organic, lighter and sustainable foods),” he wrote. “Airlines other than Delta and Virgin America seem very slow to catch on to the food awareness that is going on around the country and around the world. I’d think it would be good business for them to provide better, healthier and more conscientious food.”
Air Canada matched Delta in earning 4 stars; ratings for other airlines were 3.75 for Alaska (making us wonder whether Alaska’s or Virgin’s menu planners will dominate after their merger); 3.5 for JetBlue; 3.25 for United; 3 for American; 2 for Southwest (peanuts, anyone?), 1.75 for Hawaiian and Allegiant; and 1 for Spirit and Frontier.
Economy class snack items on American. (Image: American Airlines)
For serious foodies, the best thing about the Diet Detective’s research is the comprehensive nutritional information he provides for every individual snack and meal offering on every airline, including calories, fat, sodium, protein, carbohydrate and fiber content, along with the number of minutes you’d have to walk to burn off each item. He also provides caloric totals and general conclusions for each carrier. Click on the above link to this year’s study and you’ll see what we mean.
For instance, here are his thoughts on United for this year: “United is the 4th largest airline in the U.S., they should be thinking about healthy food. Years ago, they were number one in this area. The breakfast, lunch and dinner menu has many new options; however, healthy meal choices fare limited. It’s too bad United eliminated the oatmeal for breakfast; it was a good choice. The good news, nutrition-wise, is that they did put eggs back into the lineup.”
Readers: Do you care about the content of economy class food items? What’s your favorite single snack or meal, and on which airline?
Virgin America will add SFO-Orlando flights next year. (Image: Virgin America)
In domestic route news, Alaska Airlines and Virgin America provide details of their new San Francisco flights; American Airlines adds routes at Washington Reagan National and Phoenix, but drops one from Los Angeles; Delta adds a pair of Florida routes; OneJet expands at Pittsburgh; and Frontier will resume seasonal Cleveland-West Coast service.
Alaska Airlines has announced details of the new San Francisco services it mentioned earlier this week. On June 14, Alaska’s Virgin America unit will begin daily A320 flights from SFO to Orlando – but you’ll have to wake up early, because they depart SFO at 6:30 a.m.
On June 15, Alaska will expand its California Corridor presence by launching three daily SFO-Orange County roundtrips, increasing to four on July 18. (You might recall that Virgin America jumped into the SFO-SNA market in 2009, only to jump back out less than a year later in the face of stiff competition from Southwest.). Also on July 18, Alaska adds a pair of daily San Francisco-Minneapolis-St. Paul roundtrips. The Orange County and MSP flights will use 76-seat SkyWest E175s with first class, premium class and main cabin seating.
Delta is beefing up its east coast presence with new service from Boston to Florida. On February 18, Delta will begin twice-daily service from Boston to Tampa, and on February 17 it starts weekend-only (Saturday and Sunday) flights from Boston to Ft. Myers. (JetBlue also flies both routes.) Both routes will use Airbus A319s.
An American Eagle/Republic E175 will fly from Washington D.C. to Northwest Arkansas. (Image: American Airlines)
American Airlines plans to expand at Washington Reagan National in the spring. On April 4, it will kick off new daily American Eagle/Republic Airlines service from DCA to Northwest Arkansas Airport in Fayetteville (near Walmart headquarters) with an Embraer 175. And on the same date it will begin twice-daily American Eagle/PSA Airlines service from DCA to Grand Rapids, Mich., with CRJ 200s; and daily Eagle/Republic roundtrips from DCA to Pensacola, Fla., with an E175.
Meanwhile, American this month began new American Eagle/SkyWest daily CRJ 700 service between its Phoenix hub and Santa Fe, N.M. American used to fly to Santa Fe from Los Angeles, but discontinued that service in 2015. It also serves Santa Fe from Dallas/Ft. Worth. And speaking of Los Angeles, American has decided to discontinue its three-year-old non-stop service between LAX and Pittsburgh as of February 14.
OneJet uses small Hawker 400XPs on short-haul routes. (Image: OneJet)
One airline that’s growing at Pittsburgh is OneJet, which operates small business jets in regional markets under public charter rules. OneJet plans to begin daily PIT-Richmond service March 1, followed by daily PIT-Albany flights March 22. It already flies from Pittsburgh to Hartford, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Louisville and Cincinnati.
Frontier Airlines, which introduced seasonal flights last year from Cleveland to four West Coast cities, is bringing them back in 2017. In April, Frontier will add service from Cleveland to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland, with flights operating three or four days a week and fares starting as low as $79 one way.
A commemorative livery on an Alaska Air 737 arrives from Seattle to celebrate the takeover of Virgin America (Photo: Peter Biaggi / SFO)
Alaska Airlines today officially closed its acquisition of Virgin America and announced plans to combine some aspects of operations and loyalty programs, but said that the two airline brands will remain separate for now. The company also announced some new routes out of San Francisco in 2017.
(Scroll down for a slideshow of the celebration at SFO)
“No decisions regarding the Virgin America brand have been made. Alaska plans to continue to operate the Virgin America fleet with its current name and product for a period of time while it conducts extensive customer research to understand what fliers value the most,” Alaska said. “Virgin America will continue to fly under its brand with no immediate changes to the onboard product or experience.” The company said it expects to reach a decision about the Virgin brand “in early 2017,” but noted that customers won’t see any big changes to the Virgin product “within the next 12 months.”
The effects of the merger begin on December 19, when customers will be able to buy Virgin America tickets through the alaskaair.com website, although Virgin America’s website will continue to sell them “for the immediate future” as well.
Also starting December 19, members of Virgin’s Elevate loyalty program will be able to earn points on Alaska Airlines flights, and Alaska’s Mileage Plan members can earn miles on Virgin’s flights. Elite members of both programs will get priority check-in and boarding on either airline. And Virgin America elite members will soon enjoy perks like last minute upgrades to Alaska Airlines new premium economy seats.
Snacks with a message at the Alaska/Virgin announcement. (Image: Chris McGinnis)
The two loyalty programs will not be combined for now, Alaska said, but on January 9, Elevate members will be invited to activate new Mileage Plan accounts, so they can earn miles not only on Alaska but also on its international partner airlines, which fly to more than 800 global destinations. Elevate elite members who start a Mileage Plan account will get equivalent elite status in that program. Also starting January 9, members of both programs will be able to claim award travel on either carrier.
What’s yet to be determined is what the exchange rate between the two programs will be...Virgin’s operates on points per dollar spent, and Alaska’s still works on miles flown, so it could get messy. But I’m hoping that Alaska makes the ratio something that will surprise and delight Elevate members… so stay tuned for more on that..
What’s best for Virgin America flyers is all the new opportunities for earning and burning miles with Alaska’s robust collection of airline partners (15+ top shelf airlines)– this is one of the strongest elements of the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan program.
The combined Alaska-Virgin America will be the nation’s fifth largest airline. (Image: Alaska Air Group)
Alaska also announced plans to begin new service out of San Francisco next summer, including a daily flight to Orlando, two a day to Minneapolis-St. Paul and four a day to Orange County, California – although it did not specify which of the two airline brands would operate them. It said details of those routes will be announced December 21.
The company is using the slogan “different works” in the campaign promoting its merger. What’s that mean? “While Alaska Airlines and Virgin America may seem different on the surface, fundamentally we are similar,” it said. “Both airlines have always been about doing things a bit differently to offer something better for travelers. Alaska and Virgin America have built outstanding reputations for low fares, on-time performance, innovative products and experiences and award-winning customer service.”
Alaska has created a special website at www.differentworks.com where customers can find more information about the merger plans. Together, Alaska and Virgin will be the nation’s fifth-largest airline and the one with the largest West Coast presence, and a combined network of 1,200 flights a day to 118 destinations.
Despite the hoopla about the merger, there’s an underlying angst among Virgin America employees. Asked how he felt to see the merger finally consummated, one Virgin America executive told TravelSkills: “Conflicted. We feel like parents who have been given a pile of money to give up their kids.”
Remember the photo that leaked last month of an aircraft with a combined Alaska/Virgin livery? Alaska said today that is not a preview of the look of the combined airline, but simply “a special commemorative plane designed to mark the occasion.” Speaking of aircraft, Alaska said it hasn’t yet decided about the future direction of its fleet – Alaska has an all-Boeing mainline fleet while Virgin is all-Airbus – but that planes from both manufacturers will remain in the combined fleet “for many years.”
Richard Branson at SFO to celebrate Hawaii flights (Virgin America)
Here are some more details that affect passengers:
Customers who have a Gogo Wi-Fi monthly pass can now use it on either airline where Gogo service is offered.
Those who have a Virgin America Travel Bank or flight credit cannot yet use it to buy flights on Alaska.
Although some aspects of the loyalty programs are being combined or made reciprocal, for now the same is not true of the Mileage Plan Visa Card or the Virgin America Visa Card. “For now, each credit card will be limited to the specific terms and benefits of the associated airline,” Alaska said.
Alaska’s 20-minute guarantee for checked baggage delivery will not apply to Virgin America for now.
Members of the two airlines’ respective airport lounges will not have reciprocal access privileges – except at LAX where both airlines operate lounges. However, “Soon the Virgin America Loft will be part of Alaska’s network of 60+ lounges,” Alaska said, promising to offer more details soon.
Commemorative Alaska Air 737 lands at SFO to celebrate the deal. Rainy weddings are good luck, right? (Photo: Peter Biaggi)
Speeches, music, cheers, balloons and pompoms at SFO. Airport director Ivar Satero pictured. (Image: Peter Biaggi)
Red carpet welcome for first passengers off celebratory charter flight from Seattle to SFO (Chris McGinnis)
Alaska/Virgin broke out the balloons at the SFO announcement. (Image: Chris McGinnis)
The Alaska Virgin America deal is done. More details to come. (Image: Alaska Airlines)
Virgin America and Alaska Airlines today officially closed their merger, which means that Virgin America is now a fully-owned subsidiary of Alaska Air Group. To celebrate, Alaska Air is flying a freshly painted, brand new 737 to San Francisco this morning for a big event. TravelSkills will be there, so stay tuned for a full report (and photos) on the festivities!
Most important for now: The Virgin America website says that travelers should not expect to see any major changes to the Virgin America product or onboard experience within the next 12 months.
The combined airline is now the fifth largest airline in the U.S, and the largest on the West Coast, offering travelers more flights and more rewards.
New benefits for guests will launch on Monday, December 19, 2016 including the ability for Elevate members to earn points on Alaska flights (and vice versa), priority airport benefits for elite frequent flyer members, and a new codeshare agreement. Yes, this means that Bay Area travelers can will soon earn Virgin points on Alaska flights to/from San Jose and Oakland!
A Qantas 787 will fly the carrier’s longest nonstop route (Image: Qantas)
Today Qantas announced that it will soon operate the first nonstop flight between Australia and Europe: Perth-London. It will be the carrier’s longest route. Flights won’t start until March 2018 using the Australian carrier’s new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, which carries 236 passengers. The flight is expected to take about 17 hours and cover 9,010 miles. When Qantas created the first “Kangaroo route” to London in 1947, it took four days and nine stops. According to this CNN article, San Francisco-Delhi on an Air India 777 is the longest route by distance, at 9,400 miles- but due to winds, that flight could be shorter in duration. Other sources say that the current longest flight in the world is Emirates nonstop between Dubai and Auckland at 8,824 miles.
Also this weekend, seats on United’s new Boeing 777-300ER, which will include the new Polaris business class seat, went on sale. Would you like to give the new bird- and that new Polaris seat a try? On February 16, United flight 443 departs SFO at 12:40 pm and arrives EWR at 9 pm. UA1920 departs Newark at 7 am and arrives SFO at 10:23 am. If you want to fly up front, a round trip Polaris business class seat on the inaugural flight from San Francisco to Newark is currently selling for a steep $3,075 one way. (Later in the month, the business class fare drops to about $1,500 each way.) The new 10-across Economy class is much cheaper– about $186 one way. United will fly its new 777 on SFO-EWR from February 16-May 4. Starting on March 25, a new 777 will fly between SFO and Hong Kong. Polaris business class fares are about $2,700 each way. Economy class is running $745 round trip. When we checked on Sunday, it appeared that so far eight Polaris seats had sold on the inaugural SFO>HKG run.
Seat availability on United’s inaugural Polaris business class flight SFO-EWR
TravelSkills’ 10 most popular posts over the last week (descending order):
Alaska Air’s takeover of Virgin America is ready for take off. (Image: Alaska Airlines)
At long last, the Department of Justice has approved Alaska Airlines’ acquisition of Virgin America. In order to get the deal done, all Alaska has to do is unload 45 code share routes with American Airlines- and deal with a pesky lawsuit. UPDATE: Dec 7> Alaska announced that is has settled this lawsuit, but did not disclose terms
Interestingly enough, Alaska’s partnership with frenemy Delta Air Lines will likely remain intact. And Alaska won’t have to give up any gates at SFO or LAX as had been speculated.
A press release from Alaska states: “Alaska did agree to implement limited changes to its codeshare agreement with American Airlines. The majority of Alaska and American codeshare flights will remain intact. The DOJ did not require changes to any other agreements between Alaska and American, including interline or reciprocal loyalty agreements, or any of Alaska’s other airline partnerships.”
Graphic touting the strengths of the combined carriers from Alaska Air’s SEC filing
What’s next? Now that the DOJ has concluded its review and all parties seem to be in agreement over terms of the takeover, the next step is for Alaska Air to take care of that pesky antitrust lawsuit in San Francisco opposing the merger. [UPDATE: Dec 7> Alaska announced that is has settled this lawsuit, but did not disclose terms] A group of 41 fliers and travel agents is suing Alaska Airlines, saying that the takeover of Virgin will lessen competition resulting in higher fares and fees. A US district judge in San Francisco has said that a trial would take place soon after the DOJ decision- so stay tuned for more on that…
In regard to the lawsuit, Alaska Air says that, “Lawsuits of this kind are not uncommon with mergers. The company believes the plaintiffs’ claims are without merit and plans to defend its acquisition of Virgin America accordingly.”
Virgin’s “business as usual ” notification on its website
Right now, it’s still business as usual for both carriers until the deal officially closes- and no changes to inflight experience for 12 months. For example, Virgin is currently offering a great deal for those interesting in first class tickets home for the holidays. Flyers should not expect to see or hear many details until the civil lawsuit is out of the way- and that could happen in a matter of weeks. UPDATE: Dec 7> Alaska announced that is has settled this lawsuit, but did not disclose terms
What will happen to the Virgin America brand? Bloomberg reports, “The company will retain the Alaska Air name, brand and Seattle headquarters. It will explore how the Virgin America brand, which grew out of U.K. billionaire Richard Branson’s business empire and has strong customer loyalty, might be used in the combined airline, Alaska Air has said.”
So what do you think? Are you ready for the deal to be done, or should it be blocked for competitive reasons? It remains to be seen what Alaska plans to do with the Virgin America brand. Thoughts?
The combined networks of Alaska Air and Virgin America (CLICK for clearer image, more info)
The Hilton Dallas Lincoln Centre Hotel. (Image: Hilton)
Missed out on Hilton’s November Flash Sale? No probs! Here’s one for December, too. For 48 hours only, between December 5-7 (Mon-Weds this week), Hilton guests can save 15% on Best Available Rates for stays December 18, 2016 through January 8, 2017- plus Hilton HHonors members are eligible to save an additional 5% when booking directly with Hilton. (Must prepay for stay in full to get the deal.)
Links to stories from other sources that we thought you’d like to read:
Here we are in December, and there’s still no final word on the long-awaited, much anticipated acquistion of Virgin America by Alaska Airlines. The deadline for the deal keeps getting pushed back…and today, we’ve learned of yet another delay. And another deadline…
Sources close to the dealmaking told TravelSkills a final decision by the Department of Justice (DOJ) is now expected by the “end of the year.” The takeover was initially announced last April with a goal of closing in the fourth quarter of this year. As the fourth quarter approached, a deadline of September 30 was set for the Department of Justice to give its okay to the deal… or seek to block it.
Then a new deadline of October 17 was set for the the DOJ decision. That date passed, and on October 20, Alaska Air CEO Brad Tilden said in an earnings call that, “there is a process at play” and “we’re not quite there yet.” Then the deal was hit by an antitrust lawsuit in San Francisco.
In early November, an image of a purported Virgin America – Alaska Airlines 737 with a new livery made the rounds, which has us all thinking a deal was imminent. But no. Then in mid-November, Virgin America lawyers said in a filing Northern District Court of California that “Alaska believes that Department of Justice review will likely be completed by the end of November.”
That blue tail could be the look of the future for Alaska Airlines (Photo: Brandon Farris)
So here we are in December and there’s still no DOJ decision. Virgin America and Alaska are still operating as two separate entities. Employees and members of both airline frequent flyer programs are waiting and wondering about the future. Fatigue about the whole affair is setting in…
What’s next? Well, insiders have told us this is how it will go down: The DOJ should complete its review by the end of December and issue a press release on the decision. Alaska Airlines will then respond to that decision (likely with a press release of its own). Once all parties are in agreement over the terms of the take over, the next step is for Alaska Air to take care of that pesky antitrust lawsuit in San Francisco opposing the merger. And then, after all that, we’ll see the deal go down.
So there you have it. Another deadline for a DOJ decision is now set for December 31. Will it happen? Who knows. But it’s a bit strange that a DOJ decision keeps getting pushed back, despite Alaska Airlines’ claims that progress is being made.
What do you think? Is this a done deal, or is it in jeopardy? Please leave your comments below.
Nothing better than waking up from an unexpectedly long sleep in Singapore Airlines business class to a bowl of piping hot soup that includes veggies, ramen and dumplings. That’s Asian soul food to me. (Chris McGinnis)
I’m kind of a freak about taking photos of my airline meals. (Sorry, seatmates!) While most people make fun of inflight food, over the last year, I’ve had several outstanding meals at 35,000 feet for which I’m very thankful today.
Below is a sampling of some of the best. Do you have a favorite inflight meal photo or description? Share it in the comments!
United Airlines (Chris McGinnis)
A surprisingly satisfying snack on a United Airlines lie-flat flight from Lihue to SFO. The combination of the walnuts, honey, cheese and apricot on a crunchy cracker along with a glass of red wine. Perfect! Read full post
I was stunned to get this full meal on a short 90-minute lunchtime flight between Istanbul and Athens on a Turkish Airlines A330 in business class. A delicious meze sampler along with sea bass baked in parchment, baba ganoush, cheese and dessert. All served at once due to the short flight, but every bite was amazingly good. And filling.
United Airlines (Chris McGinnis)
United has really upped its game this year food-wise and this “rustic quiche” with chicken/mozzarella sausage and roasted multi-colored potatoes (perfectly plated) on an SFO-Newark flight is a prime example. What a nice meal and pleasant change from the old omelet. Trip Report: United p.s. business class SFO-EWR
Singapore Airlines business class (Chris McGinnis)
A beautifully fresh, well-presented starter of poached prawns and roasted cauliflower with a lovely lemon vinaigrette on my recent trip to Singapore on Singapore Air’s new 17-hour A350 nonstop. Read full post
Turkish Airlines (Chris McGinnis)
I’ve never seen inflight food service like I had in both directions on Turkish Airlines between SFO and Istanbul. This plate of chicken skewers was one of several choices, cooked to perfection and beautifully presented. See my Trip Report SFO-IST on Turkish Airlines
Turkish Airlines (Chris McGinnis)
The best dessert I had all year was also on Turkish Airlines- this was a perfectly cool, sweet and velvety panna cotta served with raspberries and cream. I could have eaten only this and been satisfied!
Qantas (Chris McGinnis)
After getting one of the best night’s sleep ever upstairs in the bubble on a Qantas 747 between SFO and Sydney, this big, filling and delicious breakfast filled the bill. I’m always a big fan of beans with my eggs when traveling in the UK or its former colonies. What you don’t see in this photo is the flight attendant in the galley making hot toast on request! See my full Qantas Trip Report here.
Virgin America (Chris McGinnis)
I fly Virgin America a lot, and my go-to meal in economy class is the protein plate, which includes an egg, sliced turkey, carrots, tomatoes, cucumber, cheese grapes and edamame hummus along with pita. That and an Honest T green tea makes for a healthy and satisfying snack or lunch. Don’t miss my Virgin America SFO-Honolulu Trip Report
Qantas (Chris McGinnis)
Again on Qantas, theis somewhat plain-looking vanilla custard for dessert was the perfect end to a great meal on the 14-hour transpac crossing.
