More Alaska Airlines changes are on the horizon

Alaska Airlines today will end its year-old daily flight between Los Angeles and Cuba due to low demand and changes in the Trump administration’s policy toward Cuba.

It’s just one of many changes occurring since Alaska merged with Virgin America in December 2016 and have been gradually integrating their operations, staff and policies. Earlier this month, Alaska received a single operating certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration for it and Virgin America to fly as one airline, which will enable some of the biggest changes.

Here are some examples of what Alaska has in store this year and beyond:

  • Paint the first Airbus plane in Alaska’s colors this month.
  • Add high-speed, satellite Wi-Fi to its entire fleet of Boeing and Airbus aircraft starting in March.
  • Upgrade its in-flight menus by adding fresh meal options in the First Class and Main cabins, and West Coast-inspired beer and wine choices.
  • Install blue mood lighting on more Boeing planes. Virgin America is famous for its cabin “mood lighting,” which changes color and brightness throughout a flight depending on the time of day and conditions outside the plane. The largely pink and purple hues were supposed to create a calm environment.
Alaska Airlines' blue mood lighting
Alaska Airlines said it plans to add blue lighting to more planes vs. the primarily pink and purple mood lighting that was popular on Virgin American planes. (Courtesy of Alaska Airlines)
  • Install new modern interiors in all Airbus planes, such as new seats, carpeting and lighting.  Alaska will increase the number of First Class seats and introduce Premium Class seats.
  • Locate an Airbus operations control center with one for Boeing aircraft at its Seattle-based flight operations center in March.
  • Offer travelers one mobile app, website and airport check-in counter when Alaska moves to a single reservations system in late April. For now, customers will continue to use separate Alaska and Virgin America platforms.
  • Update and expand airport lounges, including a new New York JFK lounge in April and a flagship lounge at Seattle next year.
  • See new uniforms designed by Seattle designer Luly Yang in 2019. Flight and ground crews will start testing new uniforms soon.
Since late 2016, travelers already have seen Alaska make the following changes: merge Virgin America’s loyalty program with the Alaska Mileage Plan; end Virgin America’s credit card program to focus on Alaska’s credit card; and update its no-show policy.

The featured photo at top is by Artur Bergman via Flickr under Creative Commons license.

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Survey: Christmas season is worst time to fly

Just as millions of Americans prepare to fly back home after Christmas, a new study finds that consumers think air travel is more frustrating than it was five years ago.

Consumers also think the Christmas season is the worst time of year to fly, according to the Morning Consult national survey conducted for the U.S. Travel Association (USTA), an industry trade group.

Such negative emotions mean fewer Americans are willing to travel. The survey found that air travel hassles stopped 24 percent of leisure travelers and 14 percent of business travelers from taking at least one trip in the last five years.

And that’s translated into real losses for the U.S. economy. In 2016, the USTA says Americans avoided 32 million air trips because of travel hassles, costing the economy more than $24 billion in spending.

Here are some of the survey findings over the last five years:

  • 60 percent say airline fees, such as those for checked bags, flight changes and seat assignments, have worsened.
  • 51 percent say the overall cost of flying has increased.
  • 47 percent say airport hassles, such as long lines and crowded terminals, have gotten worse.

Improving airports would help, according to the USTA. Two in five frequent business and leisure travelers would take at least three more trips a year if airport hassles were reduced or went away, according to the survey.

In addition, many survey respondents think Congress should pursue policies to: modernize airport and air traffic control infrastructure (60 percent), give airports more flexibility to improve air service options for travelers (55 percent) and maintain competition between airlines (53 percent).

Morning Consult surveyed 2,201 adults online from Oct. 10-12, 2017. Results have a margin of error of +/- 2 percentage points.

3 tips to help make holiday travel jollier

A record 107.3 million Americans are expected to travel to grandma’s house or some other destination this holiday season, according to AAA.

Most people will drive, but more travelers will fly because holiday airfares cost nearly 20 percent less than last year and are at a five-year low.

Regardless of your mode of transportation, you’ll probably experience crowds, lines and congestion at airports, on roads and at bus and train stations. Here are three tips to help make traveling jollier this holiday season:

1. The big question for many fliers is whether to wrap gifts that you’ll pack in your luggage.

Transportation Security Administration agents can open wrapped gifts to check what’s inside. It’s especially an issue with checked baggage because you’re not with your luggage at that point in the process. The TSA’s blog says wrapped gifts are allowed, but “not encouraged.”

