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August 31, 2009

Summer Airline News: Bag fees, AA shrinkage, nerds, Wi-Fi, more

BAG FEES CONTINUE TO RISE. Virgin America has increased its bag fee to $20 for every checked bag. Meanwhile, nearly every major carrier has quietly raised fees for checked bags to $25 for the first, and $30 for the second (that’s an additional $110 round trip if you check two bags…). Some airlines will knock off $5 per bag if you pay the fee online. For international flights, the new custom is one bag free, then $50 for the second bag. (As usual, fees don’t apply to first/business or elite level frequent flyers.) Southwest remains the only major carrier not charging for checked bags.

AA SHRINKS IN THE BAY. American has eliminated the once popular “Nerd Bird” flights between San Jose and Austin, (is the techie crowd switching over to more teleconferencing? Or is it the economy?) It’s also cut its RJ flights between San Jose and San Diego and reduced frequencies between SJC and Orange County.  With Virgin America, Southwest, United and American all offering nonstop flights between SFO and Orange County, you just knew that one of them had to pull the plug. American will stop flying the route on Nov. 18. We think it’s only a matter of time before the great, shrinking United does the same.

HEY NERDS: YOU CAN STILL GET THERE FROM HERE. About the time American announced it was dumping the Nerd Bird flights, Alaska Air swooped in and announced a single new daily nonstop between SJC and Austin. The flight originates in Portland.

JETBLUE: MORE SFO, LESS OAK AND SJC. Hat tip to the fantastic Cranky Flier blog for this tidbit: “JetBlue will kill one JFK and one Washington/Dulles flight from Oakland. Those airplanes will now become a second daily flight from SFO to both JFK and Boston. JetBlue will also add two more daily flights to Long Beach from SFO and a single additional daily flight from Oakland to Long Beach. Those new Long Beach slots are coming from the three daily Long Beach – San Jose flights which are going away.”

MORE CREDIT CARD OFFERS FROM UAL. Chase is now offering United customers some new credit card flavors. The one that tempts me the most (since I lost Premier status) includes access to EconomyPlus seats ($275/yr). Another provides includes membership to the Red Carpet Club ($375/yr). Another gives Mileage Plus bonuses (such as triple miles for United purchases, double miles for everything else), paving the way to faster free flights ($130/yr). Details here.

UNITED CUTS REDEMPTION FEES. United has unilaterally dumped those obnoxious $75 fees for last minute Mileage Plus redemptions. Good move! Seemed mighty unfair to charge a fee for something that did not cost the airline a penny! (Interesting….other airlines have not matched this move.)

MY WI-FI EXPERIENCE. Your BAT editor has used in-flight wi-fi twice so far and was very satisfied with the experiences (The Gogo Inflight Wi-Fi system is now available on all Virgin America and AirTran flights and on about 60% of Delta planes. It’s also on American’s flights between SFO and JFK and should be on United’s PS flights at some point later this year.)  Signing on is simple. The connection is as good as the one I have at my office (except when streaming video.) The only downside is that wi-fi hogs battery power  (and the only carrier that offers in-seat power at ALL seats is Virgin America.) So my laptop shut down a couple hours into the four-hour AirTran flight between SFO and ATL—so I’m not sure I got my three-hour’s worth for $12.95.

ON-TIME PERFORMANCE CONTINUES TO IMPROVE. The DOT says that 76.1% of the flights operated by the nation’s 19 largest airlines arrived on time in June, compared with just 70.8% in June 2008. There’s a combination of factors at play here, including less congestion and more padding of schedules on the part of airlines. HOWEVER, NYC airports are still in the pits. Despite on-time improvements nearly everywhere, New York’s three airports are STILL stuck at the bottom of the list for major airports. JFK, Newark and LaGuardia airports ranked 29th, 30th and 31st, respectively, for on-time arrivals at the nation’s 31 largest airports.

PLANES ARE STILL FULL. Don’t’ think that the down economy means you might find an empty seat next to you on the plane this summer. Airlines are pulling their large planes out of the skies, parking them in the desert, and using smaller planes instead. They are also cutting back on flight frequencies. As a result, most major carrier planes are running 80-90 percent full this summer…about the same as last summer.

HOW MUCH ARE THEY MAKING IN LUGGAGE FEES? According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, airlines are raking in the bucks when it comes to those obnoxious new checked luggage fees. American leads the pack at $108 million. Delta’s earned $103 million in fees. Which airline has made the LEAST on baggage fees (since it does not charge for the first two bags)? Southwest, of course, at just $6 million. And it even managed to turn a profit in the second quarter!

AMEX HONORING CLEAR CARD DISPUTES. If you charged your Clear Card on AMEX and disputed it, it looks like you should be getting your money back. BAT reader D. Cumpston was the first to email us with the good news: “I got a very welcome letter from AMEX last week saying, ‘We would like to advise you that the status of your claim on your account from Verified Identity Pass Inc. We suspended the amount of $179 and advised you we would contact the merchant on your behalf. Outcome: This dispute has been resolved in your favor. The merchant has not yet provided the information necessary to resolve your claim. Therefore we have issued a credit to your account and removed the previously suspended amount…’ NICE!” Thanks, Amex!