Cathay Pacific (Chris McGinnis)
Whenever I fly Cathay Pacific, I make it a point to get to the airport early to have a bowl of fresh, made-to-order soup in its lovely lounge at SFO.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever had at 35,000 feet? Please share a description or photo in the comments.
My last “real” Virgin America flight in seat 1A! (Photo: Chris McGinnis)
>In this post: How I bid my way to a first class upgrade on Virgin America and a Trip Report (with photos) about my experience…
Last week I used my Virgin America Elevate points (26,000 of ’em!) to buy a roundtrip economy class ticket between San Francisco and Washington, DC– and I lucked out in both directions.
Here’s what happened:
About a week before my trip, I received an email from Virgin America inviting me to bid on an upgrade to first class for the return leg (DCA-SFO) of the trip. Since I knew I’d be tired and ready to kick back after an very busy three-day trip, I thought “hmmm I deserve this, let’s check it out.” It had been a long time since I had enjoyed a transcon flight in Virgin’s big marshmallow white seats, and I knew I’d appreciate the space, service, meal and cocktails on the evening return flight.
Plus, I thought that it could be the last time I’d fly on the “real” Virgin America since its takeover by Alaska seems imminent.
I was psyched to receive the upgrade offer because I’d booked my economy class roundtrip a little late, and the seat selection was poor. I had aisle seats, behind the wing, in both directions. Yuck. So I bit. And I clicked on “Make an offer” and found out that I could only get the upgrade on the return flight. Still, an upgrade in one direction is better than no upgrade at all, right?
The click led to a screen that asked me to name my price for the return flight– but it would not allow me to submit a bid for less than $400. It included a helpful little toggle switch that helped gauge my “offer strength” and also showed a photo of those big leather marshmallows to tempt me.
$400 seemed high to me, so I had to think about it. A few hours later, I decided, once again, “I deserve this.” So I went back and made a bid at the cheapest possible price: $410. If I got it, fine, if I did not, no biggie. I’d suffer at the back of the plane. This was a “free” ticket anyway since I’d used my points, right? What’s another $410? Plus, when I checked, roundtrip first class flights were running at about $3,000 roundtrip on Virgin America.
Once I submitted my bid, I received another email saying that my bid was under consideration- and that I could modify it or cancel it at any time. I liked that. I did not feel like I was stuck. I could up my bid, or I could bow out completely. Virgin said that my credit card would only be billed if my bid succeeded, and that they’d email to let me know if I’d won.
This all took place on Tuesday. My outbound flight departed Thursday morning, and the return was Sunday evening.
When it became time to check in for my flight on Wednesday, I took a quick look to see if any better coach seats have opened up. Lo and behold, one had: a non-reclining exit row window seat 9F– yes! Since it does not recline, Virgin does not charge extra for it, and I don’t ever recline in economy anymore, so I grabbed it. I also noticed that the middle seat next to mine was empty and hoped it stayed that way.
And you know what? It did stay empty! When the door to the plane closed, the guy in the aisle seat and I did a fist bump 🙂 An empty seat next to you on an exit row is almost as good as first class, right? Well, kinda. But I was able to stretch out, get some work done, use the middle seat tray table for overflow. The 4-5 hour flight passed quickly, I had a nice fast Gogo internet connection, a protein plate for lunch (my favorite Virgin meal) ordered from the seat back.
Dear Alaska Airlines: Figure out a way to preserve and expand Virgin’s seatback food and drink ordering system. After eight years, no other airline has copied it and it works so well– for both passenger and crew.
I hope Alaska Air keeps Virgin’s protein plate on the menu- it’s my favorite meal! (Chris McGinnis)
I was in DC for a meeting on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. As I struggled through a sunny bright DC Saturday morning stuck in a windowless conference room, I remembered my bid for first class on the flight home. A few minutes later, my phone buzzed with an email:
Wooo hooo! I got it! I won the bid! I went to check my options and settle on seat 1A. I felt like standing up in the middle of the meeting and giving myself a high five! I’d be flying home in style. My favorite hometown airline had come through for me. So here’s how that went:
Virgin’s cushy first class seats look like big white marshmallows- I sat in 1A (Virgin America)
Boarding the flight was fast and easy at Washington Reagan National. There are only eight seats in Virgin’s first class. Only one was empty for the the flight to SFO.
First thing I noticed was how old the plane felt. It must have been one of Virgin’s original A320s. I could tell by the older version of inflight entertainment, the scuffs and scrapes on that big white seat and surrounding area. (It did not look as pristine as the Virgin-supplied photo above.) Looking out the unpolished, murky window, I could see paint chips on the big red engine under the wing. While still nice, the hippest, coolest airline in the world looked a little long in the tooth. Alaska Air is going have to give some of these planes a nip and tuck here and there to keep up the Virgin image.
A little work with my bloody mary and mixed nuts (Chris McGinnis)
Service was great as usual. One of my favorite things about flying Virgin is how the pilots, in their black uniforms, stand at the head of the cabin to make pre-flight announcements. It’s interesting and reassuring, and I hope it’s a touch that Alaska Airlines keeps.
Three choices for dinner in Virgin America first class (Chris McGinnis)
Flight attendants helped stow my carry on since I was in the bulkhead. They also distributed huge black pillows and comforters– these are seriously large and cozy. I declined, however, since I knew I’d be working on this flight.
Citrus and Persian cucumber with prosciutto starter salad- nice but the sections of lime were too sour (Chris McGinnis)
Main course: Persian chicken with basmati right- regrettably overcooked and dry, but edible! (Photo: Chris McGinnis)
A pear custard tart for dessert (Chris McGinnis)
Overall, I feel like that $410 was money well spent. I got plenty of work done on the flight. Once again, I had a speedy Gogo connection— fast enough to upload photos, which is rare. I arrived back in SFO in good shape after the 5 hour slog.
I’m going to miss Virgin America. It will be tough to say goodbye to our fun, sassy, innovative, high-style airline. But I believe it will be in good hands with Alaska, which seems to have an open mind about integrating the best parts of the Virgin experience.
What do you think about losing Virgin America? Did you ever get to fly upfront? Ever play the upgrade bidding game? Please leave your comments below.
Is this the look of things to come for the combined Alaska Airlines and Virgin America?
The Instagram photo of a shiny red, purple gradient and blue Boeing 737-900 with the words “More to Love” along the fuselage has circulated among aviation geeks over the last few days. The image, which appears to be in an aircraft hangar, also clearly shows the Alaska Airlines Eskimo face on a navy blue tail.
The Puget Sound Business Journal came across the photo and surmised: “The photograph appears to be an aircraft painted to promote the airline combination to travelers and employees of the airlines, rather than be a new livery for all Alaska and Virgin airplanes.”
We’ve reached out to Alaska Airlines for a comment about the image, but have not heard back.
New aircraft liveries always draw plenty of commentary, most of it negative. But I’ll take a stand on this one: I like it and would not mind seeing it as the permanent new livery of the combined carrier. What about you? Please leave your comments below.
In the meantime, the whole Alaska Airlines-Virgin America deal still seems to be stuck in limbo at the Justice Department. The latest rumors about the deal emerged yesterday on The Street, with an insider stating that the combined carrier would have to give up gates at SFO and LAX and terminate code sharing agreements with Delta and American to close the deal.
Virgin Atlantic flies 787 Dreamliners on its San Francisco route. (Image: Virgin Atlantic)
Are you a member of Virgin America’s Elevate loyalty program hoping to book an award flight on partner Virgin Atlantic? Then you better act fast – really fast.
Virgin America said on its website that the two airlines “will be sunsetting their frequent flyer partnership on November 13, 2016.” The last date for Elevate members to claim award travel on Virgin Atlantic with Elevate points is November 12, following the usual booking procedure.
And Elevate members will no longer earn points for travel on Virgin Atlantic after November 12.
“Virgin America will continue to offer a range of other airline partners through the Elevate program, including Virgin Australia, Hawaiian Airlines, Singapore Airlines and Emirates,” the company said.
Why the split-up? Virgin America said Virgin Atlantic “is introducing some changes to its loyalty program, and due to technical limitations, the Elevate program will no longer be compatible with (Virgin Atlantic’s) Flying Club once Virgin Atlantic upgrades the back end of its program on November 13.”
Of course, other factors could be in play as well. Barring government intervention, Virgin America is about to be acquired by Alaska Airlines. Alaska Airlines is involved in a major market share battle at its Seattle hub with Delta Air Lines. Delta Air Lines is the owner of a 49 percent stake in Virgin Atlantic. Connect the dots.
United will fly E175s from San Jose to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. (Image: United)
In domestic route developments, United will offer special service out of San Jose for a big convention in January; Delta adds an Austin route and expands in the Twin Cities; JetBlue is about to jump into the fray on one of the northeast’s busiest routes; American exits three Philadelphia markets; and Virgin America will operate a pair of seasonal services out of New York City.
With a nod to the big temporary demand coming out of Silicon Valley, United Airlines plans to operate a virtual shuttle service for techies going to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas next January. According to Airlineroute.net, United Express/SkyWest will offer seven daily roundtrips between SJC and Las Vegas from January 4 through January 9 only, using Embraer 175s. The temporary United service will offer an alternative to Southwest’s heavy schedule in the SJC-LAS market.
Austin Bergstrom Airport will get new Delta service to Raleigh-Durham. (Image: City of Austin)
Delta has set a March 9 starting date for new daily service linking Austin, Texas with its growing Raleigh-Durham base. The carrier said Austin is the “largest unserved non-stop market” from RDU. The flights will be operated by Delta Connection/GoJet with a 76-seat, two-class CRJ-900.
Meanwhile, Delta also announced some additional service out of its Minneapolis-St. Paul hub next year. A key development for SkyMiles summer vacationers: Delta’s winter seasonal service from MSP to Honolulu, which begins on October 29, will now continue operating continuously through Labor Day 2017 instead of stopping in April as previously planned. Also coming from Delta at MSP next summer: The addition of a third daily flight to San Jose, a sixth to Phoenix, and a second to Richmond.
JetBlue will use E190s for its new LaGuardia-Boston flights. (Image: JetBlue)
October 31 is the launch date for JetBlue’s entry into the busy New York LaGuardia-Boston market, which is dominated by the Delta and American shuttle operations. JetBlue plans to offer six daily roundtrips between LGA and BOS, using E190 aircraft with 100 seats, including 16 in JetBlue’s Even More Space section and 84 in regular economy. The entry into the LaGuardia market will make JetBlue the only airline serving Boston from all three New York-area airports. In another part of the country, JetBlue recently started daily service between New Orleans and Ft. Lauderdale, in competition with Southwest and Spirit.
As part of an ongoing rethinking of the Philadelphia hub it inherited from US Airways, American Airlines plans to end service next February in three regional markets. Getting the axe are AA’s three daily CRJ200 fights between PHL and Newark, along with its twice-daily service from Philadelphia to Binghamton., N.Y. and Elmira, N.Y.
Virgin America said this week it plans to bring back service next month in two seasonal markets out of New York JFK. On November 1, it will begin daily non-stops between JFK and Ft. Lauderdale, and on November 19, it will begin service between JFK and Palm Springs, California.
Alaska Airlines & Virgin America’s merger has been slightly delayed. (Image: Alaska Airlines)
A few weeks ago, Alaska Airlines and Virgin America said they were extending their anticipated date for winning Justice Department merger approval from late September to October 17. But the latter date has come and gone with no further word. So what’s going on?
According to media reports, the airlines are still involved in discussions with the Justice Department’s antitrust specialists. No one seems to think that DOJ will try to block the merger (according to TheStreet.com), but it may seek to impose some conditions on its approval.
Reuters, citing sources close to the talks, said that DOJ might require Alaska to terminate one or more of its existing code-share partnerships with other domestic airlines in order to gain antitrust approval, or at least to reduce the scope of that code-sharing to fewer routes.
Alaska currently has domestic code-sharing partnerships with Delta and American. Given the heated ongoing competitive battle between Alaska and Delta at Seattle, it’s unlikely that Alaska would be too upset about ending those code-shares. American might be another matter; last spring, Alaska and AA implemented a substantial expansion of code-sharing on domestic routes.
According to Reuters, JP Morgan analysts estimated that the Delta and American code-sharing partnerships bring about $350 million in annual revenues to Alaska.
Sir Richard Branson wants to keep the Virgin name alive in the U.S. (Photo: Nancy Branka)
Meanwhile, Sir Richard Branson told a Dallas TV station this week that if Alaska ultimately decides to fold Virgin America into the Alaska brand, he is likely to start up another new carrier with the Virgin name.
“I hope the Virgin America brand never goes away,” Branson said in an interview Dallas’ Channel 8 WFAA. “If Alaska decides to drop the brand – because we didn’t actually want the sale to happen – we’ll start again and Virgin America will very much back here.”
How likely is it that the Virgin American brand will survive long term? We’d love to hear your thoughts.
Lie-flat front cabin seating on a Delta 757-200. (Image: Delta)
Delta’s announcement this week that it will introduce lie-flat first class seats next spring on a new transcontinental route is just the latest step in a growing expansion of flat-bed front-cabin seats on routes across the country – an expansion largely fueled by JetBlue’s increased commitment to its Mint premium service.
Delta said it will use a 757-200 with flat-bed seats in first class when it starts flying on April 24 between Los Angeles International and Washington D.C.’s close-in, Reagan National Airport (DCA) which is preferred by most with business in the district. (Because perimeter rules limit DCA to just a handful of flights longer than 1,250 miles, Delta said it will drop one of its two daily DCA-Salt Lake City flights, but will begin a new flight from Salt Lake to Washington Dulles.)
The introduction of lie-flat front-cabin seats on domestic flights a few years ago was initially limited to service between the New York area and San Francisco and Los Angeles, where it is now offered by American and Delta out of New York JFK and by United’s “p.s.” service out of Newark Liberty International. When JetBlue rolled out its competing Mint premium cabins with lie-flat seats, it initially did so in those same two transcon markets out of JFK.
Washington National Airport gets lie-flat seats from Delta (Photo: Chris McGinnis)
But Delta has also introduced lie-flat seats on 757-200s between JFK and its growing Seattle hub. And that market has become one of several targeted by JetBlue in a big expansion of its Mint service.
JetBlue recently added the Mint option to its Boston-San Francisco route, and is doing the same on Boston-LAX this fall. And earlier this year, the carrier announced its intention to bring lie-flat Mint seating to even more transcontinental routes, with plans to increase the size of its Mint-equipped A321 fleet from 17 planes to 31 by 2017.
Transcontinental routes that JetBlue has targeted for Mint service expansion in the months ahead include Seattle-Boston, Seattle-JFK, San Diego-JFK, San Diego-Boston, San Francisco-Ft. Lauderdale, Los Angeles-Ft. Lauderdale and Las Vegas-JFK.
JetBlue has big plans for expanding its Mint service. (Image: JetBlue)
Two months ago, Delta unveiled plans for new routes out of Boston next year, including twice-daily service to San Francisco with 757-200s. (Although the announcement didn’t specify that these aircraft will have lie-flat front-cabin seating, it seems a safe assumption given JetBlue’s Mint service in that market.) JetBlue then said it will lay on a fourth daily Mint-equipped Boston-San Francisco flight next summer.
Virgin America has a nice premium cabin on its transcon routes, but the seats do not recline fully flat. The airline has talked about refreshing its front cabin, but that has taken a back seat to the impending merger of Virgin and Alaska Airlines. The combined carrier (assuming they are eventually combined rather than remaining as separate brands under common ownership) will have a big stake in transcon Seattle markets as well as SFO-JFK and LAX-JFK. The question is, what will Alaska decide to do with the front cabin product?
Whatever it decides, Alaska is already committed to adding a new Premium Class cabin to its 737-800s, 900s and 900ERs – not just regular coach seats with extra legroom, but an actual premium product with extra amenities and perks, situated between first class and economy.
Will that be the next big battlefield in transcontinental passenger options? How important is a lie-flat seat to you on transcon flights? Please leave your comments below.
United’s hub operation at Washington Dulles got a new lease on life. (Image: metropolitan Washington Airports Authority)
In airport news this week, Seattle Tacoma International is giving a preview of what its new international arrivals facility will look like; Phoenix Sky Harbor will inform travelers about the waiting times for TSA lines; a unique restaurant concept is coming to Newark Liberty; United signs a new lease at Washington Dulles, and Turkish Airlines opens a lounge there; and Virgin America switches terminals at Boston Logan.
Those recurring rumors that United Airlines is about to get rid of its Washington Dulles hub have been put to rest by the news that United has signed an extension of its lease at IAD, guaranteeing it will keep a big presence there through 2025. There had been speculation that United might shift more of its East Coast connecting traffic and international flights to Newark. In other developments at Washington Dulles, Turkish Airlines has its first U.S. airport premium lounge there. The 5,000 square foot facility has showers, free Wi-Fi, a buffet, business area with six Cs, and a selection of newspapers and magazines.
The Port of Seattle has released renderings of the new international arrivals facility (IAF) to be built at Seattle-Tacoma International, due for completion in 2019. Citing a “dramatic increase” in the number of international flights at SEA’s South Satellite, the Port said the existing federal inspections area at the airport is already beyond peak capacity. The 450,000-square-foot IAF will be east of the current Concourse A, and will be linked to the South Satellite by a 900-foot elevated walkway across the top of Concourse A. “Creation of a secure international corridor on Concourse A will mean more gates for arriving international flights with a direct connection to the IAF,” the Port said. The facility will increase the number of international widebody-capable gates from 12 to 20; increase the number of Passport booths and kiosks from 30 to 80; increase bag carousels from four to seven; and reduce minimum connecting times from 90 to 75 minutes. Here’s a link to a gallery of images for the new IAF, and an animated fly-through video.
A rendering of the interior of Seattle’s new international arrivals facility. (Image: Port of Seattle)
Flying out of Phoenix Sky Harbor? You can now see what the waiting times are for TSA security lines before you head to the airport, if you’re leaving from Terminal 2 or 4. The airport now posts security waiting times on its website (www.skyharbor.com), on flight information displays in the terminals and at PHX Sky Train stations, and on visual paging screens in the terminals. “This amenity will be especially helpful for customers traveling through Terminal 4, since passengers can use any of the four security checkpoints in that terminal to access any gate,” the airport noted, adding that T4 handles 80 percent of the airport’s customers. The service will add T3 data later this year. Note: The waiting times are for regular TSA lines, not PreCheck.
The new Daily restaurant at Newark’s Terminal C. (Image: OTG)
The newest dining venue to open at United’s Newark Terminal C hub – part of the facility’s ongoing $120 million redevelopment — is called Daily, described by concessions partner OTG as “the world’s first airport restaurant where the entire menu changes every day.” Why? In order to present the freshest possible cuisine, the restaurant will base its menu on the produce, meats and fish currently available from nearby farmers’ markets. (Which has us a little concerned considering what’s near Newark Airport 😉 The centerpiece is a wood-burning grill for preparing meat and fish entrees. Other new venues recently opened at EWR Terminal C include Saison, a French bistro; Riviera, with French country dining; Little Purse, serving up dumpling and noodle dishes; and Tacquila, specializing in street tacos.
At Boston Logan, Virgin America has moved its operations from Terminal B to Terminal C, in order to be close to merger partner Alaska Airlines. Virgin flies from BOS to San Francisco and Los Angeles, while Alaska has flights to Seattle, Portland and San Diego. Spirit Airlines has also relocated at BOS to Gates B37-38 from another part of Terminal B.
Qantas has a new way for loyalty program members to earn points. (Image: QANTAS)
Partnerships with hotel chains have been a mainstay of airline loyalty programs for decades. And now a “sharing economy” enterprise that some see as a threat to the hotel business is slowly wading into the same pool.
That enterprise is Airbnb, which has been making a concerted effort in recent months to court business travelers with things like automatic links to corporate expense reporting systems and up-front information about the business traveler-friendliness of its member properties. And it has seen business traveler bookings surge as a result. The obvious next step was airline loyalty programs.
Qantas just announced a new tie-in with Airbnb that will let its customers earn points in its frequent flyer program when they book through the Qantas website (www.qantas.com). Participants can earn one Qantas point for every dollar they spend on Airbnb accommodations worldwide, if they book through the Qantas site.
“We know many of our customers are just as likely to arrange an Airbnb as they are to book a hotel, and we wanted to recognize and reward them for that,” said Qantas CEO Alan Joyce.