Tip: Instead, bring wrapping paper, bows and tape with you or buy them when you arrive at your destination.

2. If you’re flying, remember that liquids are limited to 3.4 ounces in a quart-sized plastic bag within carry-on bags. If you have TSA Recheck (it will be printed on your boarding pass), you don’t have to put liquids in a baggie and separate them from the rest of your baggage. There’s no restriction if you pack liquids, such as wine, in a checked bag.

The TSA expands the definition of “liquid” to include aerosols, gels (such as some lip balms), creams (such as lotion) and pastes (such as toothpaste) as liquids in carry-on bags. Medications and infant/child nourishments are exempt from the rule.

Tip: If you must give wine or another liquid as a present, ship it ahead through a mail service or buy it once you arrive at your destination.

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(Creative Commons via Pixabay)

3. No matter how you travel during the holidays, space is sure to be a precious commodity. Most airlines charge at least $25 to check a bag and some have tightened their carry-on limits this year. Choose gifts that won’t occupy too much space in your luggage or car.

Tip: Think small, light and easy-to-pack, such as jewelry, socks, winter accessories, electronic gadgets, candy and gift cards.

Happy holidays!

Southwest Airlines livens flights with live music

Southwest Airlines is taking in-flight entertainment to new heights.

A deal with Warner Music Nashville will let the airline continue to offer mile-high music  featuring artists from Warner Music Nashville, according to Billboard magazine.

Who doesn’t appreciate a little fun to break up the strain and dullness of air travel or meeting a rising country star like Devin Dawson? And studies show that listening to music helps reduce stress and anxiety, such as fear of flying.

Dawson recently performed, including songs from his Dark Horse album due out on Jan. 19, onboard a Southwest flight from Nashville to Philadelphia. The video below was featured in a tweet from Dawson’s Twitter account.

Dallas-based Southwest is a big supporter of music. It has been hosting pop-up Live at 35 concerts where artists perform on a flight at 35,000 feet since 2011. It also hosts the Opry at the Southwest Porch at Bryant Park summer concert series.

In addition to Dawson, other onboard performers have included the Barenaked Ladies band, Drake White, Gavin DeGraw and King & Country.

“Music provides our employees an avenue to drive an emotional, human connection with our customers, straight from the heart,” Southwest spokeswoman Linda Rutherford said in a statement.

Earlier this year, Southwest launched its Destination: Red Rocks music series with a contest between six bands to see who would open for The Fray band at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado. The Atlanta-based band Pony League won. At the same time, the airline also started the Southwest.fm website to showcase its music events.

Southwest supports artists in other ways, too. It lets passengers carry smaller musical instruments on board if they fit in an overhead bin or under a seat. It also lets musical instruments count as one of a passenger’s two free checked bags.

Below is a YouTube video from Southwest of the Barenaked Ladies before, during and after their in-flight performance in 2015.

 

Finnair already plans to expand its new San Francisco service

Finnair just started seasonal service from San Francisco to Helsinki two months ago, but it’s already planning to extend it’s operating season by a month next year.

The Finnish airline said today that its inaugural Bay Area service has been so well received that it will extend the operating season for its weekly flights by a month in 2018– from May 3 to Sept. 27.

It’s part of Finnair’s expansion plans for 2018. It already carries more than 10 million passengers a year between Asia, Europe and North America. By next summer, it will increase its total capacity by 14 percent from this summer season, Chief Commercial Officer Juha Järvinen said in a statement.

In addition to San Francisco, Finnair’s Chicago service will become daily with the addition of two weekly flights starting in April 2018 through October.

Outside of the United States, Finnair plans to will add flights to more than 20 European and Asian cities next winter and summer. And today, the airline introduced a year-round route to Nanjing, China.

Best Virgin Mobile-Apple deal ends July 31

Virgin was the latest mobile company to make waves when it recently announced a new service plan and other perks for iPhones.

Virgin Mobile USA teamed up with Apple to offer iPhone service deals under its new Inner Circle, which sounds more like a cult than a data plan.

Here’s the skinny: If you buy an iPhone from Apple or Virgin, you can sign up for 12 months of unlimited talk, text and data service* service by July 31 for $1. After July 31, new customers will pay $1 for the first six months of service. After either introductory period ends, the plan will cost $50 a month.