SPEAKING OF CLEAR CARD. After several recent Sunday afternoon flights and LOOOONG lines at SFO security (which looked much worse than they ended up being….they actually  moved very fast) your BAT editor is still missing his CLEAR card fast track. It was such a nice insurance policy against security line disaster. Anyway….There are some rumors floating around about the possibility of a resuscitated program. Stay tuned as we sniff these out! But don’t get your hopes up.

NEW TERMINAL B AT SAN JOSE: The new Terminal B at San Jose International opened last month for Southwest Airlines flyers (only) since the carrier has laid claim to its first five gates. Delta and Alaska Airlines will move in when six new gates open in Terminal B next summer. For now, all other airlines use Terminal A, which is also under renovation, part of a much needed $1.3 billion makeover of the Silicon Valley airport.

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April 15, 2009

SFO TO NY-LAGUARDIA ON SOUTHWEST?

Filed under: SFO,Southwest,Virgin America — Chris @ 11:41 pm

Yes, you can. If you are tired of that long traffic-clogged haul in from JFK to Manhattan and would prefer to fly into La Guardia instead, time to consider Southwest. Starting June 28, you can jump on a SW flight at SFO at 12:15 pm, buzz over to Chicago Midway where you’ll cool your heels for 40 minutes, then jet on to La Guardia arriving at 10:35 pm. Compare that to **United’s nonstop flight departing SFO at 12:40 am and arriving Kennedy at 9:26 pm. That means the SW flight is about 90 minutes longer in total travel time, but your cab or carfare from LGA to the city is significantly cheaper. And SW won’t charge to check your bags. As we go to press here, competitive nonstop flights  to JFK (mid-July) are running $279 roundtrip and Southwest’s into LGA are $340. Let’s see how long that discrepancy lasts… Thoughts?

**We updated and corrected this info based on the feedback received below. Apologies.

MORE WI-FI ON AA FLIGHTS.

Filed under: American Airlines,technology,Virgin America — Chris @ 11:37 pm

If you’ve enjoyed the awesomeness of in-flight Wi-Fi on American’s flights between SFO and NYC, you’ll get a charge out of this news: The carrier announced that it will expand Wi-Fi access to another 300 aircraft (all MD-80’s and 737-800’s) over the next two years. Delta already has 100 planes equipped with the same system and intends to have it’s entire fleet wired in the next year. Virgin America will have it’s entire fleet wired by June; Alaska and Southwest are ready to join the bandwagon soon.

March 31, 2009

Filed under: SFO,United Airlines,Virgin America — Chris @ 1:50 am

SFO AIRLINES IN JEOPARDY?
We all know that the airline industry is in dire straits this year as demand plummets. But what’s really scary for SFO travelers are the recent reports suggesting two of the airport’s major players, United and Virgin America, are teetering near extinction. In recent weeks there has been a new batch of stories about red ink and questions about ownership at Virgin America. (Thankfully a lot of that hullaballoo has passed…but still…) Then last week, our colleague Joe Brancatelli, who writes a must-read business travel blog (www.joesentme.com) suggested that United might not make it through this year. Some key lines from his post: “The airline is literally disappearing before our eyes. Forty percent of what flies as United Airlines now is actually operated by a grab bag of commuter carriers. What is left of the actual United Airlines has largely abandoned Latin America and turned huge chunks of its European capacity over to the Star Alliance . . . And the carrier is quickly burning through its miniscule cash reserves. Time is running out on the nation’s worst-managed major airline and a merger, dismemberment or liquidation seems far more likely than a revival of its fortunes.
Is it time to cash in those big banks of United miles? We love our Virgin America, but should questions about its financial standing or ownership scare us away? Let me know what you all are thinking! Post your comments below.
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February 25, 2009

Southwest Charms Me

Filed under: OAK,SFO,Southwest,United Airlines,Virgin America — Chris @ 8:10 pm

southwest_airlines_logoYour BAT editor flew Southwest for the first time in a L-O-O-O-N-G time last week (SFO-PHX-SFO). Having fallen for the sexy charms of Virgin America and swayed by the miles and upgrades from United in recent years, I’d neglected good ole Southwest. I won’t from now on. Overall the experience was simple, hassle-free, a great value, and generally exceeded my expectations. I’ll be back for more. Some of the changes I noticed:

  • >Easier boarding. The new boarding process works like a charm. Here’s how: you check in and queue up online for your flight exactly 24 hours prior to departure time. My first flight departed at 8:20 a.m. and I was on southwest.com at 8:21 a.m. the day before. I ended up 31st in line and had no problem scoring an exit row window seat. (I was 59th on the way back and got a window on row 10 with an empty seat next to me.) Legroom was fine…probably 32 or 33 inches, which is just above industry average.
  • >Business Travelers. At boarding, I did notice that agents now allow Business Select ticket holders (higher fare class) and A-List (elite members of its Rapid Rewards program who fly at least 16 round trips per year) to board first, a signal to me that Southwest is definitely out to snare more business travelers who have steered clear due to the old boarding process.
  • >Modified Cattle Call. Southwest seems to have done away with the most distasteful and uncivil part of its boarding process that’s often derided as a “cattle call.” It’s not assigned seating, but it’s not so bad. (However, I’d be more frustrated with it if I were in a meeting or elsewhere at the 24-hour mark and missed my chance to get to the head of the line…and ended up with a middle seat on a full flight.)
  • >Planes in both directions were about 80% full, clean, new and serviced by friendly and efficient flight crews. (Can’t wait to try its onboard Wi-Fi, which is currently in beta.)
  • >Pay on board. I liked paying for a cocktail on the return flight with my credit card, which was swiped through one of those handheld wireless doo-dads. Easy.
  • >Southwest.com. I’m still not in love with booking flights on southwest.com. It’s a more unwieldy experience than the other airline or booking sites we all use frequently. I’ve heard the site is getting an overhaul soon. So we’ll see about that.
  • >Terminal 1. Southwest operates out of SFO’s terminal 1, which is sorta drab compared to the bright and modern international terminal where I catch Virgin America flights. However, Virgin doesn’t flight to Phoenix.  Security lines at 7:30 a.m. where manageable, but I breezed right through using my Clear Card.
  • I fly SW out of Oakland in a coupla weeks and will report back on my experience here in THE BAT!

What do YOU think about Southwest? Have you flown them recently? How was your experience? PLEASE leave your comments below!

Like what you are reading? Then be sure and SUBSCRIBE to The BAT so you don’t miss a single nugget of info. Look right>>>> and click on the SUBSCRIBE links! Thanks! Tell all your friends to do the same! –chris

January 28, 2009

More Flights and Lower Fares between the Bay and the O.C.

Over the last couple weeks both Southwest and Virgin America have announced five new nonstops per day between SFO and Orange County’s John Wayne Airport.  (Yes, that’s ten new round trips per day in addition to existing nonstops offered by American and United.) As a result, a fare war has erupted. When Southwest announced its flights on Jan 14, it offered introductory fares of $69 each way. When Virgin announced yesterday, its lowest fares came in at $59 each way. With that news, Southwest lowered rates on some flights to just $49 each way.  Virgin flights crank up April 30. Southwest flights begin May 9.  Given the choice, I’d fly Virgin America for many reasons: in-flight seat back TV, assigned seats, full-size, two-class Airbus jets and departures from the nice new International terminal at SFO.  The Southwest cattle call at boarding and the tired CRJ service from American and United just don’t cut it…and since they no longer offer 500-mile minimums on shorter flights, frequent flyer program loyalty is out the window. Thoughts? Which one would YOU fly? Please leave your comments below….

January 21, 2009

Food Getting More Glorious…for Some.

Filed under: International,Virgin America — Chris @ 5:49 pm

If you are a frequent traveler on our favorite hometown airline, Virgin America, you should be pleased to read about the recent upgrades to its in-flight menu. (We are still mesmerized by the “Food Button” on the seatback, where you place your order, pay for it with the swipe of a credit card, and it magically appears from the back of the plane in minutes…amazing!) Some descriptions of new items: “La Brea Granola with Mixed Berries and Milk — Crunchy and slightly sweet. This intense, earthy granola is made from a wonderful combination of dried fruit, nuts and grains. Paired with berries and milk.” fc-tapasAnd this: Vegetarian Chop Salad — A mixture of romaine, basil, garbanzo beans, cucumbers, red and green bell pepper, sugar snap peas, olives, grape tomatoes, parmesan and cheddar cheeses, partnered with a creamy cilantro dressing.” Those in first class get their fab food for free and this dessert sounds TDF….”Trio of Dessert Tapas: Creamy Lemon curd, Chocolate pot de Crème, Vanilla Panna Cotta.” Yum!

Speaking of In-Flight Food.
Here’s an interesting excerpt from an article from the WSJ about improvements in premium class food service. (As usual, Singapore Air is the star performer here…)  “International airlines are beefing up food spending as a differentiating draw for premium customers — even U.S. airline spending on food has increased recently. In the third quarter last year, the six big U.S. airlines that fly internationally increased their spending on food by 8.5% — the biggest increase in any category besides fuel, according to Department of Transportation data. The same airlines cut labor expenses and maintenance expenses in the same period and slashed advertising more than 22%.)

January 15, 2009

Me, too! United to Offer In-flight Wi-Fi

Filed under: technology,united,Virgin America — Chris @ 6:29 pm

United Airlines has joined Virgin America, American and Delta with today’s announcement that it will begin offering in-flight internet service to customers on  p.s. flights between New York – Kennedy,  SFO and LAX starting in the second half of this year. Like the other carriers, United will use Aircell’s Gogo in-flight internet service that allows passengers with Wi-Fi enabled devices to surf the net, check email and IM over a high-speed connection. United says it will charge a flat fee of $12.95 for the service.  (NOTE: While airlines are making a big kafuffle about in-flight Wi-Fi, the fact remains that it’s currently on very few planes. Virgin has it on one, Delta and American have got it on about 10 each.)

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