This modern two BR Victorian in San Francisco’s Noe Valley is $300/night (Image: Airbnb)
Qantas isn’t the first airline to do this. About a year ago, Virgin America entered into a similar partnership with Airbnb for bookings made via a link at the Virgin website. Members of Virgin’s Elevate program earn one point per dollar spent on Airbnb. Members who have never used Airbnb before and create an account get a one-time bonus of 1,500 Elevate points and a $20 Airbnb credit. Virgin’s tie-in with Airbnb is currently effective through October 2017.
Meanwhile, United just added Airbnb to the vendors listed on its MileagePlus X smartphone app. The new partnership allows users to rack up three MileagePlus miles per dollar spent at Airbnb. If you aren’t using MileagePlus X yet, here’s a link to get started.
And American Express has a tie-in with Airbnb that lets its Membership Rewards participants pay with program points for Airbnb bookings. Members must create an Airbnb profile with their American Express login.
Readers: Would you be more likely to book Airbnb if it was affiliated with your primary airline? Post comments below.
Alaska Airlines & Virgin America’s merger has been slightly delayed. (Image: Alaska Airlines)
An announcement by Alaska Airlines and Virgin America Airlines about extending the timing of their proposed merger has some observers wondering whether the deal might have run into problems with the Justice Department’s antitrust regulators.
The two airlines said this week they have “agreed with the Justice Department” that they won’t consummate their deal until after October 17, unless DOJ clears it for an earlier date. Previously, the two airlines said they wouldn’t close the deal before September 30. “The extension gives the DOJ additional time to review the proposed merger,” the airlines said.
This naturally spurred some speculation about what might be going on. The Motley Fool, for instance, ran a story this week headlined: “Is the Alaska Air-Virgin America merger on the rocks?”
Over the past decade or so, the Justice Department has given the nod to much larger airline mergers, showing little or no antitrust concern over the market concentration they would bring. After Delta-Northwest, United-Continental and Southwest-AirTran easily passed DOJ muster, there was rising criticism of the government for not doing enough to protect consumers from industry consolidation.
DOJ forced American and US Airways to give up slots at key airports to win merger approval. (Image: Jim Glab)
Thus when the American-US Airways deal came along in 2013, DOJ got a little tougher, ordering the two airlines to give up slots and gates at a number of airports to low-cost carriers, “in order to enhance system-wide competition in the airline industry resulting in more choices and more competitive air fares for consumers,” the agency said.
But Alaska and Virgin said this week that in spite of the delay, they remain “confident they will address any concerns and obtain regulatory approval” for their merger, “given the airlines’ largely complementary networks, the relative size of the merger compared to past airline combinations, and both Virgin America and Alaska’s emphasis on customer service.” They argued that a combined Alaska-Virgin America will provide “more robust competition against the Big Four airlines, which control 84 percent of the domestic market.”
The Streetweighed in with this: “It’s highly unlikely that regulators would scuttle the marriage of the two carriers, especially because there’s so little overlap in their routes. Other than competing on the Los Angeles-Seattle route and a smattering of routes out of San Francisco, the two airlines don’t compete at all. But a combined entity would dominate West Coast regional air travel, proving a moneymaking boon for already strong Alaska Air.”
Even The Motley Fool, in an analysis after its scary headline, concluded that “there is little reason to worry” about DOJ impeding the merger’s outcome. “There is no good reason for federal antitrust regulators to block it,” the publication said. It noted that since the deal was announced last spring, Virgin’s financial performance has “deteriorated,” but still, “Alaska Air doesn’t seem to be having second thoughts” about the merger.
So what do you think will happen? Will the deal go through as easily as we once thought? What’s the reason for the delay? Leave your comments below.
Virgin America launches new app with Alaska takeover looming (Photo: Chris McGinnis)
At long last Virgin America is poised to join most major airlines with a new app which it says will launch later this summer.
The new app looks slick and has that fun/mod/funky Virgin feel- not unlike its current website. I’m very excited to give it a try and will definitely sign up to test the beta.
Now that’s unusual!
But I have a burning question: Why? Why is Virgin America going to the trouble to create, launch and promote a new app when its takeover by Alaska Airlines is looming? Didn’t Virgin shareholders just this week approve the plan to merge?
Here’s what a Virgin spokesperson told TravelSkills when we asked that very question:
In answer to your Alaska question – airline mergers can take up to 1-2 years to complete, and our merger with Alaska hasn’t even closed yet, so you’re going to see Virgin America around – and be able to continue using the app for future travel – for a long time to come. So for now, it’s business as usual, and we will be encouraging all our guests to download this app and use it for their flights with Virgin America. Guests can also sign-up today to be the first to take the beta version for a test-drive.
The Virgin America app, which along with virginamerica.com was co-designed by Brooklyn-based Digital Product Design and Development shop Work + Co, is launching in beta in the coming weeks and to the world later this summer. Virgin says, “The new mobile app will build on our site by offering an engaging and personalized experience for flyers that we hope you’ll agree was worth the wait.”
In the coming weeks, select Elevate members and other top customers – including a team at one of Virgin’s kep partners, Google – are participating in the beta test for the new app. If you’d like to take the beta version for a test drive and didn’t yet receive an invite, you can register your interest by signing up here.
Now here’s an interesting and unique feature: The new app will use Spotify to help create a destination-specific soundtrack for your trips.
The Virgin Blog states: Virgin America has always been about more than just getting you from Point A to B. So, we’re furthering our relationship with Spotify for a first-of-its kind trip soundtrack mobile feature on an airline app. Guests can get inspired for their trip by streaming one of the city “Mood Lists” via Spotify. Simply click the Spotify button after you check-in to hear some tunes that will put you in a state-of-mind inspired by your destination.
Thoughts? What’s your favorite airline app? Will you give Virgin’s new app a go?
New nonstops to connect bay cities (Image: Tampa International)
In domestic route news, there’s lots of extra capacity coming to Florida, including new United routes from San Francisco and Spirit Airlines routes from Ohio, plus a new Florida destination for Frontier Airlines. Meanwhile, Virgin America plans to increase capacity from the West Coast to Newark Liberty International Airport.
United will use 737s on new San Francisco routes to Florida. (Image: United)
United’s newest domestic routes from San Francisco will be to Florida, starting in late fall and winter. The airline said it plans to begin a daily San Francisco-Miami flight on December 16, reviving a route that it dropped 12 years ago. United will also introduce a daily SFO-Tampa flight beginning February 16. Both routes will use 737s.
Just a few days after Alaska Airlines announced some new routes to Newark, Virgin America said it will also take advantage of the FAA’s plan to open up more slots at that airport this fall. Effective November 18, Virgin plans to increase Newark frequencies from three flights a day to four from both San Francisco and Los Angeles. The extra SFO flight is scheduled for a 9:40 a.m. departure from San Francisco, while the fourth LAX departure will be at 7 a.m.
Spirit Airlines is adding new service from Ohio to Florida (Image: Spirit Airlines)
Spirit Airlines plans a big expansion of service at Akron/Canton, adding four Florida destinations beginning November 10. The schedule includes new daily flights from Akron to Ft. Lauderdale and to Orlando, along with seasonal service from Akron to Ft. Myers four days a week and to Tampa three days a week. On the same date, meanwhile, Spirit will also suspend service between Cleveland and Dallas/Ft. Worth, changing that route from year-round to seasonal; the DFW flights will begin again on April 26.
Punta Gorda, Florida is about 25 miles north of Ft. Myers, and it has an airport that’s a lot less busy than the latter city’s Southwest Florida International; Punta Gorda is currently served only by Allegiant Airlines. So Punta Gorda is the newest airport that will go onto Frontier Airlines’ route map. On October 30, Frontier will add new service to Punta Gorda from Trenton, N.J., operating year-round four days a week. On the same date, Frontier will begin seasonal service three days a week between Punta Gorda-Philadelphia and Punta Gorda-Chicago O’Hare, continuing through April.
More of JetBlue’s new A321s will come equipped with Mint cabins. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)
Claiming that its premium-cabin Mint service has “opened up a new market untapped by other carriers,” JetBlue said this week it has big long-term plans to keep expanding Mint to new markets beyond those it has already announced. But will it succeed?
The company said it has amended its long-term purchase agreement with Airbus to bring even more new A321s to its fleet, many of them configured with Mint premium cabins. By the end of this year, JetBlue said, it will have 17 Mint-equipped A321s; by 2017, it will have 31.
Equipped with lie-flat seats and offering “curated” food and amenities and “hospitality trained” flight attendants, JetBlue’s Mint service was initially introduced on the New York JFK-Los Angeles and JFK-San Francisco routes to give business travelers a lower-cost alternative to the lie-flat premium seating in specially-configured aircraft operated by American, Delta and United on those two key transcontinental routes (United last fall moved its p.s. transcon service from JFK to Newark).
JetBlue will add Mint to these cities, and eventually even more(Image: JetBlue)
And apparently the experiment has worked: JetBlue said that since it introduced Mint in 2014, routes that offer the premium service have become some of its most profitable. “Revenue per available seat mile on Mint routes has grown 20 percent since 2014, and Mint has helped attract new corporate clients and west coast point of sale,” the company said.
JetBlue recently added Mint to transcontinental flights between Boston and San Francisco, and will bring it to Boston-LAX flights this fall. This past spring, the carrier said it will expand Mint service over the next two years to even more transcontinental markets, including Seattle-Boston, Seattle-JFK, San Francisco-Ft. Lauderdale, Los Angeles-Ft. Lauderdale and Las Vegas-JFK. It has also started adding Mint service on a few select Caribbean routes from New York and Boston.
JetBlue’s Mint class offers upgraded meals. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)
In announcing the addition of more Mint-equipped A321s to its fleet, JetBlue didn’t reveal any more new routes for the service, although it suggested it may add more frequencies to existing LAX and SFO transcon routes. But citing its success in “outperforming competitors” on Mint’s existing routes, it said that “transcontinental markets outside of New York and Los Angeles are prime for similar disruption. For example, only 5 percent of transcontinental flights over 1,800 miles consistently offer regularly scheduled lie-flat seats.”
This makes us wonder: How many markets of more than 1,800 miles can support front cabins with lie-flat seats, and how many more customers will be willing and able to ante up the fare premium? Is JetBlue trying to position itself for a future transcon battle not against the Big Three but against a combined Alaska-Virgin America? Neither of those airlines has true lie-flat premium seats on transcon routes, and although Virgin is said to be planning a first class refit, lie-flat seats are apparently not part of those plans.
Moreover, to the best of our knowledge, Alaska hasn’t yet figured out whether to keep operating Virgin as a separate brand, or two fully merge the two – and if so, how?
A JetBlue Mint seat in full recline (Photo: Chris McGinnis)
Meanwhile, as JetBlue expands its transcon front cabins, will it be able to maintain a cost savings over the premium service of its Big Three competitors? Even now, that advantage appears to be eroding. A random check of premium cabin prices between JFK and LAX for mid-September finds JetBlue’s Mint in the same general space as the Big Three, with roundtrip fares ranging from roughly $1,150 to $1,600.
In other news, JetBlue said that it expects to grow significantly at California’s Long Beach Airport, adding nine new daily flights there starting in the fourth quarter of this year. It didn’t say where the new flights will operate from Long Beach, but it noted those routes will not offer Mint service.
So what do you think? Would you fly JetBlue if it brought Mint to an airport near you? Please leave your comments below.
Remember when the posh Ritz in Parisclosed down almost two years ago for a full renovation? Well, it appears that cocktails at the Hemingway Bar should help foot the bill for the redo. TravelSkills reader BD sent us a photo of the drinks menu– each cocktail is 30 euros- about $35. Sante! Rooms this summer start at 1,100 euros or about $1,250.
Cocktail menu from the Ritz Paris hotel’s Hemingway Bar
JetBlue wants you really badly and is making an offer that’s tough to refuse! (Image: JetBlue)
This new promo from JetBlue is more jolting than Brexit! If you have a big stash of Virgin America Elevate points, check this out:
Now, we’ve all heard about how airlines will match elite status in order to get flyers to switch allegiances. Well, this new promo from JetBlue goes WAY beyond that.
Today JetBlue announced that it will MATCH your Virgin Elevate balance– that’s right, they will GIVE you a wad JetBlue points if you’ll fly them just one time by August 31.
Even if you have as few as 500 mealy Virgin Elevate points, JetBlue will give you 5,000! Here’s the breakdown:
To get the points, here’s what you have to do:
Email a screenshot of your Virgin Elevate account dashboard (that shows your balance) to email@example.com by July 4. Screenshots must include first name, last name, and points balance. You must include your TrueBlue number in the email. Not a member of TrueBlue? Sign up here.
Once JetBlue has that, they say they’ll assess your balance and eligibility, and then email you to let you know if you’re officially registered for the promotion.
After that, you must book and fly ONE one roundtrip JetBlue flight by August 31. My advice if you live in California? Take a day trip between SFO and Las Vegas or Long Beach for as little as $93 round trip!
Fares checked on June 24 between SFO and Las Vegas
Once you do that, JetBlue will deposit the points in your True Blue Account.
Full details of the offer right here! This is a no brainer, folks!
What do you think? Will you take advantage of this? Have you flown JetBlue before? Please leave your comments below.
In domestic route news, JetBlue has kicked off a new transcontinental route from San Diego; Virgin America adds another Hawaii flight from the West Coast (but you still can’t surf from it); Alaska adds new routes from San Diego and Anchorage; American plans new service from O’Hare this fall; and United enters a new East Coast market from LaGuardia.
The newest transcontinental route for JetBlue Airways is San Diego to Ft. Lauderdale, which it started flying last week. The daily eastbound segment is a red-eye, departing San Diego at 10:15 p.m. and arriving at 6:19 a.m. It’s the latest step in an ongoing JetBlue expansion at Ft. Lauderdale, where it is already the busiest airline. Last month, JetBlue started service from FLL to Nashville and to Aguadilla, Puerto Rico.
Virgin America has added its fourth Hawaii route from California. (Image: Virgin America)
Virgin America Airlines has added a fourth route to Hawaii with the launch of new service between Los Angeles and Kahului, Maui. The new daily service departs LAX at 9:35 a.m.; like the airline’s other Hawaii flights, it uses an Airbus A320 equipped with “sharklet” wingtips that create greater fuel efficiency and increase the aircraft’s range. Last month, Virgin started LAX-Honolulu service; it also flies to both Hawaiian destinations from San Francisco. Note: Virgin’s satellite based wi-fi is still not operational on its Hawaii flights from LAX or SFO. A spokesman told TravelSkills that it’s “coming later this year.”
Alaska Airlines has started new seasonal service between Anchorage and Spokane, Washington, operating once a week (on Saturdays) with a 737 from now through August 27 – the first-ever non-stop service in that city-pair. The airline also announced plans to operate seasonal service this coming winter from San Diego to Hayden/Steamboat Springs, Colorado for the ski season. Those flights, on Wednesday sand Saturdays, will use 76-seat Embraer 175s operated by SkyWest.
Starting October 6, American Airlines will add a pair of spokes from its Chicago O’Hare hub. New American Eagle flights will operate twice a day between O’Hare and Akron/Canton, Ohio; and three times daily between O’Hare and Lansing, Michigan. Both routes will use Embraer 145s.
On the heels of Delta’s announcement to start Raleigh-Durham service from Newark this fall, United now plans to do the same from New York LaGuardia. The United service begins October 30, when it will start operating three flights a day (except Saturdays) between LGA and Raleigh-Durham, using Embraer 170s.
Virgin America might keep its identity despite its acquisition by Alaska Airlines. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)
When Alaska Airlines finalized its acquisition of Virgin America, most observers assumed that the latter carrier’s identity would be absorbed into the purchaser’s, which has happened with other U.S. airline mergers. But that might not be the case.
Alaska CEO Brad Tilden, speaking in New York this week and following up with an Associated Press interview, said his company is “looking at” the possibility of maintaining the separate brands of the two airlines, although no decision has been made yet.
Tilden told the AP that he is “taking a good look at running two brands for some period of time, perhaps forever.”
“We believe in the power of the Virgin America brand and we don’t want to lose all that loyalty and revenue that exists today,” he said.
Tilden noted that while the acquiring carrier in U.S. mergers traditionally extends its own brand to the merger partner, that has not been the case in Europe – e.g., Air France and KLM maintain their separate identities even though they are a single company, and the Lufthansa Group has maintained the previous brands of its acquisitions, including Swiss and Austrian Airlines.
Alaska Airlines and Virgin America have distinct products and passenger markets. (Photo: Jim Glab)
In any case, Alaska and Virgin have very distinct products, and trying to decide which parts to keep and which ones to discard in a single merged brand might be a real problem, especially given the loyalty of Virgin’s flyers to its unique characteristics, like its mood lighting and the ability to order meals from seatback screens.
The two airlines are currently undergoing the usual investigation by the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division prior to government approval of the merger, and shareholders must give it their OK as well. Tilden said he expects the regulatory approval process to be completed within the next few months.
Readers: Do you think Alaska should keep Virgin America as a separate brand? If not, which parts of the Virgin experience should Alaska adopt for the combined airline?
Alaska is taking on Southwest in a battle for California dominance. (Image: Jim Glab)
Bay Area travelers have some new airline options this week as carriers add more routes in a growing competition for California customers.
Alaska Airlines has taken on the daunting task of horning in on a pair of Southwest Airlines’ intra-California monopoly routes out of San Jose. Alaska just started up three daily flights between San Jose and Orange County’s John Wayne Airport, as well as three daily roundtrips between San Jose-San Diego. The flights will be operated for Alaska by SkyWest, using 76-seat E175s with first class, Preferred Plus and main cabin seating, as well as Wi-Fi access and free streaming entertainment. They’ll be facing Southwest’s heavy daily schedules of multiple 737 flights in both markets.
At Oakland, meanwhile, Southwest this week launched nine new daily flights, including new intrastate service to Long Beach four times a day, along with three new daily flights to Reno-Tahoe and one to St. Louis. Southwest also boosted its Oakland-Baltimore/Washington schedule from one flight a day to two.
Southwest Airlines jets at Oakland International Airport (Photo: Port of Oakland)
With the new service from Oakland to Long Beach, “Oakland and Southwest will offer more daily departures by a single airline from a Bay Area airport to Southern California with 43 peak non-stop flights per day,” according to a spokesperson for the airport. With the latest additions, Southwest now has more than 120 flights a day out of OAK – with half of them going to airports in the greater Los Angeles region plus San Diego.
The new routes are just the latest escalation in a growing battle for the California market between Southwest and Alaska, which should get really interesting when Alaska merges with San Francisco-based Virgin America. And more new routes are coming from the two carriers, including Alaska’s plan to begin Sacramento-San Diego and San Jose-Burbank flights next winter, and new Southwest flights from San Jose to Baltimore/Washington and Salt Lake City coming this fall.
Cruising over Oahu on Virgin America (Photo: Chris McGinnis)
Speaking of Virgin America, that airline is due to add another new Hawaii route next week (June 14), when it kicks off daily service from Los Angeles to Maui’s Kahului Airport. Early last month, Virgin started daily LAX-Honolulu flights. It also flies to both islands from San Francisco.
Virgin America has started flying to Hawaii from Los Angeles. (Image: Virgin America)
In domestic route news, Virgin America kicks off a new Hawaii service, JetBlue will jump into a busy Northeast Corridor market, California’s Surf Air has a new pricing option, Delta adds a route from Washington D.C., and Sun Country Airlines comes to Denver.
Virgin America Airlines continued its expansion in the Hawaii market by launching new daily non-stops this week from Los Angeles International to Honolulu. It will add more new Hawaii service next month, with plans to start flying from LAX to Kahului Airport on Maui as of June 14. The carrier already flies from San Francisco to both destinations in Hawaii. To promote the new Los Angeles routes, Virgin has launched a Hawaiiscape sweepstakes for Elevate members, offering free flights, hotel stays and 50,000 Elevate points. Members who enter at www.MakeYourHawaiiscape.com by May 27 will get 250 Elevate points.
JetBlue is planning to start flying this fall between New York LaGuardia and Boston Logan, a market thoroughly dominated by Delta and American. The carrier set an October 31 start for the service, which will offer six flights a day on weekdays between LGA and BOS, with lighter schedules on weekends. That will give JetBlue customers the option of flying to Boston from any of New York’s three airports. JetBlue said it will also take advantage of the FAA’s decision to open up slot controls at Newark Airport by adding more frequencies this fall from Newark to Orlando, Tampa, Ft. Lauderdale, Palm Beach and Ft. Myers. Meanwhile, JetBlue this week added Nashville to its route map, launching two daily roundtrips from there to Boston and one to Ft. Lauderdale.