Check this network coverage map to see what Virgin Mobile service is like in your area.

The Inner Circle also provides other Virgin perks: a round-trip companion ticket (excluding taxes, fees and surcharges) to the United Kingdom on Virgin Atlantic Airways, one night at Virgin Hotels and discounts on Virgin Wines, flights at Virgin America and the Virgin Sport festival in San Francisco in October.

It’s the kind of disruptive move Virgin is known to do to grab market share from rivals in uber competitive markets. Virgin “has always looked to shake things up and challenge the status quo in any sector we go into,” Virgin Group founder Richard Branson said in a recent statement.

It’s also a way for Virgin to funnel business to dozens of other Virgin brands and drive revenue at some of the newer ones, such as Virgin Hotels. The first U.S. hotel opened in Chicago in 2015; several more are planned through 2020.

A 196-room Virgin Hotels site in San Francisco’sSouth of Market area is scheduled to open this summer. A 200-room Silicon Valley hotel in Milpitas, which is scheduled to open in fall 2019, will boast a live music venue. Both hotels will feature several dining and drinking options, including a roof-top bar; a cafe; and meeting space.

It’s all about branding.

* Virgin Mobile says it will deprioritize customers who use more than 23 GB of data during one billing cycle, meaning your bandwidth could be constrained at times. The Inner Circle offer is available to customers who buy an iPhone SE, 6s, 6s Plus, 7 or 7 Plus.

United Airlines changes frequent flier awards

United Airlines just changed its frequent flier awards, moving closer  to a revenue based model.

The changes will take effect on Nov. 1 for all MileagePlus members worldwide.

The biggest changes are that new “Everyday Awards” will replace “Standard Awards” and pricing for Everyday Awards will vary from flight to flight. United’s Upgrade Awards will not change.

It was only a matter of time before this happened. American Airlines and Delta Air Lines have changed their programs in the last few years. Last year, United tweaked its award fee structure and booking process, introducing the Excursionist Perk.

United’s MileagePlus current awards charts show a Standard Award for one-way, economy class travel within the 48 contiguous United States costs 25,000 miles. As of Nov. 1, the new awards charts show that same one-way flight will cost no more than 32,500 Everyday Award miles. Click on the above links to see how the changes will affect where you like to travel.

United will continue to offer Saver Awards, but some prices will change. Prices will be:

      • The same (10,000 or 12,500 miles one way) for for Economy Saver travel to, from or within the 48 contiguous states
      • Lower for most short-haul intra-region Economy Saver Awards for flights outside the United States, such as within Europe
      • Higher for Saver Awards for certain international cities
      • Higher for Business Saver Awards for U.S. premium transcontinental routes and some Hawaii routes

    Another big change is that MileagePlus members who don’t show up for a flight and request a redeposit of their miles will have to pay a $125 redeposit fee for award bookings made on or after Nov. 1.

Finnair is latest airline to test facial recognition

Finnish airline Finnair is the latest airline to test facial recognition technology at check-in as a way to increase security and improve the airport passenger boarding process.

Finnair is testing the technology created by Futurice at Helsinki Airport this month on 1,000 of its frequent flyers. Those customers use a mobile app to send a photograph to Finnair and use a designated check-in counter equipped with face recognition technology at the airport. A Finnair agent still must check the customer’s travel information.

Last month, British Airways launched automated biometric technology at London’s Heathrow Airport for departing domestic flights at some gates, with plans to expand the program to international flights in the future. Travelers’ digital facial scan is recorded as they go through security and when they arrive at the gate. Their face is matched with this representation when they present their boarding pass.

Closer to home, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been testing facial and iris imaging capabilities to improve travelers’ identity and security. Test sites have included Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C.; John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York; and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta.

Finnair’s head of ground experience and ancillary, Sari Nevanlinna, said facial recognition could “eliminate the need for a [travelers’] boarding pass.” The airline carries more than 10 million passengers a year between Europe, Asia and North America.

 

Report vs. reality: Is airline service improving?

A new report showing airline improvements across the board comes on the tail of two recent examples of just how bumpy air travel can be.

The 2016 Airline Quality Rating report debuted today by professors at Wichita State University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University found that airlines are flying on time more often, mishandling fewer bags,  getting fewer complaints and denying boarding to fewer passengers.