Surf Air offers private aircraft flights around California. (Image: Surf Air)
Surf Air, which promotes itself to California travelers as an “all-you-can-fly private air travel club,” is offering a new lower-priced membership option through the end of this month with no initiation fee. The new Explorer Membership is priced at $850 per month, with a minimum three-month commitment. It includes one monthly roundtrip flight to any Surf Air destination. A regular membership starts at $1,950 a month. The company operates executive private aircraft around an intrastate network that includes airports in the Bay Area, metro Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Truckee/Tahoe, Napa, Monterey, Sacramento, Palm Springs and Las Vegas.
Delta Air Lines plans an August 1 start for new Delta Connection service between Washington Reagan National and Raleigh, according to Airlineroute.net. The carrier will offer four flights a day on the route, using CRJ900s operated by GoJet Airlines.
Sun Country Airlines, a niche carrier based at Minneapolis/St. Paul International, this week kicked off new service between Denver and MSP. The carrier operates one daily roundtrip in the market, offering Denver-originating passengers eastbound connections to Boston, Washington D.C. and New York JFK.
Virgin America’s Elevate elites get free or discounted access to the airline’s Loft lounge at LAX. (Image: Virgin America)
Even though it is on the verge of being swallowed up by Alaska Airlines Group, which will no doubt lead to still-undetermined changes, Virgin America has unveiled an upgrade in benefits for elite-level members of its Elevate frequent flyer program – and the news includes a swipe at rival JetBlue.
Virgin said it has expanded its Elevate Status Match offer – previously open to elite-level loyalists of American, United, Delta and Southwest – to include JetBlue as well. Mosaic-level members of JetBlue’s TrueBlue program can now obtain Gold status in Virgin’s program just by joining Elevate and applying at Virgin’s Status Match page. “Members can enjoy Gold status perks for three months, plus the opportunity to retain Gold status through the end of 2017,” Virgin said.
Meanwhile, Virgin has increased the bonus points that Elevate Silver and Gold members can earn, and has introduced a new pathway to elite status by counting flight segments.
(Image: Virgin America)
Members can achieve Elevate Silver status now by completing 15 flights on Virgin, or by earning 20,000 status credits at 5 per $1 spent. Thirty completed flights will now confer Gold status, as will 50,000 status credits. Plus, the new flight counter is retroactive to January 1 of this year.
Once a member achieves Silver status, he or she will earn a bonus of 50 percent, or a total of 7.5 points per $1, up from the previous 25 percent bonus. For Golds, the earning bonus has increased from 100 percent to 120 percent, or 12 points per $1 spent.
Why would Virgin go to the trouble of doing this? A spokesperson told TravelSkills, “The Elevate enhancements announced today are part of our continuing mission to make flying fun again and even more rewarding for our frequent flyers. We’re also encouraging guests who may be feeling a bit ‘blue’ with their current carrier to fly Virgin America and enjoy a more premium travel experience.” He also reminded us that airline mergers can take years, not months, to complete.
When TravelSkills met with Alaska Airlines execs in San Francisco this week, they promised a generous transfer rate for Elevate members when the program the programs integrate next year. Stay tuned!
Is it worth attaining status with Virgin now that its days are numbered? Please leave your comments below.
Sleep in a discounted Delta flat bed to Europe this summer! (Photo: Delta Air Lines)
Before we get started with this week’s most popular post, let’s take a look at an unusual opportunity. Late last week Delta trotted out some very nice discounts for SkyMiles award travel to Europe– in business class. This is the yet another sign that European bookings have taken a hit this summer. The first was the fare sales we saw from United and SAS this week (our most popular post). And now, this. The discounts start at just 105,000 miles for Delta One (bidness) for roundtrips June 3 to October 29 (with lots of blackout dates). BUT, you must act fast– currently the deals are only good if you book by Thursday, April 21. Here are the details . Even if you don’t have a big stash of SkyMiles, keep in mind that you can convert your American Express Membership Rewards points to Delta miles. Stay tuned to TravelSkills in coming weeks as I think we’ll continue to see some very good deals across the pond this year.
TravelSkills’ 10 most popular posts over the last week (descending order):
Two round trip business class tickets to Asia! Where? Stay tuned (Map image: US Central Intelligence Agency)
The BIG giveaway! Stay tuned to TravelSkills this week for our biggest giveaway EVER. Get this: We have TWO roundtrip business class tickets to give away on a new Asian route from SFO. Any guesses where? The big reveal comes this week. To win them, you’ll have to agree to write up a Trip Report for TravelSkills. Are you game? Stay tuned!
Links to stories from other sources that we thought you’d like to read:
The moodlit airline has a sexy new partner (Photo: Chris McGinnis)
A new partnership between two of the travel industry’s sexiest players was likely in the works before all this merger mania hit.
Today, Starwood Preferred Guest and Virgin America Elevate teamed up to announce a generous partnership, which is great… but reminds us that both brands days are numbered.
Starting today, SPG members interesting in flying Virgin (or its partners) will be able to transfer Starpoints into Elevate points at a 1-to-1 ratio. Also, Elevate members will earn two Elevate points for every dollar spent at Starwood hotels.
Use your Virgin Elevate points for a view like this one from St Regis Princeville in Kauai (Chris McGinnis)
Are you a SPG member interested in flying Virgin or its partners? When you transfer your Starpoints directly to Elevate points, SPG adds an additional 5,000 points for every 20,000 you transfer at a time. Here’s how. Scott over at Travel Codex thinks transferring Starpoints into Elevate points might not be such a great idea for some.
With Virgin America onboard, SPG now has over 30 airlines as transfer partners, one of the many reasons members love this program so much… and why many are so worried about how Marriott might tinker with it.
Virgin America starts charging for fast satellite-based Wi-Fi this month. (Image: Virgin America)
For the past several months, Virgin America has been installing and testing a new satellite-based Wi-Fi system on 10 of its new A320s– and offering the service for free. Those tests have been successfully completed, and this month the airline will start charging for the faster in-flight Internet service,according to a Virgin America blog post.
Virgin said the tests of its new ViaSat satellite-based Wi-Fi found that it operates eight to 10 times faster than other in-flight systems, providing passengers with “speeds similar to what they have at home so they can stream everything from movies to TV shows, music and breaking news to their own devices.”
Effective this week, the Wi-Fi pricing on ViaSat-equipped A320s ranges from $4.99 for short flights (under two hours) to $17.99 for trips longer than five hours (e.g., transcontinental flights). Flights of two to three hours cost $7.99, three to four hours are $9.99 and four to five hour flights charge $13.99 for the fast Wi-Fi. For 5+ hour transcons, the fee will be $17.99. (That’s much cheaper than what you’ll pay for a standard buy-on-board Gogo pass for slower ground-based service, which now fetches over $50.)
Virgin America’s new satellite based wi-fi is fast enough to stream movies (Image: Virgin America)
Virgin America said Elevate Gold members will get free ViaSat Wi-Fi through the end of the year, and will get emails with promo codes for access. Since Gogo and ViaSat are separate companies with different platforms, holders of monthly or annual passes for Gogo in-flight Wi-Fi – which is on the rest of Virgin’s fleet – can also access the ViaSat service for free, but will receive emails with access codes. An announcement at the beginning of a flight will tell passengers whether their aircraft has the ViaSat service. Virgin America does not currently offer Wi-Fi on its Hawaii routes, but it’s expected some time this summer.
The airline has teamed up with LinkedIn to offer free “professional development” video tutorials from Lynda.com to all passengers on the ViaSat-equipped planes.
The new service raises competitive questions on some routes – i.e., how will Virgin’s satellite service compete against the free Fly-Fi high-speed service that JetBlue offers on its fleet, especially as JetBlue appeals to more transcon business travelers with the expansion of its Mint premium cabins?
Last fall, JetBlue finished installing the satellite-based Fly-Fi service on its entire Airbus fleet, and it expects to have it on all its E190s by this fall. And so far, the service remains free.
Alaska’s big buy stimulated plenty of reaction. (Image: Jim Glab)
This week’s big news of Alaska Airlines’ pending acquisition of Virgin America Airlines spurred plenty of commentary from all sides. Here’s a roundup of reactions from various media and other sources.
First, there’s this: Late yesterday JetBlue, the failed suitor in the deal, responded with its own new promotion, offering “JetBlue virgins” — i.e., those who have never flown the airline – a chance to win one of 500 free roundtrip flights in exchange for their contact information.
Sit back, relax. It’s going to take a while.
Stuart Dinnis, VP of Loyalty at Virgin America in an email to Elevate members:
“There will likely be no significant changes to your flying experience for as many as 18 months or more …Until the transaction is officially approved – typically a process that can take upwards of six months – both airlines will continue to operate independently and there will be no changes to our flight schedules, the Virgin America product and guest experience, Elevate Status levels or your ability to earn and redeem points… there will be no disruption to your earnings or redemptions. Your Points balance and Status level will be honored in Alaska Airline’s Mileage Plan, which has been rankedthe #1 airline rewards program by U.S. News and World Report for the past two years. In addition, you will be able to use your Status levels and earned Points across a significantly expanded network.”
“Virgin America will never disappear from the United States,” the Virgin Group founder told us yesterday… The billionaire added that he will back a new airline to carry on the Virgin name, if it comes to that. “People love Virgin with a passion that hasn’t existed since the early days of aviation, and I am certainly not going to let it go to waste, even if it means starting all over again” as a new domestic airline. At least for now, Branson said he is hopeful that Alaska will preserve the Virgin name—and reputation… “Ideally, Alaska will treat Virgin “as a small independent company within a bigger company,” he said.
Does that hipster look like an Alaska Airlines customer? (Image: SFO)
Alaska Air needs to get hip to the cool California kids
With new entrants threatening to destabilize Alaska’s dominance in the Pacific Northwest, it was high time that the airline did something to diversify its route network beyond its core market. But if the airline wants to hold on to Virgin America’s customers and effectively compete against the other mainline carriers on a national level, it not only needs to up its game in terms of on-board service and amenities, it also needs to rethink its marketing to appeal to a younger and more urbane customer. Simply put, Alaska’s wintry and nature-focused image, bare bones service, and confusing regional name isn’t going to cut it in the big leagues.
Alaska Air must now be careful in how it integrates a brand beloved by its cadre of customers who adore its cheeky image, onboard Wi-Fi and soothing onboard purple lighting. For Alaska Air, buying Virgin America was in some ways a natural consequence of the successive mergers that have already concentrated domestic air travel in four primary airlines: American, Delta, United and Southwest…Putting together Alaska and Virgin America will not create a new airline that can stand toe-to-toe with those bigger companies. But it will create a tougher competitor for JetBlue, with which Alaska competed fiercely to win over the smaller airline, and which it will displace as the country’s fifth-biggest airline.
American Airlines A321T now flying SFO-JFK (Photo: AA)
American Airlines and Alaska Airlines have an extensive partnership in place that allows the two airlines to transfer passengers onto each others network and gives members of American Airlines that have status the equivalent on Alaska Airlines and vice versa. It gives American Airlines access to Alaska Airlines extensive network on the West Coast of the United States/Canada and in Alaska, both areas American Airlines is much weaker. A deal between Virgin America and Alaska Airlines will expand the Alaska network substantially, especially in San Francisco and give American Airlines indirectly also a much larger network.
Business Insider cites three reasons why Virgin is a smart buy for Alaska:
At first glance, forking out $4 billion for some terminal space, landing rights, and a few jets makes little sense, but a deeper analysis shows that Alaska’s move, though risky, may be a smart buy for three key reasons. First, the acquisition of the San Francisco-based airline keeps Virgin America and its sizable West Coast presence out of JetBlue’s control… Second, Alaska’s acquisition of Virgin America makes it an instant powerhouse airline that’s a viable competitor to juggernaut Southwest…Alaska, the seventh-largest airline in the US, now has additional resources to scale up operations in key markets around the country, such as Dallas and New York… Third, Alaska Airlines is a major brand and big-time player in the western US. But it remains relatively unknown to a lot of travelers on the East Coast and abroad. The acquisition of an airline tied to a world-renowned brand allows Alaska to make a big splash outside its traditional market.
So what about YOU? What’s your reaction to the merger of Virgin America and Alaska Airlines? Please leave your comments below.
Alaska Airlines is reportedly going to get Virgin America (Image: Jim Glab)
Alaska Airlines has reportedly clinched a deal to purchase Virgin America, snatching the opportunity away from JetBlue.
The Wall Street Journal reports that “people familiar with the situation” say that there’s no guarantee that Alaska will get Virgin, but if it does, Alaska Air is expected to pay around $2 billion for the Burlingame-based carrier– a price inflated by all the recent speculation that Virgin was actually up for grabs. (Prior to the kerfuffle about the sale, Virgin America was valued at around $1.5 billion.)
If Virgin and Alaska Air combined, it would create the nation’s fifth largest carrer– a title currently held by JetBlue.
I’m writing this post having just returned from the sunny slopes of Northstar at Lake Tahoe and my mind is of course bursting with speculation and possibilities…. here’s what I’m thinking. I’m curious to know what YOU are thinking, too, so read on and leave your comments below.
-If Alaska Airlines buys Virgin America, which name would survive? If Alaska Airlines wants to be a national carrier, it will likely need to shed its regional name, right? But would Alaska be willing to pay whatever fee Richard Branson wants for it to carry the Virgin name? And speaking of regional-sounding names, Southwest Airlines sounds regional, but it has succeeded in becoming a national carrier, so who knows?
-What’s going to happen to Virgin’s hub at the fab Terminal 2 in San Francisco? It’s currently bursting at the seams so I’m not sure if Alaska’s operations are going to fit in there. But since there’s now the behind-security passageway between Terminal 1 C (Delta) and Terminal 2, Alaska could squeeze in there? Combined, the two carriers would become SFO’s second largest carrier, with 15% of all flights. (United will remain firmly in #1 position.)
-What’s going to happen with JetBlue? Will it just walk away from the deal… or will it come back with a higher bid (just like what’s been happening with Starwood/Marriott/Anbang). Who knows? But if the deal is done, the WSJ says that we could hear about it as soon as Monday. Wouldn’t it be interesting if Alaska Air bought BOTH Virgin and JetBlue? It could happen! Or…maybe Delta could swoop in at the last minute with a sweeter offer? And speaking of Delta, what’s going to happen with Delta’s relationship with Virgin Atlantic and Richard Branson if Alaska Air butts in?
“Flights with Benefits” is the racy name for one of Virgin America’s new A320 ETOPS jets (Photo: Chris McGinnis)
-Frequent Flyer programs. Alaska Airlines has resisted following the pack of major airlines down the path of devaluation. As a matter of fact, it remains the largest airline with an intact mileage-based program versus the new-fangled spend-based programs of the majors. Virgin America’s spending-based Elevate program has never been a huge draw, so maybe integration with Alaska’s more popular and lucrative Mileage Plan would be a good idea.
–Hawaii flights could become more expensive. Alaska and Virgin have been competing heavily on fares to the islands ever since Virgin launched Hawaii nonstops last December. One less carrier in the market could mean higher fares.
-How will the two carriers integrate their fleets? Alaska Airlines is all Boeing. Virgin is all Airbus. While other airlines have both types in their fleet, it service issues could become more unwieldy/complicated.
-What’s going to happen the the hip fun culture that Virgin America has created? Will it be washed away in a take over? Alaska Airlines runs a great operation, and has similarly built up a loyal following with very good service, new planes and good on-time performance. Which culture will come out on top?
Okay. That’s it from me now. Time for some apres-ski time in sunny Truckee. Please share your speculations and comments below! We’ll regroup on Monday!
Virgin America touches down in Palm Springs on a cold winter day (Photo: Chris McGinnis)
Bloomberg News reported Wednesday morning that Virgin America Airlines could be for sale. But there was no hint of who the potential buyer or buyers might be.
Citing unidentified sources, Bloomberg said Virgin “is working with a financial adviser after receiving takeover interest,” although it added that “no decision has been made, and Virgin America may choose not to pursue a sale.” Sale of Virgin shares was temporarily stopped after they jumped as much as 12 percent in morning trading.
This morning, a Virgin America spokesperson told TravelSkills, “As a public company, we have a policy of not commenting on any market or media speculation concerning mergers or acquisitions involving Virgin America.”
Sir Richard Branson’s U.K.-based Virgin Group owns a 25 percent stake in Virgin America, as it has since the airline started. By law, the other 75 percent must be held by U.S. investors. In the fall of 2014, Virgin went public with an initial offering of stock that raised more than $300 million.
There was some speculation on CNBC that Delta might be interested in acquiring part or all of Virgin America, based on its existing 49 percent equity stake in Virgin Atlantic and its transpacific joint venture with Virgin Australia. Virgin America also has partnerships with the other Virgin carriers. Delta has been active in buying equity stakes in other airlines in recent years as well, including Brazil’s GOL, Aeromexico, and China Eastern.
There’s also the possibility that Virgin America could be acquired by non-airline investors.
A JetBlue A321 parked at SFO this week- here to celebrate launch on Mint service on SFO-BOS (Photo: Chris McGinnis)
At TravelSkills we’ve often thought a merger of Virgin America and JetBlue would make sense. Their route maps don’t overlap too much– JetBlue is primarily an east coast carrier and Virgin is big out west, and now in Hawaii. JetBlue has a nice foothold in the huge New York City market. Virgin is adored in San Francisco and Los Angeles. JetBlue boasts the modern, convenient airport terminal (T5) at JFK. Virgin has the state of the art T2 at SFO. The two carriers could share the mod Virgin Loft at LAX since they both operate out of Terminal 3 there. Both carriers fly Airbus narrowbody jets.
Virgin America will mark its 10th birthday this summer. The airline struggled during its first several years, but finally started to turn a profit in 2013. Since then, its fortunes have improved dramatically as the price of oil declined; its net profit number jumped from $10 million in 2013 to $60 million in 2014 and to $340 million last year.
Do you think Virgin is going to sell or merge? Thoughts below, please!
American will reduce the free checked bag allowance for some premium passengers. (Image: American)
In airline news briefs this week, American will change its checked-bag policy for premium travelers; Alaska makes a mileage program commitment; Delta expands its offering of front-cabin loungewear, and Virgin America will help business travelers learn while they fly.
American Airlines tells Travelskills that the company is changing its free checked bag policies for passengers in its premium cabins, effective for tickets bought March 29 or later, in an effort to bring American “in line with our U.S. competitors.” Instead of the current three free checked bags, AA will only allow two free checked bags in two-cabin aircraft, including domestic First Class and international Business Class. The change will not apply to AAdvantage Executive Platinums, who will still get three bags free, as will First Class passengers on three-cabin international flights.
While other big U.S. airlines have changed their loyalty programs over to spending-based instead of mileage-based models (or are planning to, like American), Alaska Airlines says it will not – at least, not in the immediate future Speaking at a JP Morgan investment conference this week, Alaska chief financial officer Brandon Pederson said that the airline will be “sticking with the traditional model” for its Mileage Plan program. But he added that he “wouldn’t say we would never go to that (a spending-based model).”
Delta’ just upped its game when it comes to inflight slumber (Image: Delta)
In December, Delta started offering a new amenity to passengers flying in its Delta One cabins from Los Angeles to Sydney and Shanghai – in-flight sleepwear/loungewear that they can change into to keep their clothes from getting wrinkled. And now Delta has expanded that perk. The light-gray PJs are now being offered to Delta One customers on flights from Seattle to Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong; and from Detroit to Shanghai and Beijing. They come in small/medium or large/extra large, and passengers can take them home after their flight.
The popular networking service LinkedIn is teaming up with Virgin America to offer free streaming in-flight video tutorials to passengers. Starting next month, Virgin customers will be able to watch business-oriented videos produced by Lynda.com, a company that LinkedIn purchased for $1.5 billion. Available through the airline’s in-fight entertainment system, the videos cover topics like Getting Things Done, Creating Great Workplace Habits, and Managing Stress.
Virgin America’s new route links the Bay Area with the Rocky Mountains- and lowers fares. (Image: Virgin America)
In domestic route news, Virgin America breaks into a big new business market; JetBlue targets Ft. Lauderdale for substantial growth; Southwest doubles capacity on a Bay Area transcontinental route; American adds some secondary markets; and Frontier plans three new routes.
On Tuesday, Virgin America started flying its newest U.S. route, offering three flights a day between San Francisco and Denver – a route dominated by United. Earlier this month, United prepared for battle by increasing frequencies on the SFO-DEN route to as many as a dozen flights a day. To promote the new route, Virgin is offering promotional discounts of up to 30 percent off Main Cabin fares between DEN-SFO for travel from April 12 to May 25, on bookings made through March 24.
JetBlue announced plans for significant growth at Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, saying that it expects to increase operations there during the winter to 140 flights a day “in the coming years;” that’s an increase of 75 percent over its current schedules. The only specific expansion it mentioned in the announcement was a plan to begin Ft. Lauderdale-New Orleans service on September 29, with one daily roundtrip; and an increase in Ft. Lauderdale-Nassau, Bahamas service from three flights a day to five, starting August 1.
Southwest Airlines newest special livery “Tennessee One” Like it? (Image: Southwest Airlines)
Effective for the summer season from June 5 through August 6, Southwest Airlines plans to add a second daily roundtrip between Oakland and Baltimore-Washington International. The carrier said it will increase capacity on several other BWI routes during the same period, adding a sixth daily flight between BWI and Denver, a ninth between BWI-Manchester, N.H.; an eighth between BWI and Hartford Bradley; a seventh between BWI and Tampa; and a 10th between BWI and Orlando.
American Airlines will add a new spoke from its Phoenix hub on June 2, launching one daily roundtrip to Redmond, Oregon. The route will be operated by Skywest/American Eagle with a CRJ700. And on May 5, new Envoy/American Eagle E145 flights are due to begin between Dallas/Ft. Worth and Sioux City, Iowa’s Sioux Gateway Airport (for trivia buffs: the airport’s three-letter code is SUX).
Frontier Airlines has unveiled plans for three more new routes in the months ahead. On May 15, it will begin flying between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas three times a week; on June 22, it will kick off one daily roundtrip between Denver and Washington Dulles; and on June 28, it will start daily service linking Phoenix with Colorado Springs.
Starting April 22 you’ll catch trains from Denver’s modern Union Station to Denver International Airport 23 miles northeast of downtown (Photo: RTD)
Denver has always been a very inexpensive city to fly to because of an ongoing fare war between United and Southwest. But since Denver based Frontier has gone “ultra low cost” and SF-based Virgin America has entered the market, we are seeing some outstanding deals from Bay Area airports.
For example, Virgin launched a systemwide fare sale today to several cities, but Denver fares are some of the best. For example, it is offering nonstop round trips SFO-DEN for just $118! Yes, that is roundtrip. It’s good for flights in April and May. While many flights are coming in at $59 each way ($118 round trip), we are also seeing them at $79 ($138-$158 round trip). That’s still a screamin’ deal! Check it out here.
Some other good deals from today’s Virgin sale: SFO-Seattle is just $128 roundtrip for April and May flights. SFO-New York is below the rare $300 threshold at $298 roundtrip on a handful of flights. Hawaii is running below the $400 threshold at $398 roundtrip to both Honolulu and Maui for flights through early June.
JetBlue has rock bottom rates to Boston and Las Vegas! (Image: JetBlue)
Another great deal that TravelSkills reader EW found for us: JetBlue’s new Mint class (with lie flat seats!) between SFO and Boston is going for just $986 round trip. It’s rare to see seats at the front of the plane on transcon flights for less than $1,000 so jump on this! JetBlue introduces the posh new Mint service to SFO-Boston on March 24. See the TravelSkills Trip Report about JetBlue Mint class here.
In addition to this phenomenal fare, JetBlue is flying SFO-Las Vegas for just $88 round trip this spring. Find all JetBlue’s deals here.
NOTE: Fares searched March 15 and subject to change
Have you ever flown JetBlue? Would you? What did you think? Please leave your comments below.
United plans to fly 757-300s from Washington Reagan National to San Francisco and Denver. (Image: BriYYZ/Wikimedia Commons)
In U.S. route news, Alaska Airlines plans to expand at Mineta San Jose Airport with new intra-California service, and it is also growing at Portland; United trims its Cleveland schedule and puts larger aircraft on two Washington Reagan National routes; Virgin America makes a seasonal SFO route year-round; Southwest plans to fly to another Los Angeles-area airport; American adds a new spoke from LaGuardia; and a small niche carrier targets Pittsburgh for expansion.
Alaska Airline’s mod new look. (Image: Alaska Air)
Alaska Airlines announced an expansion in the Bay Area, with plans to add service from Mineta San Jose Airport starting June 5 to both San Diego and Orange County/Santa Ana, Calif. The carrier will operate three daily flights in each market, using 76-seat Embraer 175s from SkyWest Airlines. The planes have 12 seats in first class, 12 in preferred class and 52 in the main cabin, and are equipped with Wi-Fi and free streaming entertainment. Meanwhile, February 18 is the launch date for three new Alaska Airlines routes out of Portland International. The carrier will begin once-daily service from Portland to Kansas City, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Omaha.
Effective May 4, United Airlines plans to drop two routes from Cleveland Hopkins Airport, ending its service to Las Vegas and to St. Louis. That brings United’s presence at Cleveland down to 15 destinations, from 58 two years ago. Meanwhile, United also plans to expand capacity on a pair of routes out of Washington Reagan Nationalby switching to 213-seat 757-300s from smaller aircraft. The 757s will replace 737-800s starting March 23 on the San Francisco-DCA route, and A320s and 737-800s on the Denver-DCA route beginning March 3. In other developments, United plans to discontinue service April 4 from Chicago O’Hare to Elmira/Corning, N.Y., and to operate Saturday/Sunday seasonal service from O’Hare to Great Falls, Montana from June 11 through August 14.
Southwest Airlines, seeking to expand its network to “five for five in Greater L.A.,” has applied for takeoff and landing slots at Long Beach Airport. The airline already flies out of Los Angeles International, Burbank, Orange County Airport and Ontario. Southwest didn’t say where it wants to fly from Long Beach, but California and Nevada media are speculating that it might have its sights on the Bay Area and/or Las Vegas. The airline said it hopes to start service at Long Beach later this year.
According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, American Airlines plans to start daily non-stop service from that Kentucky city to New York LaGuardia effective June 2. It said American will operate one daily roundtrip with a 50-seat regional jet.
Virgin America’s inaugural flight to Palm Springs got the red carpet treatment (Chris McGinnis)
Virgin America Airlines said that its seasonal service between San Francisco and Palm Springs will be operated year-round from now on. The airline said it will fly the route four times a week through the fall. Virgin’s Palm Springs-New York JFK flights will remain seasonal, continuing through May.
OneJet, a small but fast-growing niche airline that operates seven-passenger Hawker 400 jets on routes in the Midwest, said it plans to make Pittsburgh its next focus city. The little airline, which already flies from Pittsburgh to Milwaukee and Indianapolis, plans to start twice-daily Pittsburgh-Hartford flights on May 9, and then to add four more destinations from Pittsburgh in the second quarter, although it didn’t day which ones.
Headed west out over open water on one of Virgin’s new ETOPS rated A320s (Photo: Chris McGinnis)
Last week I jumped on a Virgin America flight to the islands- my first since the carrier launched nonstops from San Francisco to Honolulu and Maui late last year. It has since announced that it will add nonstops from LAX to Hawaii later this year.
Virgin’s entry into the Hawaii market has helped spur a fare war, with flights frequently falling into the low $300’s round trip from the west coast- quite a good bargain! The California-to-Hawaii market is packed with nonstops from nearly every other US carrier, including Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian and United.
“Flights with Benefits” is the racy name for one of Virgin America’s new A320 ETOPS jets (Photo: Chris McGinnis)
To be able to offer these flights, Virgin needed a new plane, an ETOPS-rated Airbus A320 (pictured above) that is equipped to fly long distances over water. So that’s the first thing I noticed when I boarded– that “new plane smell” as well as a shimmering new surfaces lit with purple hues from its mod mood lighting.
This A320 also has the newer, higher-definition version of the RED seatback entertainment system– which includes a much more robust, interactive inflight mapping program that kept me occupied for hours. (I am usually much more entertained by the inflight map than inflight movies!)
Inflight internet & live TV not yet operable on Hawaii flights (Photo: Chris McGinnis)
Despite the fab new seatback system, I was disappointed to learn that the plane’s satellite-based connectivity system is not working yet, which means no inflight internet or live TV for the 5+ hour flight. Flight attendants rolled their eyes when I asked about this…saying that it’s a very common complaint from Virgin America regulars who love their inflight wi-fi. Regrettably they said that they don’t expect it to be operable until “later this year.” A Virgin spokesperson responded, “Not quite yet” when I asked when the service would be working.
Despite connectivity issues, the RED system does not disappoint– even without a connection, there’s a full roster of very good, current movies and TV shows to watch, some great indie and international choices, and that wonderful inflight mapping feature.
While this picture-of-a-picture is grainy, in real life seat back map images are sharp & interactive (Chris McGinnis)
Another downside on these 5+ hour nonstops is crowding at the back of the plane when lines for for the two lavatories form. On my flight, there was a nearly constant queue back there, especially 2-3 hours in. That’s uncomfortable for passengers seated the last 3-4 rows as well as flight attendants who told me that due to a new configuration of the galley area, they are unable to sit down for rest breaks. Luckily on this flight I upgraded to Main Cabin Select, and was seated in row 10 over the wing (exit row).
Main cabin on a new Virgin America A320 seats 138 (Chris McGinnis)
Overall, the flight was very nice and a standout when compared to other carriers– much like nearly all my Virgin America experiences. But to be honest, I was hoping for a bit more fun and celebration about the fact that we were flying to Hawaii. A lei, a flower or slice of pineapple in a cocktail, an aloha shirt or maybe a little ukele music over the PA system would have been a nice addition. All I saw that celebrated this a flight to paradise was a can of POG (Passion, Orange, Guava) juice available on the seatback food & drink ordering system. Nonetheless, the flight was pleasant and on-time.
Take a spin through my trip in the slides below:
At 6:45 am, PreCheck at SFO’s Terminal 2 was a breeze (Chris McGinnis)
Gorgeous sunrise lights up our new A320 and SFO control tower for a 7:30 am departure (Chris McGinnis)
This is what a brand new Virgin America A320 looks like: black leather & mood lights. Wow (Chris McGinnis)
Plenty of knee room on exit row 10 Main Cabin Select (Chris McGinnis)
Seatback mapping system provides trip stats. Note that image is much clearer that what shows in this photo (Chris McGinnis)
Note the clear HD image, and the POG reminder that this flight is paradise-bound! (Chris McGinnis)
My go-to meal on Virgin America, the Protein Plate & Honest T Green Tea, did not disappoint (Chris McGinnis)
My seatmate ordered the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And a POG (Chris McGinnis)
I love the healthy food options on Virgin- this is one of three pages of choices- order from the screen & flight attendant delivers (Chris McGinnis)
One of two shiny new lavs at the back of this A320 (Chris McGinnis)
Flying over gorgeous Oahu on approach to HNL (Chris McGinnis)
Had some fun scrambling around Kauai! Then headed back (Chris McGinnis)
I love Honolulu’s open air corridors. Such a nice welcome to paradise 🙂 (Chris McGinnis)
Spectacular view of Honolulu at take off for SFO. Note the sparkles in the paint on the engine! (Chris McGinnis)
Final look at Waikiki and Diamond Head on our way back to SFO. Aloha! (Chris McGinnis)
What’s your favorite way to get to Hawaii? Been lately? Please leave your comments below.
Virgin America will bring Hawaii service to Los Angeles this year. (Virgin’s LAX lounge photo: Chris McGinnis)
In domestic route news, Virgin America plans a new Hawaii route; JetBlue sets schedules for the launch of Boston Mint service, and adds new cross-country markets; Alaska will resume an Atlanta route; and a niche carrier sets its sights on Portland.
Following up on its recent inauguration of service from San Francisco to Honolulu and Maui, Virgin America announced this week that it will serve the same two destinations from Los Angeles. The company said it has scheduled a May 5 start for daily flights from LAX to Honolulu, and a June 14 launch for daily service linking LAX with Kahului, Maui. Virgin noted that the new LAX schedule will allow even more connecting possibilities to Hawaii from the other cities it serves. Virgin is offering sale fares between Hawaii and LAX for as little as $338 round trip — today (Tuesday) only — and is offering Elevate members an award flight price starting at 8,278 points. UPDATE: As of Wednesday morning Feb 3, these “one day” sale fares ($338 rt) are still available when searching for SFO to Hawaii on VirginAmerica.com
NICE: These sale fares are good for travel all the way from now through summer– and they apply to flights from San Francisco, too!
JetBlue will add more Mint flights on transcon routes from Boston. (Image: JetBlue)
Following up on plans it announced months ago, JetBlue has set the starting dates for the expansion of its premium Mint service to routes out of Boston. According to Airlineroute.net, JetBlue will introduce a Mint-equipped A321 on one of its three daily San Francisco-Boston flights effective March 24, followed by a second daily Mint service beginning April 20 and the third starting September 20. JetBlue’s Boston-Los Angeles route will get the same treatment, but so far only one of the three daily flights on that route has the new Mint service scheduled, with a starting date of October 20.
Meanwhile, JetBlue also has its eye on some new cross-country markets. The carrier said it will begin new daily service between Boston-Salt Lake City on May 12, and between Ft. Lauderdale-San Diego as of June 16. Also in the works is new daily service linking Los Angeles with Buffalo, N.Y. starting June 16. On all three routes, the eastbound departure will be a red-eye.
Alaska Airlines is bringing back nonstops between Atlanta and Portland, OR (Image: Jim Glab)
Alaska Airlines dropped service between Atlanta and Portland, Ore. a few years ago, but now it is planning to revive that route on a seasonal basis. The airline said it will operate a daily 737 roundtrip on the route this year from June 4 through August 27. Delta already serves that market. Alaska also announced plans to operate weekly Saturday service this summer between Spokane and Anchorage, from June 11 through August 27.
Minnesota-based Sun Country Airlines plans to begin new year-round service between Minneapolis-St. Paul and Portland, Ore. on June 9, according to Airlineroute.net. The 737 service will initially operate five times a week, and will be reduced to four a week after August 31.
The site says AAdvantage Executive Platinum status is being offered to United 1Ks, and it will kick in instantly (presumably after a brief processing period). To keep the AA Executive Platinum status active through February of 2017, you’ll have to earn 35,000 elite-qualifying miles within 90 days on American, British Airways, Finnair, Iberia, Japan Airlines and/or Qantas.
The report said program 1K switchers who become Executive Platinums qualify for four systemwide upgrades on American from any fare class. Interested parties are advisded to call AA at 888-697-5636 to make the request and start the process.
Double points on Virgin America (Photo: Chris McGinnis)
Virgin America is pulling out a powerful tool to boost bookings during the slow “dead weeks” of early winter. Those who register, book, and fly with Virgin by Feb 29 will earn 2x Elevate points. Details and registration here.
The typical earn for Elevate members is five points per $1 spent on the base fare and five status points per $1 spent on base fare. In this offer, you will earn 100% bonus points per $1 spent on the base fare for a total of 10 points but will still earn only five status credits per $1 spent on the base fare.
JetBlue’s offer of double points is even sweeter– that’s because the bonus points count toward the carrier’s elite Mosaic status. Details and registration here.To get the bonus, you must book your flight by January 31.
In-flight Wi-Fi is catching fire worldwide. (Image: Virgin America)
U.S. carriers still lead the world in the availability of in-flight Wi-Fi, but foreign airlines are starting to catch up. And the quality of Wi-Fi connections, while still rather basic, is on track toward significant improvement, according to the latest annual report on the state of in-flight Wi-Fi from Routehappy.
Virgin America still ranks in first place among U.S. carriers with Wi-Fi available on almost 100 percent of its available seat miles (ASMs), Routehappy said (the exception: a few Virgin flights to Hawaii). Following in order are Delta, Southwest and United, all of which have Wi-Fi on more than 80 percent of their ASMs, the company noted.
Actually, one foreign airline topped everyone, with Wi-Fi available on 100 percent of its ASMs: Scoot, the low-fare subsidiary of Singapore Airlines. And Icelandair was on a par with Virgin America, also close to the 100 percent mark.
Although Delta ranks ahead of United and American, “both competitors have nearly closed the gap,” Routehappy said. It noted that when American absorbed US Airways into its system, it picked up another 350 Wi-Fi enabled aircraft.
Overall, travelers on U.S. airlines systemwide have “at least a chance of Wi-Fi” 78 percent of the time, vs. a 24 percent chance on foreign carriers, according to Routehappy. But it noted that foreign carriers are picking up steam. Besides Scoot, it said that “substantial Wi-Fi offerings” can now be found on the flights of Aer Lingus, Aeroflot, Etihad, Garuda, Iberia, Japan Airlines, Norwegian, and SAS.
On long-haul international routes, Routehappy said, Emirates and Lufthansa scored the best for Wi-Fi availability, “measured by number of ASMs and percentage of ASMs respectively.” The “most connected” long-haul route in the world is New York-Dubai, it said, while the least connected is London-Hong Kong.
The company also looked at the quality of in-flight Wi-Fi, which it ranks as “basic, better or best,” depending on the technology used. And that’s where there’s plenty of room for improvement. Routehappy said that in its previous annual report, issued in January 2015, it found Wi-Fi connectivity in the “best” category available on less than 1 percent of U.S. flights; today, that his risen to 6 percent of all flights worldwide.
And the company said it expects to see substantial gains in Wi-Fi quality in the months and years ahead, based on intense passenger demand for improvement.
“The mere availability of Wi-Fi is no longer enough,” Routehappy observed. “Passengers now demand a home broadband-like experience, and more airlines are now delivering this. JetBlue is nearing completion of a fleet-wide broadband rollout, allowing access to Netflix and other streaming services with no access charges; Virgin America has also recently introduced the same system. Additionally, airlines such as Delta, Aeromexico, Virgin Atlantic, Lufthansa, and others are preparing to launch high-speed broadband solutions in the near future.”
SFO’s new 221-foot air traffic control tower will open next summer (Photo: Chris McGinnis)
Even if San Francisco is not your primary airport, a new report by the The City of San Francisco Controller’s office is an interesting read, ranking the airports we use most in a wide variety of factors, and comparing them to SFO.
Some interesting nuggets we gleaned from the report:
Boston has the most “origin and destination” traffic of most major US airports followed by Ft Lauderdale and Las Vegas. This means that BOS is used primarily by locals, or people flying to Boston– it’s not much of a hub airport where the majority of passengers are just connecting, such as Chicago, Houston and Dallas/DFW (and Atlanta, but for some reason, the report does not include the world’s busiest airport.)
Planespotters take note: New York JFK, Los Angeles and San Francisco (SFO) have the highest number of airlines serving them. JFK is home to a whopping 80 different carriers, while SFO has 49.
SFO, Las Vegas and New York JFK sell more stuff (food, beverage, concessions, duty free) per passenger than their peers. For example, those at the top of this list sell about $30 per passenger, while those at the bottom (Dulles, DFW, Ft Lauderdale) only sell about $10 per passenger.
Over the last 7 years, the number of passengers flying out of SFO grew 33%, followed by Miami and Seattle. (Much of that can be attributed to the arrival of Virgin America in 2007.) Washington Dulles is at the bottom of this list, having lost 13% of passengers in the same period.
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New York JFK, Miami and Las Vegas are where you’ll see the largest, fullest planes (they have the most “enplanements per flight”). Houston, Dulles and Chicago O’Hare are home to the largest number of smaller aircraft. Not surprisingly, Los Angeles, SFO and JFK have the largest number of big planes flying overseas routes.
Those who live in Chicago, Dallas and Houston have the most nonstop flights to the most cities. (Again, I think Atlanta would rank highly here, but it’s not included in this report.) Boston, Seattle and Ft Lauderdale have the fewest among the major airports studied. JFK, Miami and Newark have the most international nonstop destinations.
And here’s some info specific to SFO and the airlines that serve it. Most notable is that American is now the #2 carrier at SFO after United.
Virgin America’s new Airbus A321neos will hold 24 percent more passengers than its A320s. (Image: Airbus)
Virgin America is ordering some new, larger aircraft; Delta is offering free pajama/lounge suits to some long-haul passengers; United MileagePlus members can shop with miles in a real store; and JetBlue has a new and improved version of its app.
With a fleet that has always relied on Airbus A319s and A320s, Virgin America announced it is moving on up to the next-generation Airbus A321neo. The carrier has initially ordered 10 of the next-generation planes for delivery starting in early 2017. Besides reducing fuel burn by 20 percent compared with the current Virgin fleet, the A321neos will be have a greater passenger capacity thanks to a longer fuselage. The Virgin configuration will hold 185 seats, about 24 percent more than its current A320 models.