But over the last few days, Delta Air Lines canceled more than 3,000 flights after a storm at its home base of Atlanta. Chicago-based United Airlines created an uproar on social media after a video showed security agents drag a man off a plane on Sunday after he refused to give up his seat on the overbooked United flight. (See video below.)

 

Fellow passenger Audra D. Bridges posted the video on Facebook while the plane was boarding at Chicago O’Hare International Airport headed to Louisville, Ky. She also wrote on the post: “United airlines overbooked the flight. They randomly selected people to kick off so their standby crew could have a seat. This man is a doctor and has to be at the hospital in the morning. He did not want to get off. We are all shaky and so disgusted.”

Here was United CEO’s response on Facebook:

 

United offered compensation to four volunteers who would leave the overbooked flight so four crew members could get to Louisville for work the next day, according to Bridges’ report in the Louisville, Ky., Courier Journal. With no takers, United randomly selected four passengers; three left the plane but the fourth, the man who has dragged away, refused to leave, according to the news report.

United ranked No. 8 among 12 airlines in the Airline Quality Rating report. Alaska Airlines, which recently acquired Virgin America, as the No. 1 U.S. carrier.

Here are some other findings from the report, which is based on data from the U.S. Department of Transportation:

On-time performance: The share of on-time arrivals rose to 81.4 percent in 2016 from 79.9 percent in 2015. The DOT considers a flight on time if it arrives within 15 minutes of its scheduled time.

Customer complaints: The rate of complaints filed with the government declined 20 percent.

Baggage: The rate of lost, stolen or delayed bags fell 17 percent.

Bumped passengers: The rate of passengers bumped from oversold flights fell 18 percent.

Here’s why American Airlines is buying into a Chinese carrier

 

With China as the fastest-growing aviation, U.S. airlines are eager to make deals to gain entry to the highly regulated market in that country.

American Airlines’ just announced $200-million stake in state-owned China Southern Airlines in the latest example.

The deal will make it a little easier for Americans to travel to China and vice versa because it will provide travelers with a larger flying network and more price options in China and the United States.

“We are two of the biggest carriers in the world, and our networks are highly complementary, with the potential to offer China Southern and American customers an unmatched range of destinations in two critical markets for business and leisure travelers,” Robert Isom, president of Texas-based American Airlines said in a statement.

The deal will offer the airlines’ customers “more travel options and better value,” China Southern chairman Wang Chang Shun said.

China Southern’s headquarters and main hub is in Guangzhou, China. American flies from hubs in Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) and Los Angeles (LAX) to Beijing and Shanghai, and from DFW and LAX to Hong Kong.

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China leads the International Air Transport Association’s forecast of the top air passenger markets over the next 20 years. (IATA)

Later this year, the two carriers plan to start codeshare and interline agreements that will offer about 70 new destinations in China to American customers and nearly 80 new stops in North and South America to China Southern customers.

International air travel is expected to nearly double to 7.2 billion passengers by 2035, according to the International Air Transport Association. China is the fastest-growing market, with 1.3 billion new passengers by then. The industry group predicts China will pass North America as the world’s largest aviation market around 2024. (See graph at upper right.)

For the United States, China is the fifth largest tourism generator, bringing well over 2 million visitors a year, according to the National Travel and Tourism Office (NTTO). (See chart at lower right.)

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US travel to China also has increased — up nearly 8 percent to 1.2 million people in 2015, the latest data available from the U.S. Travel Association.

The now defunct Pan American World Airways began flying between the United States and China in 1981, two years after diplomatic relations between the two nations were established. But the expansion of flights has been slow in a competitive process for routes.

The United States doesn’t have an open skies agreement, which allows unrestricted flights in each country, with China. The current US-China bilateral treaty specifies the number of passenger flights allowed.

Other airlines have forged ties with Chinese carriers to gain more access to China’s growing travel market. Last year, United Airlines enhanced a partnership it’s had with Air China since 2003. In 2015, Delta Air Lines paid $450 million for a small stake in China Eastern Airlines.

American, the world’s largest airline, offers nearly 6,700 daily flights to nearly 350 destinations in over 50 countries. It carried over 198 million passengers in 2016.

China Southern, one of three major state-owned carriers in mainland China, operates more than 2,000 daily flights to 208 destinations in 40 countries and regions. It flew 115 million passengers in 2016.

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China Southern Airline’s base in Guangzhou, China. Beijing (at top right of map) and Shanghai (right center of map). (Sheryl Jean with Apple Maps)