Delta’s new front cabin loungewear only comes in gray. (Image: Delta)
Delta has a new amenity for passengers traveling in the Delta One cabin on flights from Los Angeles to Sydney and Shanghai: In-flight sleepwear/loungewear, so you don’t have to get your nice clothes all wrinkled on those ultra-long trips. The unisex cotton loungewear only comes in gray, with a choice of two sizes: small/medium or large/extra large. They’re available now on the LAX-Sydney and LAX-Shanghai flights, and will be introduced in March 2016 on all Delta flights between the U.S. and China, including Shanghai, Hong Kong and Beijing.
United’s Miles Store at Newark Terminal C.(Image: OTG)
Don’t have time for holiday shopping? If you’re a United MileagePlus member, you can shop and pay for your purchases with miles at an actual retail store during this holiday season. United’s new Miles Shop, created by airport restaurant and retail specialist OTG, is in Terminal C at United’s Newark hub. A variety of gifts and electronics are on the shelves, including luggage, headphones, books, travel kits and power adapters, as well as kids’ toys and clothes. Items are prices from 600 to 50,000 miles. If you pay the old-fashioned way (i.e., cash or credit), you’ll earn 5 miles per dollar spent.
JetBlue said that its iPhone and Android apps have been improved: Customers can now use the apps to select and change seat assignments after check-in, buy ‘Even More Space’ seats and other ancillary services, cancel a check-in for rebooking, and use the phone’s camera to input credit card and passport information. JetBlue also released a new app for the iPad, designed for its larger screen. Besides accessing the usual customer service functions, iPad users can also use the new app to browse through destination guides for many of JetBlue’s 93 destinations.
Virgin America’s Protein Plate breakfast. (Image: Chris McGinnis)
Do you try to eat healthy when you travel? Lots of road warriors figure it’s easy to lower the bar and indulge themselves on the road, because why not? Still, plenty of travelers are trying to keep their health in mind. But the availability of healthy menu items can be inconsistent; some airlines and airports are much better than others when it comes to serving up nutritious food.
A pair of new studies show just how inconsistent they can be– and which ones are doing the best job.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has come out with its 2015 study of menu options at major airports, and it finds things are continuing to get better overall: 71 percent of the restaurants at the 30 biggest U.S. airports now offer “at least one high-fiber, plant-based vegan meal option,” the group found — a 25 percent gain from 2001.
The committee gave Los Angeles International the number one ranking, with healthy menu options offered at 44 of 49 restaurants there, or 90 percent. The group cited one LAX outlet in particular — Real Food Daily — for a good selection of entrees with “a mix of vegetables, beans and grains.”
Newark Liberty ranked second with an 84 percent rate, followed by San Francisco International and Philadelphia International, each with 82 percent.
At the bottom of the list was Minneapolis-St. Paul, where only 56 percent of the eateries served up at least one dish that met the committee’s standards; Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson wasn’t much better, with a 57 percent rate. The committee said those two airports had “a high proportion of fast-food restaurant chains, including Burger King and McDonald’s, clogging their airport terminals.”
Meanwhile, the website Diet Detective has come out with its 2015 analysis of in-flight food on U.S. airlines, and once again Virgin America was at the top of its list, earning four and a half out of five stars. The site said Virgin “is still doing a fantastic job of creating healthy food and offering strong choices in all categories except for individual snacks” — but it noted that “all of the airlines could do better with their snack choices.”
The site put Delta and JetBlue in a tie for second place, each with four stars. It noted that Virgin, Delta and JetBlue all deserve special credit for starting to share nutritional information on some of their offerings.
At the bottom of the rankings, Diet Detective gave “shame on you” ratings to Alaska, Spirit and Frontier, and noted that “Hawaiian Air was not much better.”
The best thing about Diet Detective’s study is that it gives calorie counts and nutritional data for specific menu items at each airline; it even tells you how many minutes of walking you’d have to do to burn off a specific in-flight meal. And it makes you realize some things are counter-intuitive — e.g. if you think you’re saving calories on Delta by ordering a snack box instead of a meal, think again: The average Delta meal is 546 calories, the average snack box 712.
Sadly, the Diet Detective observed that the calorie count per in-flight food item has been on a steady upward trend in recent years, from an average of 360 calories in 2012 to 400 this year. What’s more, the airlines “appear to be decreasing the number of choices they offer,” the site said.
Readers: What’s your favorite airport restaurant/in-flight meal option for healthy dining? Otherwise, what’s your biggest eating indulgence on the road? Post comments below.
Richard Branson fooling around on Virgin’s inaugural flight to Honolulu in November (Photo: Virgin America)
Virgin America begins flying today from San Francisco to Kahului, Maui (OGG) with connecting flights from most Virgin America markets – with introductory fares as low as $398 roundtrip. (Anytime you see a California-Hawaii fare at less than $400, it’s a deal!)
Virgin launched service to Honolulu, Hawaii last month (with similar sale fares) and says that Hawaii continues to be the number one tourism destination from the West Coast, with over 3.3 million visitors in 2014. And it’s also the #1 most requested award destination among frequent flyers.
The new Maui flights are on sale now and can be purchased here. Virgin’s Elevate members can redeem reward flights to Hawaii – with no black-out dates, for as few as 8,187 points today. Flyers can also find deals today* on connecting flights between Maui and many of Virgin America’s cities – including Los Angeles, Dallas, New York, San Diego and Washington DC (IAD).
Other airlines will likely match this and other low fares to Hawaii during the sale period (thru Friday night, Dec 4), so check around. (Currently only Hawaiian Air is matching, but I expect that to change…)
Virgin’s daily, nonstop flights will be operated with new Airbus A320 aircraft that it has taken delivery of this year, which are equipped with fuel-saving, ‘sharklet’ wingtip devices, allowing the airline to operate flights over longer-haul routes.
United is taking the gloves off in a fight for SFO-Denver travelers. (Image: Jim Glab)
Ever since deregulation freed up carriers to set their own routes and frequencies without government approval, the legacy airlines have used a tried and true tactic when a new entrant started flying in their key markets: Flood the market with extra capacity in an effort to drive the newcomer out.
So it should be no surprise that United will resort to that strategy in the face of new competition from Virgin America between United’s hubs at Denver and San Francisco.
Virgin recently announced plans to start flying SFO-DEN on March 15, 2016, with three daily roundtrips. And now United has responded with a planned boost in frequency on the same route starting March 3. In January and February, United’s schedule shows eight or nine flights a day in the market, but in March it will boost that up to 14 flights a day on weekdays, according to Airlineroute.net. It will reportedly use a mix of 737-800s, A320s and 757s on the route. Flight time between the two cities is about 2.5 hours.
Airways News notes that when Virgin jumps into the market, there will be four airlines flying between Denver and San Francisco/Oakland with around 25 flights a day — a huge jump in capacity thanks to the extra eight daily frequencies from United and Virgin.
Can you say fare war? How about some spring skiing?
The other competitors are Southwest, which flies to both Oakland and SFO from Denver; and Frontier, although that ultra-low-cost carrier is reportedly planning to drop its Denver-San Francisco flights in April.
If United plans to wait out Virgin America in a battle for DEN-SFO, it might have a long wait. United tried the same strategy two years ago when Virgin started service between another pair of United hubs — San Francisco and Newark. United doubled its frequencies and fares fell by 30 percent. But Virgin is still operating three non-stops a day in that market, which was a United monopoly route before Virgin came along. Alaska Airlines also tried the same tactic — without success — when Virgin entered the Seattle market from Los Angeles and San Francisco several years ago.
With United still struggling to overcome a poor service reputation among frequent flyers that dates back to its merger with Continental, some road warriors might be glad to have another option on the SFO-Denver route (other than one-class Southwest).
“As is the case in EWR and other markets, we believe that our superior, consistent and tech-forward product and service will resonate with travelers in the Denver area,” a Virgin spokesman tells TravelSkills. “We will be the only airline with three cabins of service on every flight between SFO and DEN, and guests will also have WiFi, personal touch-screen entertainment, and on-demand food and drink every time they fly on us.”
Singapore Airlines has sale fares in both economy class- pictured- and business class (Photo: Chris McGinnis)
Airlines are rolling out excellent Black Friday airfare sales — here are a few that caught my eyes today. To get the deal you must book your trip today through Monday night. What’s most remarkable about this sale is the length of the travel period– basically the first half of next year.
Cathay Pacific: Cathay’s sale fares are probably the broadest offering with economy roundtrip fares ranging from $675 to $800 to cities throughout Asia, including India. Travel window is Feb 9- Apr 30– or Sept 1-Sept 30. US gateways are : Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. See sale fares here.
Singapore Airlines: Super-low fares to Frankfurt, Moscow, Seoul or Tokyo for trips January 10 – May 31. The sale includes both economy and business class fares. Some very good deals: SFO-Seoul or LAX-Tokyo for just $600 round trip in economy or $3,000 in business class. New York-Frankfurt is just $700 roundtrip in economy and $2,700 in business class. See the sale fares here. SIA is also offering great deals on its brand new premium economy seats, with fares ranging from $1,300 to $1,750 round trip.
Emirates: 2-for-1 roundtrip fares from its US gateways to Milan, Dubai and beyond. Travel window is wide- from Jan 9- May 6 2016. Best deals: New York-Milan for $1,1oo for two or $550 each. To Johannesburg for $1750 for two, or $875 each. Many more destinations included. See Emirates Black Friday sales
Some other good deals: Virgin America’s sale is good, too, and we found SFO-Hawaii fares as low as $418 round trip, plus most intra-California fares running less than $100 round trip. Transcons in the $320 roundtrip range. This sale is only in effect today, Friday Nov 27. Sale fares here. NOTE: This sale has expired, but keep an eye out for more discounts to Hawaii when Virgin debuts Maui flights in early December.
Busiest holiday travel season since 2007 is here! Are you ready? (Chris McGinnis)
During the peak holiday travel season, everyone’s looking for a deal or a steal. But the truth of the matter is that bargains are nearly impossible to find during the busy Thanksgiving and Christmas season.
And if you snag what you think is a great deal, you might end up “getting what you pay for.”
As a matter of fact, paying a little more at this time of year usually translates into more peace of mind, more quality time with friends or family, and the increased likelihood of a low-hassle trip home for the holidays…. which is what we all want.
Here are six examples to illustrate what I mean:
1> Take a nonstop flight. While you might be tempted by the price of a one-stop flight, by choosing one, you are increasing your chances of a delay or cancellation by 100%! Why take that chance, especially if you are headed home for just a few days, and a delayed or canceled flight could spoil the entire trip?
Cost: $50 to $200 depending on flight length
Example: Flying during peak Christmas week between San Francisco and Atlanta, you’ll currently pay $781 roundtrip for a six-hour one-stop journey on American connecting in Dallas or Chicago. On the other hand, fly four hours nonstop on Delta or United and the fare is $820- just $39 more. Worth it to fly nonstop? I think so. (Fares checked Nov 23 for flights departing Dec 23, returning Dec 27 and are subject to change.)
2>Book roomier airline seats. While you can always pay a lot more to sit in first class, you can now pay a little bit more, and get a more comfortable coach seat. During the busy, crowded holidays, that’s money well spent. While getting a few extra inches of room always helps, the real benefit of paying for a better economy seat is that you usually get to board early—with elite level flyers—which means you get first dibs on scarce overhead bin space.
Cost: Varies based on carrier and flight duration– $10-$100 per segment
Example: I frequently take advantage of last minute upgrades to Virgin America’s Main Cabin Select seats, which offer a few extra inches of legroom at exit rows and bulkheads, free in-flight food and booze, dedicated bin space and early boarding privileges. While reserving a Main Cabin Select seat in advance can be expensive, cheaper last-minute upgrades (24 hours prior to flight) can make a good flight a great one. While your elite status can help land free upgrade, it’s not always a sure thing, so consider buying them ahead of time at this time of year– see American’s Main Cabin Extra, Delta’s Comfort+, United’s Economy Plus.
3> Stay at a hotel. Why burden the in-laws with the stress of houseguests during the already stressful holidays? Instead of bunking on that lumpy sofa bed or stuffy guest room, book a nearby hotel. Tip: Due to lack of demand from business travelers, most hotels are dirt-cheap during the holidays, especially those located in suburban office parks. Plus, hotel chains use their loyalty programs to keep heads in beds during these slower periods. For example, Best Western is offering 10% off its lowest rates plus 500 bonus Rewards points for stays now through Feb 7. Hilton is now offering 2,500 HHonors points for stays during December.
Cost: $50 to $100 per night, depending on location.
Example: A nice, newish Hilton Garden Inn in the northern Atlanta suburbs (Perimeter Mall) costs only $66 per night during Christmas week—but book it two months later in March when business travelers are back on the road and you’ll pay nearly three times that much– $180.
4> Review your charge card benefits & consider a new card. Most banks have added a slew of new benefits to charge cards in recent years to woo free-spending, credit-worthy frequent travelers, so you might be packing more power in your pocket than you know. While annual fees are higher for such cards, many now offer benefits that come in handy for holiday travel such as waived baggage fees, access to airport lounges, better insurance, early boarding privileges, early check in/late check out or upgrades at hotels, concierge services and more. And with sign up bonuses, your holiday spending could translate into big savings on next year’s trips.
Cost: varies, but $89 to $450 per year
Examples: While the American Express Platinum card sounds expensive at $450/year, the benefits can pay off big time. For example, the card gets you out of the airport holiday mayhem and into 600 airport lounges (gratis) around the world, covers up to $200 airline fees from checked bags to in-flight food or cocktails. For a $95 fee, the United MileagePlus Explorer cardoffers early boarding, one free checked bag, and two United Club passes. Many high-end cards also offer concierge services that can help get you out of travel jams—worth a call if you get stuck!
Don’t ask friends or family to pick you up at the airport (Photo: Uber)
5> Use Uber/Lyft to/from the airport or consider public transportation. There are lots of reasons why you should use a car service for a ride to or from the airport during the holidays. First, don’t burden friends or family with the chore of driving to the airport during rush hour traffic to pick you up or drop you off. Second, when arriving, you walk straight to your waiting car instead of waiting in those long, cold taxi queues at airports that form during peak holiday season. Flying into an airport that has rapid rail connections in house? Jump on the train and meet your family at a station instead of at the crowded airport.
Cost: UberX and Lyft offer fares that meet or beat cabs, but beware of surge pricing at peak times. Here’s some advice on beating surge pricing.
6> Book holiday trips via a real, live travel agents. Most budget-conscious travelers shy away from travel agents who charge fees. But as the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) likes to say, “Without a travel agent, you’re on your own.” Most travel agents can use their experience, connections and clout to help get you out of sticky situations, plus most of them have knowledge and experience to offer you the best alternatives when or if you get stuck. This is especially true if you have complex itineraries or are traveling with a large family or group.
Cost: $20-$50 or negotiable
Example: ASTA’s motto surely rang true recently when winter storm Cato blew up the East Coast on Thanksgiving last year. Most of those who booked trips via travel agents were able to get through to them by phone and adjust travel plans faster than those who only had airline 800-numbers. (Note: Be sure the travel agent you choose has an after hours emergency number.) Another tip: Be sure to download your airline’s app to your smartphone, most can now help with rebooking and avoid standing in a long airport line lines during delay or cancellation situations.
Chris doled out some holiday travel tips to Fox Business News this week- watch this video
Where are YOU headed for the holidays? Please leave your comments below.
Puzzling photo: One of the best things about TravelSkills are the comments… readers definitely know what they are talking about. For example, there was some confusion about what type of Delta aircraft was used for this promotional photo that appeared on the blog last week. See below for an explanation:
Delta’s Comfort+ seating – but what plane? (Image: Delta)
Reader L. Howell explains it:It is a 757, the model they use primarily on premium JFK east/west flights and sometimes to Europe. You can see the new Biz Elite config forward. What’s confusing is they removed the jump seat and equipment by the left door to make the cabin appear more spacious. And you are correct that there’s one row on the right side with two rather than three seats due to exit door 2-right. There’s only that one row (18) that has 2 seats on just the right side, no seats on the left (left exit door). The next row is 3 across both sides. They ought to use this photo and what it really looks like in the back of Highlights Magazine in the “what’s missing” photo….
A few newsy nuggets from other sources that we missed on TravelSkills this week:
Inflight wi-fi is getter faster…but very slowly (Photo: Chris McGinnis)
Last week the New York Times asked TravelSkills editor Chris McGinnis for his opinions and advice about the state of in-flight wi-fi for a story that appeared in its print and online versions.
The NYT reporter asked: Is connectivity/speed about to get better on flights? If so, good enough to meet the public’s demands/expectations? (Or yours)?) Will usage fees for passengers drop — or go away altogether or some airlines? If so, when?
Connectivity is indeed getting better on flights, but it’s a very slow process, which is frustrating to business travelers who increasingly rely on the service.
The thing that frequent travelers must realize it that inflight wi-fi is still a very new product, and the expectation that you’ll get a good, strong signal like you do at home of office needs to be reined in. Airlines are partially to blame for inflating expectations.
Consistency is the biggest issue on major carriers, but less so on smaller carriers. For example, JetBlue’s satellite-based FlyFi system is excellent and relatively consistent. Virgin America has Gogo’s latest, fastest ATG-4 ground based system on all its planes, which means a more consistent experience. But both have small fleets compared to the majors which makes consistency easier.
United’s satellite-based system is great when it works, but out of four recent flights, it’s only worked on one of them for me. United uses several different systems on different planes in different parts of the world, so the experience is far from consistent, regrettably. On my regular flights between Atlanta and San Francisco on Delta, I’ve had mixed experiences, especially when flying on a big 767 when there are a lot more passengers logging on to Gogo– the signal goes in and out, which is very frustrating.
Virgin America is installing a new satellite-based system on its new planes that should help increase reliability, but right now, it’s only on two or three of its newest planes, a fact that is downplayed in all the recent promotion of its deal with Spotify, Netflix, etc. All its other planes have ground-based Gogo ATG-4, which is good, but it’s still tough getting a signal on a biz travel heavy morning flight between SFO and JFK, for example.
Putting wi-fi on planes is expensive, so I do not expect the freebies (as on Virgin and JetBlue) to last. Plus, charging for the service limits usage, and limited usage leads to better connections onboard, which is part of the reason Gogo has increased it’s prices so much recently– to improve performance.
Our post about the fare war to Hawaii brought on by Virgin’s entry to the market ended up as our most popular post of the year. Average fares from the West Coast are now back over $500, but keep an eye out for periodic deals brought on by the new competition. Set up fare alerts on sites like Airfarewatchdog or FareCompare. Virgin’s Maui nonstops start December 2, so we’ll keep an eye our for any discounts related to that launch.
Frontier is offering double miles through December. (Image: Jim Glab)
Several companies have come out with some new enticing promotions for travelers. Here’s a brief recap of this week’s specials.
Members of InterContinental Hotels Group’s IHG Rewards Club who register online can take part in the company’s new Priceless Surprises promotion (www.ihg.com/surprises). If they use a MasterCard to book and check into any IHG property worldwide from November 15 to February 15, they’ll get 1,000 bonus program points for their first stay. For the second and each subsequent stay, they’ll get a “Priceless Surprise.” These can range from a prepaid gift card to a free night to free trips to a million IHG Rewards Club points.
Frontier Airlines is trying to incentivize passengers during November and December by offering them double frequent flyer miles on all new bookings made for travel completed by December 31. The offer can help EarlyReturns program members top off their accounts and maybe get to elite status (20,000 miles or 25 segments) before the year runs out.
Through the end of December, American Express is seeking to lure Platinum and Centurion cardmembers to its New York LaGuardia Centurion Lounge with an offer of free Uber rides. Cardmembers who show their credentials at the lounge will get a promotion code good for two rides via Uber cars from LaGuardia to any location in New York’s five boroughs — including taxes, tolls, fees and surge pricing. Not flying to LGA? Get $20 off your first Uber ride here
It’s a good time to book a Hawaii trip now that Virgin America has entered the market from San Francisco. Not only has Virgin’s expansion kicked off a fare war that is bringing incredible bargains to the mainland-Hawaii market, but Virgin and United have both trimmed the mileage cost of reward travel to the islands by 20 percent.
Meanwhile, Virgin America also has a new tie-in with Airbnb. Members of the airline’s Elevate program can earn 1,500 points for their first stay at an Airbnb property, and one point per dollar for subsequent stays.
Virgin’s Richard Branson showed up for the inaugural flight in a vintage VW van (Image: Virgin America)
Dreaming of a discounted fare to Hawaii this winter? Then you are in luck.
Ever since Virgin announced its new nonstops from SFO to Honolulu and Maui last spring, we’ve been monitoring fares for discounts and deals with little luck. In our mind, a “good deal” to Hawaii is now anything less than $400 from the west cost. Over the last couple months, it has been tough to find anything for less than $500.
All that changed today when Virgin’s first nonstop (dubbed “Pineapple Express”) took off from SFO and it kicked off a fare sale to celebrate. (Stay tuned for photos below from today’s very Virgin celebration at SFO– we’ll post them below.)
This morning, Virgin publicly discounted round trip fares on SFO-HNL to just $398 round trip. When we went to take a look at fares, we found them as low as $338 round trip on a handful of flights. Not bad!
One example of a Virgin $338 fare
From New York and Boston round trip fares on Virgin fell to $680 round trip. Chicago -Honolulu round trips fell to $560 round trip. These deals are good for trips between now and March with the usual restrictions around days of week and holidays. Tickets must be booked by midnight November 4.
Hawaiian Air discounted fares slightly more… with several fares coming in slightly less at $393 roundtrip. Delta’s nonstops on SFO-HNL came in at about $415.
United then joined the fun, matching Virgin’s $398 fare, but adding this kicker: It discounted MileagePlus redemptions for mainland-Hawaii round trips by 20% to just to 36,000 miles (down from 45,000).
Not to be outdone, Oakland International put on a big Hawaii-style celebration this morning, and announced that it would offer free parking for up to five days to those flying Alaska or Hawaiian to Hawaii, plus ticket giveaways along with hula dancers, island music and leis.
NOTE: All fares checked on Monday, Nov 2 and subject to change!
In another bit of news released today, Virgin said that its Elevate members now have the opportunity to earn points for every Airbnb reservation they make. Get 1,500 Elevate points for your first Airbnb stay, then one point per dollar spent on all subsequent completed Airbnb stays. Become an Airbnb host and you’ll score 20,000 Elevate points. For more, visit: virginamerica.com/airbnb.
With a new competitor in the market and decreasing fuel costs, I suspect we’ll be seeing more discounts to Hawaii in coming months – but likely not to the degree we are seeing today. Are you planning to go?
More new A320s will let Virgin America grow at San Francisco in 2016. (Image: Virgin America)
Calling San Francisco “the strongest corporate market in the United States right now,” Virgin America Airlines CEO David Cush said in discussing third quarter earnings this week that the carrier plans to boost its overall capacity by 13 to 14 percent in 2016 — and perhaps even more than that at SFO.
In fact, the airline hasn’t yet stopped its 2015 growth at San Francisco: It starts service to Honolulu on November 2 ( and TravelSkills will be on the inaugural with a full report 🙂 ) and to Maui on December 3, providing attractive new vacation destinations to its Elevate frequent flyer members.
Cush told reporters and analysts that Virgin will probably add one or two more destinations from San Francisco next year — although he didn’t identify any possibilities — and it will add capacity on its existing routes from San Francisco to New York JFK and Ft. Lauderdale as it takes delivery of more new A320s in 2016.
While the San Francisco market has been booming, Virgin’s relatively new operations at Dallas Love Field, which now account for 12 percent of its overall capacity, have not, with revenue per available seat mile down 19 percent in tough competition with Southwest. Virgin will end its Dallas Love Field-Austin service next month, but it plans to begin twice-daily Love Field-Las Vegas flights December 1.
Southwest will add 10 domestic routes next spring. (Image: Jim Glab)
In domestic route news, Southwest unveils 10 new domestic markets it will enter next spring; Virgin American adds a new route out of Dallas Love Field; Alaska begins a west coast route next week, and American Airlines begins new service from LaGuardia.
Southwest Airlines said it plans to start flying 10 new domestic routes on April 12, 2016. From Chicago Midway, it will add flights to Dayton, Ohio; Flint, Mich. and Grand Rapids, Mich. New routes from St. Louis will include Des Moines, Iowa; Wichita, Kans. and Pittsburgh (starts March 10). Southwest will also begin flying from NewarkLiberty International to Las Vegas and Orlando, and will switch its St. Louis-Seattle service to year-round instead of seasonal.
Southwest also has some previously announced new routes starting on November 1, including daily flights between Oakland-Atlanta, Austin-Boston, Austin-Seattle, Denver-Cleveland, LaGuardia-Indianapolis and Washington Reagan National-Orlando. New international routes starting November 1 include daily flights from Denver to Puerto Vallarta and Houston Hobby to Liberia, Costa Rica and Montego Bay, Jamaica.
Virgin America Airlines has set a December 1 launch for new service between Dallas Love Field and Las Vegas — a route thoroughly dominated by Southwest. Virgin said it will offer two daily roundtrips on the route. One of the flights will be a red-eye leaving Las Vegas at 1:30 a.m. and arriving in Dallas at 6:10 a.m.
November 5 is the starting date for new Alaska Airlines service linking Los Angeles International with Monterey, Calif. — a route that American dropped last month. United also flies the route. Alaska will serve the route with a Horizon Air 76-seat Bombardier Q400 turboprop.
Also on November 5, American Airlines is set to begin new service from New York LaGuardia to a pair of domestic destinations: Akron, Ohio and Memphis, Tenn. On the same date, American will start flying from Charlotte, N.C. to Springfield, Mo.
Songs from Spotify are joining Virgin America’s in-flight entertainment options. (Image: Virgin America)
Remember when flying used to be boring — when your diversions were limited to the in-flight magazine, the SkyMall catalogue, and a third-rate movie on a tiny ceiling screen several rows ahead of you?
Nowadays, thanks to the proliferation of personal electronic devices, new storage technology, Wi-Fi, and streaming video, passengers are enjoying a bewildering array of content choices for keeping themselves entertained from gate to gate. And the number of choices just keeps growing.
This week, Virgin America fired the latest salvo, announcing new in-flight content partnerships with the Spotify online music service and with The New York Times. On Virgin aircraft equipped with the new ViaSat Wi-Fi, Spotify users will have free streaming access to the service’s entire catalogue of more than 30 million songs. (Virgin and Spotify even pulled together dozens of playlists themed to various destination cities; you can see them at www.virginamerica.com/spotify) .
At the same time, The New York Times partnership will provide passengers with a selection of articles including breaking news, business news, travel, technology, and a list of “most viewed” stories, available for reading through any Wi-Fi linked device on ViaSat-equipped flights. The new content partnerships come on the heels of Virgin America’s recent announcement that flyers on those ViaSat aircraft will also be able to stream shows from the Netflix programming roster at no cost through March 2.
(Currently, there are only two Virgin planes outfitted with ViaSat, but it should have 10 by next summer.)
Content options continue to proliferate at other airlines as well. For instance:
JetBlue, which just finished installing high-speed “Fly-Fi” Wi-Fi service on its A320/321 fleet, has a new partnership with Amazon that will let Amazon Prime members stream movies and TV shows in-flight — as well as audio from a million songs in the Amazon Prime Music service. JetBlue also recently inked a contract with Major League Baseball that lets passengers stream live, real time game broadcasts from all 30 teams at their seats.
United recently announced expanded content from HBO for in-flight streaming to personal electronic devices (PEDs), with full seasons of top-rated shows like Entourage, Game of Thrones and True Detective. The carrier also said it has teamed up with Vevo to give passengers free access to hundreds of music videos and concert performances. And it has started deploying PED streaming entertainment on its fleet of 120 Wi-Fi equipped regional jets (E170s, E175s and CRJ700s). (Me, Earl and the Dying Girl had seatmate and I all weepy last night on a United ATL-SFO transcon)
Rather read than watch or listen? Global Eagle Entertainment, a packager of in-flight content for dozens of airline customers (like Southwest), recently announced it is teaming up with Zinio to make 3,000 magazine titles in 50 languages available to flyers, either by streaming or through seatback systems. The company has also joined with the folks at Lonely Planet to bring 30 of the publisher’s packet travel guides to its in-flight entertainment platform.
And today we’ve learned that Uber plans to offer seat back entertainment, too! Under a new partnership, ten Chevrolet Tahoe cars with AT&T wireless connectivity will do the rounds on four Saturdays in Detroit, Nashville, Houston and Atlanta in October and November. The vehicles will have four tablets in the back of headrests, wireless headsets and phone chargers. Riders can watch a livestream of football games through AT&T’s U-verse TV app on tablets connected to its 4G LTE network. Details here.
Which airline has the best inflight entertainment? Why do you think so? Please leave your comments below!
Free internet on Virgin America’s new A320s compliments of Netflix (Photo: Virgin America)
Airlines are out to surprise and delight frequent travelers these days, and this week we have two more examples of how.
Free wi-fi: Starting today, those lucky enough to be flying on Virgin America’s newest Airbus A320 jets will get free wi-fi compliments of Netflix.
Now through mid-2016 Virgin has teamed up with Netflix to offer free wi-fi (and free streaming of content like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black) onboard its brand new jets outfitted with the new ViaSat system.
Currently, there are only two of these shiny new A320s darting across the country, but Virgin will be deploying a new one every month through next June, for a total of 10.
The free wi-fi deal is only available on the new A320s with ViaSat– if you are on a Gogo equipped plane, you’ll still have to pay. (But here’s How to save $$ on pricey inflight wi-fi.) Regrettably, there is currently no way to know if the plane you are on has ViaSat or Gogo until you board.
To kickoff the announcement, Virgin is unveiling a House of Cards and Netflix-branded aircraft (pictured above). Also, beginning next month, it will be offering House of Cards seasons 1-3 on all flights via its recently-upgraded Red entertainment system.
Never one to miss out on a show-biz angle, Virgin America is calling in the stars for the launch of this new partnership today. Here’s a what they’ve got going on today:
To help kickoff the surprise unveiling of a House of Cards and Netflix-branded aircraft will be Michael Kelly, the Emmy-nominated star of the Netflix original series House of Cards. Kelly’s character Doug Stamper, who serves as President Frank Underwood’s loyal consultant and Machiavellian fixer, will drop in on Virgin America Flight 1 from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to Washington Reagan National Airport (DCA). Guests onboard the flight will be able to binge-watch Netflix content in Virgin America’s mood-lit cabin and will be treated to a signature Whiskey Whistleblower cocktail, while Kelly – as Doug Stamper – dispenses some tongue-in-cheek, morally-ambiguous political advice over the aircraft’s intercom before take-off.
Secret Upgrades. Last week a new plan to surprise and delight United’s best customers with “secret” upgrades was revealed in an employee memo.
While United confirmed the existence of the program to TravelSkills, details such as criteria for selection remain sketchy.
According the BrianSumers.com blog, United intends to upgrade certain “high value customers” to first class from coach on domestic flights, or to international first class from business class on a segment-by-segment basis.
While most high value customers tend to score upgrades based on their status a few days before a flight, the new surprise and delight plan apparently notifies passengers a few weeks ahead of time.
Have you been the recipient of a mysterious “secret” upgrade yet? Were you surprised or delighted? Let us know!
And finally, one more thing that will surprise and delight you: FREE COFFEE! Today only. Check out my tweet!
Minneapolis-St. Paul’s new Escape Lounge will be open to all passengers who pay a fee. (Image: Metropolitan Airports Commission)
Travelers departing Los Angeles International could see passenger drop-off delays due to new construction; members of Virgin Atlantic’s Elevate program are offered free UIber rides at Dallas Love Field; a new passenger lounge will soon come to Minneapolis-St. Paul; and the first portion of Southwest’s new terminal at Houston Hobby opens.
Officials at Los Angeles International are warning travelers to expect nighttime traffic delays for passenger drop-offs along the departures level roadway of the LAX Central Terminal Area. A construction project to overhaul those roads, including the laying of new concrete, will begin Monday night, September 14, and continue until sometime before Thanksgiving. Monday through Thursdays, the work will begin at 11 p.m. and should finish up by 5 a.m. (but you never know)., and Friday and Saturday nights it will start at 11 p.m. and continue to 1 p.m. the next day. The roadway will always offer access to the terminal, but lane closures should be expected, LAX officials said.
Members of Virgin America’s Elevate loyalty program who buy a Virgin flight originating at Dallas Love Field are being offered free Uber rides (up to $20) for a trip to or from that airport. It’s good for flight bookings made through October 12 “while supplies last,” Virgin said. If the customer is a first-time Uber rider, he’ll get an additional discount of up to $20.
Minneapolis-St. Paul International is expected to cut the ribbon on a new passenger lounge sometime in the next few months. The new Escape Lounge will be open to all travelers for an as-yet-undetermined fee, although it is expected to be around $30. Located on the mezzanine level of Terminal 1, the 5,000-square-foot Escape Lounge will offer free Wi-Fi, free food and beverages, and reading materials.
The white portion of the terminal represents Southwest’s new international facility at Houston Hobby. (Image: Hobby Airport)
At Houston Hobby, the first phase of the new Southwest Airlines international terminal and concourse has opened, and the entire facility should be operating by October 15 — the same day that Southwest starts flying from HOU to Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, Los Cabos and Mexico City, Mexico; Belize City, Belize; and San Jose, Costa Rica. Elements of the first stage are a new Southwest ticketing area and self-service kiosks; and Southwest check-in counters. The whole complex, known as the West Concourse, will also include a new federal inspection station and gate area. The first phase of a new West Concourse parking garage is expected to open in November.
Best TravelSkills reader comment this week (from the post about What flight attendants know about you): From reader D.L. “Maybe flight attendants could use their mobile devices to rate passengers like Uber drivers do, and then the airline could perhaps offer modest discounts to well-behaved five-star passengers on future flights.”
See the APEX post on seat recliner rage
A few newsy nuggets from other sources that we missed on TravelSkills this week:
Mai tais anyone? Virgin America’s new nonstops to Hawaii start this November. Here’s how to win two tickets! (Photo: Virgin America)
You’re a hard worker, and you need a vacation — preferably a Hawaiian vacation — and you probably don’t hesitate to tell friends and colleagues just why you need one. If you also don’t mind sharing your reasoning with Virgin America, you can enter to win that vacation, and a chance to hang with Sir Richard Branson while you’re staying in a posh beachfront home.
Virgin America is partnering with TravelSkills this month to get the word out that it starts flying between San Francisco and Honolulu on November 2, followed by the launch of San Francisco-Maui service December 3. To kickoff the countdown, the airline is offering a chance to win a Hawaii getaway for flyers who enter its #Hawaiiscape sweepstakes.
All you have to do is submit your Elevate number and explain why you really need a Hawaiian getaway at www.MakeYourHawaiiscape.com.Not an Elevate member? Sign up for Elevate here here – it’s quick and easy. Sign up for the contest here.
The first-prize winner gets TWO roundtrip tickets to Honolulu on the inaugural flight and a three-night stay at an Airbnb beachfront estate — hosted on the first night by Sir Richard himself. But that’s not all: While you’re in the 50th state, you’ll take part in all the inaugural hoopla and you’ll get a personal lesson in kiteboarding from renowned professional Susi Mai, a member of the ZOZI Gurus team. (Not sure exactly what kiteboarding is? Google it. It’s fun.) You’ll also get a GoPro HERO4 Session, the new lightweight personal videocam, as well as Avis car rental vouchers and a foldable Oru Kayak.
The second-place winner also gets two roundtrip tickets to Honolulu, participation in the inaugural activities, and three nights in an Airbnb home; third place earns two roundtrip flights to Maui and a fat $3,000 Airbnb credit. Both second and third place winners also get the GoPro camera, the Avis vouchers and the Oru Kayak.
Three chances to win TWO free tickets to Hawaii on Virgin America! Click for details
Even if you don’t finish in the money, you’ll pick up 250 Elevate points – just for entering. So dig out your Elevate number, collect your thoughts about how badly you need that vacation, and share them with Virgin at www.MakeYourHawaiiscape.com.If you also share them with friends and colleagues via LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter, you’ll get additional chances to win.
Virgin America’s Chief Marketing Officer Luanne Calvert said that Hawaii is the number one destination asked for by the carrier’s Elevate members. So with the inaugural service approaching, Virgin America decided to team up with Airbnb for a memorable promotion. “Both of our brands are about capturing the transformative aspects of travel — and we thought what better way to experience Hawaii than to do it at an Airbnb property with our Chief of Play Hard, Sir Richard,” she said.
All you have to do is submit your Elevate number and explain why you really need a Hawaiian getaway at www.MakeYourHawaiiscape.com. Not an Elevate member? Sign up for Elevate here – it’s quick and easy. Sign up for the contest here.
Disclosure: Thank you for reading TravelSkills! We will periodically send out messages like this from commercial partners about topics relevant to frequent travel. Our sponsors’ support, and yours, help us keep TravelSkills a free publication.
A Virgin America passenger logs onto her iPad. (Image: Virgin America)
The next 10 Airbus A320s delivered to Virgin America Airlines will have a new passenger enhancement: Satellite-based Wi-Fi that the carrier says will deliver data speeds eight to 10 times faster than any other in-flight Wi-Fi systems.
Virgin said it is partnering with ViaSat, Inc. — the same company that JetBlue is using for its next-generation Fly-Fi service. Virgin’s fleet is currently equipped with Gogo’s ground-based Wi-Fi service.
While the new satellite technology will be installed on the next 10 new planes to be delivered, “the airline has not yet made a technology decision with respect to the rest of the fleet,” a spokesman told TravelSkills. That could prove troublesome for Virgin America regulars who hold annual or monthly Gogo passes and expect the service on every plane.
So it sounds like Gogo’s deal with Virgin could be under review. Hmm. Stay tuned…
In any case, the first of those new planes will start flying for Virgin in September of this year, and will offer free Internet service during a testing period. Virgin said it has not yet determined passenger pricing for the ViaSat links, which it noted will also make Wi-Fi available on over-water flights like the Hawaii service it will begin later this year.
“With this new technology, Virgin America will become the first commercial airline to offer an in-flight Wi-Fi service that can operate in both Ku- and Ka-band satellite networks on the same aircraft,” the spokesman said. Ka-band technology provides greater digital bandwidth than the earlier Ku-band.
With the ViaSat service, Virgin said, passengers should achieve Internet speeds like those they can get at home, allowing for streaming video on their connected devices. The new satellite partnership news comes just a month after Virgin announced an improved version of its Red in-flight entertainment system, called Red Beta. That will bring new high-resolution seatback screens and a new Android-based platform to the airline’s fleet.
In Los Angeles, “passengers” pay hundreds of dollars to dine in a movie set that resembles an old Pan Am 747 (Photo: Michael Kelley)
I always cringe when I hear people talking about the so-called “golden age of travel.”
You know, back then when people used to “dress up” to travel. When flight attendants in go-go boots doted on passengers with cocktails, playing cards and wings for the kids. When family members would greet you at the airport gate as soon as you got off the plane.
Well, if you remember the good, you also have to remember the bad. And there was plenty of bad flying around in the good old days. Every flight was not like the nostalgic photo you see above. Back in the day, flying was bumpy, smelly, noisy and dangerous compared to now.
So while it’s common to complain about how terrible flying is these days, the opposite is true. I think that we are currently living in the golden age of air travel.
You may or may not agree with me, but here are six reasons why I think so:
1. No smoking. It’s still hard to believe that any airline ever allowed smoking onboard. Not only was it dangerous and unhealthy, it stunk! But nonetheless, prior to the 1990’s, airlines allowed smoking onboard. When one person smoked on a plane, everyone smoked, even though there were so-called nonsmoking sections on board. There was nothing worse for a non-smoker than getting “stuck” in the smoking section when that was the only seat available.
2. Safer, smoother flying. Back in the good old days, flying was a lot more dangerous than it is these days. According to Expedia’s report, plane crashes and in-flight accidents, “were terrifyingly common in the 50’s and 60’s, with fatal accidents occurring about once every 200,000 flights. Where fatal accidents occurred around once every 200,000 flights during the 1950s, they now occur less than once every 2,000,000 flights. In fact, the worldwide safety record is now ten times better than it was back then.” Also, now that jets fly at higher altitudes and “over the weather,” than back then, there are fewer incidents of turbulence, which translates to less motion sickness and more pleasant flying.
Pay $10 for healthy “protein plate” like this on Virgin America (Photo: Chris McGinnis)
3. Better food. Despite what you hear about the tossing of Caesar salads and the carving of standing rib roasts in airplane aisles back in the good old days, airline food has almost always been the butt of jokes. When a hot meal was part of the airfare, inflight food in economy class was tepid and tasteless, giving birth to phrases like “mystery meat.” These days passengers can choose to buy fresher, more flavorful food at the airport or onboard and everyone is eating better tasting, more healthful food inflight.
4. Lower fares. Back in the day, air travel was reserved for a small, wealthy percentage of the population. But in the last 30 years, air travel has become democratized and within the reach a much larger swath of humanity. For example, in the US, the number of air passengers tripled between the 1970s and 2011. So, yes, while planes are more crowded and we are paying more fees for things that used to be free, air travel is a much better bargain than it was in the 60’s.
A garden wall at Singapore’s magnificent Changi International Airport (Photo: Chris McGinnis)
5. Fabulous airports. Prior to the 1980s most airports felt institutional with low ceilings, poor lighting, uncomfortable seating and office-like first class lounges. These days, airports hire celebrity architects design and build light filled spaces with expansive views, gourmet dining and posh, private lounges. Have you visited the outdoor butterfly garden at Singapore Changi Airport? Had an organic kale salad at San Francisco International? Kicked back with some champagne in United’s new business and first class lounges at London Heathrow? These are indeed the good old days when it comes to airport architecture and comfort.
6. Better technology.More comfort. Back when we were happy reading inflight magazines and watching movies on pull-down screens at the front of the cabin, who would have dreamt that we could access hundreds of movies or television shows from our seatbacks or that we’d be able to send and receive email from the sky? Business travelers used to relish the experience of sitting in a big lounge chair at the front of the plane, but few ever thought that big seats that recline into fully flat beds for sleeping would be the rule more than the exception.
So the next time you hear yourself or someone else complaining about how horrible it is to fly this summer… you should ask, “Is it really so bad after all?”
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Statistical guru Nate Silver — who correctly predicted an Obama win in the 2012 election when other media were calling it a toss-up — has come out with a new analysis of U.S. airline on-time data, concluding that Virgin America continues to perform better than its airline competitors, and New York LaGuardia remains at the bottom of the airport barrel for timely arrivals and departures.
Silver’s website, www.fivethirtyeight.com, crunches government data to see how airlines and airports are performing relative to their peers in on-time flights; the site offers an interactive feature where travelers can input their own plans to find out which combination of airline and airport is most likely to get them to their destination fastest.
Silver’s latest study looked at domestic airline performance from May 2014 to April 2015. For airports, he found, the timeliest flight operations were at Honolulu, Portland, San Diego, Tampa and Salt Lake City, which all benefit from relatively decent, or at least predictable, weather.
On the bottom of the 30-largest airport rankings? “The New York metro area wins the Triple Crown of flight delays,” Silver writes, “with LaGuardia, JFK and Newark ranking as the three slowest major airports, in that order. Chicago O’Hare is the fourth-worst, while Philadelphia is fifth from the bottom.” He notes that performance at New York JFK could get worse this summer due to ongoing runway work there.
Individual airline performance was topped by Virgin America, which also ranked first in Silver’s first analysis of flight delays several months ago. Alaska and Delta ranked second and third, while United once again occupied the basement. United “has at least been marginally better so far in 2015 than in 2014, costing travelers three minutes per segment instead of six. But when you’re flying more than a million flights a year, it can take some time to change course,” Silver observed.
Interesting: Did you know that with the addition of new, supercharging stations, Tesla drivers can now drive all the way across the continental US and up or down the east coast? It takes 30 minutes to supercharge a Tesla Model S (for free!), and that charge is good for about 170 miles. There are now 445 supercharging stations around the world, many of them solar-powered. (See image at the top)
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The Red Beta roll-out will continue until it is available fleetwide sometime next year, the company said.
Passenger seats will have new higher-resolution touch-screen monitors from Panasonic and a new Android-based platform that will increase the system’s capacity and add new functionality.
The changes will include the addition of “pinch and swipe” capabilities to the touch-screens; up to three times more entertainment and gaming content (including full seasons of The Walking Dead, Orange Is the New Black, and House of Cards, among others), improved interactive games (including “retro favorites” like Asteroids and Pac-Man), enhanced interactive maps, and a “surround sound” listening experience.
Alaska Airlines will market premium coach seats. (Photo: Jim Glab)
Alaska adds premium seats. In the middle of May, Alaska Airlines will reportedly start marketing extra-legroom coach seats — i.e., those in bulkhead and exit rows — as a premium economy product.
Besides the 7 to 8 inches of extra legroom, passengers in these “preferred seating” rows will also get free drinks and priority boarding. (It sounds a lot like Virgin America’s Main Cabin Select product to us- without the free food.)
Mileage Plan elites will get first crack at reserving the seats for no fee; seats still available at check-in will be sold to anyone for a fee that varies by distance, said to range from $15 to $50.
Although the plan requires no reconfiguration of the cabin, officials said the concept could be expanded if it tests well.
What do you think? Would you pay more for a regular coach seat with more legroom, early boarding and cocktails? How much?
ALSO…American taking over Alaska routes to Mexico: The Transportation Department has approved a request from American Airlines to take over Alaska Airlines’ Los Angeles-Mexico City route rights, which it will do effective June 4. Alaska will code-share on the American flights. American plans to offer two daily roundtrips vs. Alaska’s one …
The Virgin Hotel brand debuts in Chicago (Photo: Virgin America)
Imagine disembarking from a Virgin America flight and checking in at Hotel Meh. Now imagine extending the vibe at a Virgin Hotel. It’s like business travel surround-sound. Or at least that’s what Virgin Hotels is betting on.
The Virgin Hotel Chicago celebrated its grand opening April 16 (after the industry practice of a soft opening January 15). Richard Branson added an extra dose of fun to the event, which I attended with great curiosity, courtesy of Virgin America.
The four-star property is not necessarily posh, but if you’re looking for a spicy place to stay, Virgin will certainly fit the bill while still being business-friendly and well-located at the corner of Wabash and Lake. The hotel offers 250 guest rooms, including 38 one-bedroom suites and two penthouse suites; rooms run about $210 and up. Rates vary based on demand, but in May, we found them in the $250-$350 per night range.
Efficient but fun Virgin Hotel “chamber” (Photo: Virgin America)
Your room flirts with you. This is a hotel that does not take itself too seriously. From red ear plugs offered on your pillow (with a note: If you didn’t have one “L” of a sleep, put a plug in it) to a little rubber lamb that looks over your shampoo in the shower, there’s plenty to smile at. The bed’s “playpen” design is patent-pending: white leather upholstery wraps the headboard and just one corner of the foot, inviting hangouts (or whatever).
The minibar will make you smile. When in the history of travel has that ever happened? A bright-red, retro SMEG fridge is adorable, but the real thrill is that the fare is reasonably priced. Just $1 for M&Ms? Shocking! The same can be said of in-room dining.
The original bank vault grill tops the lobby grand staircase. (Photo: Nancy Branka)
Old and new play together. The 1930s Art Deco building was formerly the Old Dearborn Bank and operated as an office building until Virgin swept it off its feet. Original gilded features of the building sit with confidence next to irreverent pop décor. Case in point, the front desk is a 1920s cigar bar, topped with cheeky checkin screens. Red, red, red dominates.
The Tesla house car created quite a stir during the Ferris Bueller parade. (Photo: Nancy Branka)
Even tech is sassy here. Lucy, the hotel’s app (iOS and Android), will assist you, from controlling the thermostat to ordering room service. All done humorously. Wi-Fi is blazingly fast, free and no login required, and no paying extra for a faster connection (bless ’em!). Need to run an errand? The house car is a stunning black Tesla.
The very glam Commons Club on the hotel’s second floor (Photo: Virgin America)
You’re granted instant access to a swanky club. The entire second floor of the hotel is dominated by a series of spaces that add up to what Virgin calls the Commons Club, where happy hour is hosted nightly. My favorite space within was the round Shag Room, right out of Austin Powers.
Virgin knows how to thumb its nose at The Man. The hotel ran into a roadblock with development of Miss Ricky’s, its street-level diner. The restaurant was intended to be 24/7, until the City of Chicago reminded Virgin that 24-hour establishments are a no-no. We’ll show you, said Virgin: The restaurant is open 23 hours a day.
Richard Branson’s day off as Ferris Bueller at the grand opening (Photo: Nancy Branka)
The grand opening was a colorful splash, true to Virgin form. At noon, Wabash Ave. was closed off as a crowd of passersby, guests and celebrities curiously awaited what they only were told to expect as #BransonsDayOff.
Sure enough, the parade scene of Ferris Bueller fame was recreated, complete with Richard Branson emerging from a circle of buxom German fräuleins to sing Twist and Shout. That evening, the entire hotel was overtaken by a rockin’ multi-floor party, and the next morning guests could receive an IV drip treatment from The IV Doc, fluids laced with vitamins to heal a hangover or jet lag. I settled for a B12 injection. (Yes, I let a total stranger—a pretty nurse dressed in black, no less—give me an injection in the Shag Room.)
Before the trip I wondered if I might be a tad too old for the hotel’s brand of humor aimed at millennials. But I felt quite comfortable even at, er, 39. If your loyalty program isn’t the biggest factor in your hotel selection, you’ll find Virgin an appealing choice for a trip to Chicago. Next up is a property on Nashville’s Music Row (2016), then New York in hot NoMad (2017), both new builds.
Rumors swirl of a possible Virgin Hotel in San Francisco, but for now they remain just rumors.
Now that’s a middle row I could love (Image: Thompson Aero)
Delta reining it in. The strong dollar is proving a boon for Americans traveling overseas, but not so much for airlines that depend on two-way international traffic. Delta cited “currency headwinds” for its announcement last week that it plans to trim its international capacity by 3 percent overall in its winter schedule. It’s routine for airlines to adjust capacity in the winter, but some of Delta’s cutbacks will be severe, “focused on markets that have been most affected by the strong dollar and markets where demand has been negatively impacted by the decline in oil prices,” the company said. Specifically, in the winter schedule Delta will cut capacity to Japan by 15 to 20 percent; Brazil by 15 percent; Africa, India and the Middle East by 15 to 20 percent; and it will suspend service to Moscow. Domestic capacity, on the other hand, will increase by 2 percent, Delta said.
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(Photo: Virgin America)
Virgin tops quality ratings. For the third year in a row, Virgin America has come out on top of the annual Airline Quality Rating (AQR), a compilation of carrier performance statistics prepared by academics at Wichita State and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. But the report, now in its 25th year, noted that the industry’s overall quality deteriorated last year. The study considers on-time performance, denied boardings, mishandled baggage and customer complaints. The authors question why the air travel experience is getting worse for passengers when the airlines are finally hauling in substantial profits. Hawaiian ranked #2 and Delta, #3. The worst rating went to Envoy, the shrinking American Airlines subsidiary that operates under the American Eagle banner. United was just a few notches from the botton at #9 out of 12. Hmmm.So airline performance is getting worst, yet we are in one of the highest demand periods ever for air travel…what gives? How bad will it have to get before Americans to stop, or at least start cutting back on flying?
Priority Pass losing United. The $399/year Priority Pass is a popular option for travelers who spread their business around and don’t want or need access to a single airline lounge program. It offers access to hundreds of airport lounges around the world. Over the last few years Delta and America quit Priority Pass, and just this week we learned that United Clubs are pulling out, too, starting May 15. (Note: This will not affect those who have Priority Pass “Select” membership via an American Express Platinum card– it did not offer United Club access anyway…)
Southwest’s new seats coming soon to a 737 near you. (Southwest Airlines)
New Southwest seats. Passengers on Southwest Airlines’ 737-800s in mid-2016 will be the first to experience the airline’s new seats, which will also be installed on its 737 MAX aircraft due for delivery starting in 2017. The company said the seats are lighter than the current versions; come with adjustable headrests; provide more legroom and stowage space; and are “the widest economy seats available” for 737s — more than half an inch wider than current models. However, at least one observer suggested that Southwest’s new seats will become wider by making the armrests narrower, and said the airline would do better for passengers by installing power ports- notably absent on Southwest’s growing number of long haul flights. If the photo above does not do the seats justice, take a look at this video Southwest produced.
Getting laptop power from your window shade? Yep. (B/E Aerospace)
Window shade chargers? Why waste all that high-altitude sunlight? According to a report in Australian Business Traveler, engineers at B/E Aerospace have developed a new kind of window shade for commercial aircraft cabins that can be used to charge passengers’ electronic devices. The outside of the shade is covered with a thin film of solar cells, and a USB connection lets passengers plug into the resulting electricity. (Hopefully, powerless Southwest Airlines will get a sales pitch about this…see above.)
An end to middle seat blues? An aircraft seat manufacturer in Northern Ireland has created a new design and configuration for three-across economy seating that could take the pain out of a middle seat assignment. (See lead photo above.) The seats are angled instead of straight across, and a retracting bottom section provides easy access to the inside seats. Thompson Aero Seating’s new Cozy Suite also features seats with curved headrests for easier snoozing in economy and curved armrests with space for two elbows.
Bigger portions, free beer/wine on United. Long-haul international passengers in United’s economy cabins will see an improved food and beverage service this spring, the airline said, including free beer and wine, complementary three-course meals with “more substantial portions,” and a new option to buy “premium snacks.” The new service rolls out June 1 on transatlantic and transpacific flights as well as service to Argentina, Chile and Brazil. Main-course meals include things like turkey meatloaf in barbecue sauce, Tuscan ravioli with red pepper sauce, and udon noodles with stir-fried vegetables. Check out TravelSkills reader reports and comments about United food here.
ANA’s flying billboard. With all the hype surrounding the upcoming release of a new Star Wars movie — e.g., its new trailer drew millions of views within hours of appearing on YouTube — is it any surprise that an airline is jumping on the publicity bandwagon? Japan’s All Nippon Airways said its newest 787-9 Dreamliner is being fitted out with special livery that it calls the R2-D2 design — “the first time a Star Wars character will appear on the exterior of a commercial aircraft,” ANA says. It’s part of a new five-year promotional partnership between ANA and The Walt Disney Company (Japan) Ltd.
Sunset, slack guitar and mai tais at the fabulous Halekulani in Honolulu (Photo: Chris McGinnis)
After months of hints and speculation, Virgin America made it official today: Starting November 2, they will fly to Hawaii from San Francisco.
Of course, you can expect that Virgin will do these flights right. I envision funky, tiki touches like mai tais, leis, aloha shirts and Hawaiian mood lighting. For example, the carrier is offering free mai tais to all passengers at SFO’s Terminal 2 today to celebrate the announcement.
Virgin’s new Aloha-inspired gif
But don’t expect amazingly low fares.
Virgin’s introductory fares from between SFO and Honolulu or Maui are $398 round trip with restrictions. That’s more than many of the sale fares we’ve seen so far this year from Alaska Air, Delta, Hawaiian, and United, which at their lowest point hovered around $320-$350 round trip.
To me, that’s a signal from Virgin that it’s not in this crowded market to compete on price. Instead, I bet it will make a big deal about service.
For example, sale fares are available only during the slow “dead weeks” of early November and early December. Want to fly to paradise for Christmas? It’s going to cost you. The lowest economy fare I could find on the site today is a whopping $1564.00. Wanna fly up front in first class? That will cost you $2,998 round trip according to Virgin’s website today.
Checking with Hawaiian Air today, I found fares from the Bay Area to the islands as low as $368 round trip for fall flights– cheaper than Virgin’s introductory fares.
Would you rather use points? Elevate members can redeem reward flights to Hawaii – with no black-out dates, for as few as 8559 points– but keep in mind that Virgin’s redemptions are based on ticket prices.
Free mai tais at SFO’s Terminal 2 today to celebrate Virgin’s new Hawaii flights (Photo: Virgin America)
Here are details about Virgin’s Hawaiian schedule:
Virgin says that the flights will be operated with brand new Airbus A320 aircraft that it will get later this year, which will be equipped with fuel-saving, ‘sharklet’ wingtip devices, which help aircraft operate more efficiently, especially over longer haul routes. And they’ll need it– flights to Hawaii run 5-6 hours in length according to Virgin’s website.
What do you think? How will Virgin fare in a market that already has keep competition from four major players? Will you fly Virgin to Hawaii? Please leave your comments below.
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Say Aloha to Hawaiian’s new slimline seats. (Photo: Hawaiian)
Hawaiian adds seats. Hawaiian Airlines is increasing the capacity of its inter-island 717s from 115 to 120 passengers with the installation of new “slimline” seats. While some travelers have found the extra-slender seats to be less comfortable than the traditional kind, Hawaiian figures its passengers shouldn’t mind since all of its inter-island flights are under 60 minutes. Have you had the opportunity to go slimline yet? What did you think?
Schedule change in Chicago. If you fly through Chicago a lot, be on the lookout for plenty of schedule changes as United “rebanks” its flights this month. Air Transport World reports that United’s re-banking allows it to shorten connection times and improve directional flows at hubs, especially those that rely on East-West traffic flows. United successfully rebanked at its Houston and Denver hubs last year. ATW reports that United expects departures at O’Hare to fall 8% in some periods while aircraft size will increase 10 percent, allowing it to increase revenue and maximize use of valuable slots
New promo from Virgin. Virgin America is offering two-for-one fare discounts on its Dallas love Field routes to Elevate members when they provide the email addresses of three friends who might want to join that frequent flyer program. And the friends will get discounts of up to 20 percent. Virgin is also matching any competitor’s fare out of DAL through April 30. For details, go to www.weinventedhigherexpectations.com.
Delta goes to bat for Braves. When the Atlanta Braves move into their new stadium — SunTrust Park — for the 2017 season, marketing partner Delta will be there too. The expanded partnership between Delta and the ball club calls for the opening of an 18,000-square-foot Delta SKY360 Club on the lower level of the new ballpark, accessible from the premium seating areas. The club will offer dining, a pair of 20-foot video screens, and a 30-foot bar. The new park is located on the northern edge of the city in Cobb County near Cumberland Mall and the Galleria.
1,000 Easy HHonors points. This just in from Hilton… remember the glitch that stymied a promotion for 1,000 easy HHonor, points? Well, it’s back.HHonors members will need to update their passwords by April 1.As of that date, members will be required to create a new password upon login; Hilton will no longer accept PINs. “Since we know this can be a hassle for members, and to encourage adoption of this new login procedure, Hilton is offering an incentive of 1,000 Hilton HHonors Bonus Points if members update their passwords by March 25, 2015,” the company said. Just log in to your Hilton HHonors account, then go to “personal information” to change your password. More info
Travel apps for Apple Watch. Why should you have to haul out that clunky smartphone every time you want to check in for something? The Apple Watch, unveiled last week, has already started to attract new apps from a variety of travel companies. The initial list includes American Airlines (check in with your watch), Starwood Hotels (open your room door with your watch), TripAdvisor, OpenTable, Expedia and Citymapper. Meanwhile, Marriott announced that instead of providing a credit card at check-in, its guests can soon use Apple Pay, simply by bringing their iPhone 6 or Apple Watch close to a contactless reader at the front desk. The service will be gradually deployed starting this summer at brands including Ritz-Carlton, Marriott, Edition and Renaissance.
Passport app expands. A new app called Mobile Passport, introduced last summer for U.S. travelers re-entering the country at Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson Airport, is now available for Miami arrivals as well. Users simply input their profiles and answer Customs and Border Protection questions on the app (vs on the old paper forms), then proceed to the Mobile Passport Control express lane, skipping the longer lines. It’s available in the App Store and at Google Play. (We still prefer Global Entry, where you enter via a kiosk instead of a human, but this is pretty good– free, too.)
United tests new gates. Want to see what United Airlines’ next generation of boarding gates might look like? Check out Gates B-4, B-8 and B-10 in United’s Terminal 1 at Chicago O’Hare. That’s where the carrier is testing a new gate-area design that features things like mood lighting, new seating layouts, standing work stations and “boarding poles” (a la Southwest) for more orderly boarding.
Lyft in, Uber out at Austin. How can a ride-sharing service win approval to operate at an airport in competition with traditional taxi services? By giving the airport a piece of the action. With the popular SXSW festival starting up in Austin last week, Lyft won approval to transport passengers at Austin-Bergstrom Airport by agreeing to give the facility 10 percent of its profits. Uber failed to come to terms with the airport, so its drivers have been threatened with citations if they try to operate there. Meanwhile, San Francisco International Airport said last week it has developed a new system for tracking “app-based forms of ground transportation.” SFO officials said the technology — which it will license to other airports — collects data to be used “for fee calculation, roadway planning and facility improvement efforts.”