April 23, 2024

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Report reveals Bay Area’s busiest travel days for the holidays

Report reveals Bay Area’s busiest travel days for the holidays

In this week’s roundup, Christmas-New Year’s air travel volume is expected to be almost back to pre-COVID levels as airlines and airports gear up for heavy crowds; a study by Forbes Advisor ranks San Francisco International as the seventh-worst U.S. airport for holiday travel while San Jose’s, Oakland’s and Sacramento’s are among the best; United places a huge order for new 787s, which will dominate its international fleet in the years to come; Cathay Pacific eyes a revival of its global network as Hong Kong ends its toughest COVID entry restrictions; United adds more SFO-Sydney flights and Delta kicks off a Tahiti route from LAX; there’s domestic route news from American, Avelo and United; American and JetBlue announce an expansion of their Northeast Alliance even as a federal judge ponders its future; American’s peak season schedule includes several suspended international routes; American will make significant changes to its AAdvantage loyalty program next year; JetBlue signs on an exclusive streaming partner for its in-flight entertainment; and Delta makes it easier for SkyMiles elite members to request upgrades during booking.

Airline passenger numbers over the Thanksgiving holiday period were just about back to pre-pandemic levels, and it looks like the Christmas-New Year’s period will be equally crowded. AAA said this week in its annual holiday forecast that it expects 7.17 million Americans to take to the air between Dec. 23 to Jan. 2. That’s 14{6932ee47e64f4ce8eedbbd5224581f6531cba18a35225771c06e4f1b3f0d9667} more than last year and just a hair under the 7.33 million who flew over the holidays in 2019. “Flights and airports will be packed this holiday season, reminiscent of pre-pandemic days. Demand for flights has surged despite higher airline ticket prices,” AAA said. The nation’s largest carrier, American Airlines, said that its busiest days over the upcoming holiday period will be Dec. 16 and Dec. 22, when it will operate more than 5,500 flights on each day; the lightest travel day will be Christmas Day, with 3,800 scheduled departures.

Per usual, the vast majority of holiday travel will be by car. AAA’s holiday forecast pinpoints the times and locations when drivers can expect to see the heaviest road congestion. It said in San Francisco, the worst traffic will be encountered on Dec. 28 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on I-80 east from Exit 8A to Exit 18, when volume will be 50{6932ee47e64f4ce8eedbbd5224581f6531cba18a35225771c06e4f1b3f0d9667} heavier than normal. It will be almost as bad the same day on I-80 west from Exits 13 to 1A.

In a pre-Christmas analysis, Forbes Advisor compiled a list of the best and worst airports during peak holiday travel time, examining federal statistics for things like customer complaints, flight delays, cancellations, mishandled baggage and ticket cost increases, among other factors. There was good news for most California airports — but not for San Francisco International. SFO ranked seventh on the list of worst U.S. airports, including a flight delay rate of more than 9{6932ee47e64f4ce8eedbbd5224581f6531cba18a35225771c06e4f1b3f0d9667}, the highest in the nation. On the other hand, “six of the top 10 best airports for holiday travel are located in California,” Forbes said, including Long Beach International (ranked number one in the study), Mineta San Jose International, Sacramento International, Oakland International, Ontario International and Hollywood Burbank. New York’s Westchester County Airport ranked worst in the country in the Forbes analysis.

The exterior of a 787 Dreamliner at the Boeing manufacturing facility in North Charleston, on December 13, 2022.

The exterior of a 787 Dreamliner at the Boeing manufacturing facility in North Charleston, on December 13, 2022.

LOGAN CYRUS/AFP via Getty Images

United Airlines is doubling down on the 787 Dreamliner for the future of its widebody fleet, laying the groundwork for future international route expansion. The company announced this week that it has ordered 100 of the widebodies from Boeing with options for 100 more, calling it “the largest widebody order by a U.S. carrier in commercial aviation history.” United said the new planes “are expected to replace older Boeing 767 and Boeing 777 aircraft, with all 767 aircraft removed from the United fleet by 2030, resulting in up to an expected 25{6932ee47e64f4ce8eedbbd5224581f6531cba18a35225771c06e4f1b3f0d9667} decrease in carbon emissions per seat for the new planes compared to the older planes they are expected to replace.” The new widebodies — which will include 787-8, -9 and -10 models — will be fitted with what has become United’s standard international configuration: lie-flat Polaris business class, Premium Plus (i.e., premium economy) and main cabin seating (which also includes extra-legroom Economy Plus seats).

The company noted that more than 90{6932ee47e64f4ce8eedbbd5224581f6531cba18a35225771c06e4f1b3f0d9667} of its international twin-aisle aircraft are now equipped with Polaris and Premium Plus cabins, with the rest to be finished by next summer. The new 787s will be delivered from 2024 through 2032. United said it has also exercised options for 44 more single-aisle 737 MAX aircraft for delivery from 2024 to 2026 and has ordered 56 more to arrive between 2027 and 2028. Along with its big orders early last year for both Boeing and Airbus narrowbodies, “The airline now expects to take delivery of about 700 new narrow and widebody aircraft by the end of 2032, including an average of more than two every week in 2023 and more than three every week in 2024,” United said.  

If the company exercises the 100 options for additional 787s, it means that “by 2030 … more than 80{6932ee47e64f4ce8eedbbd5224581f6531cba18a35225771c06e4f1b3f0d9667} of our long-haul flying will be on the 787 platform,” United chief commercial officer Andrew Nocella told a press briefing, according to The Points Guy. “It aids our reliability, it makes things more simple and it’s a great aircraft for our customers to fly on.” United also has a longstanding order on the books with Airbus for 45 widebody A350-900s, but the company said deliveries of those aircraft have now been pushed back to 2030. 

A Cathay Pacific aircraft at Sydney's Kingsford Smith International airport in August 2021.

A Cathay Pacific aircraft at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith International airport in August 2021.

James D. Morgan/Getty Images

Cathay Pacific Airlines breathed a sigh of relief this week as Hong Kong eased up even more on its strict COVID entry rules. Before September, Hong Kong enforced a draconian three-week quarantine on inbound travelers; since then, arriving passengers have been basically restricted to their hotels and outdoor areas for the first three days and then required to self-monitor their health for four days. Local officials determined that this so-called “0+3” rule wasn’t really needed to reduce COVID spread, so as of this week it has been dropped, and visitors are now free to go into restaurants, bars and other indoor venues immediately after arrival. Visitors to Hong Kong will still have to show proof of a full COVID vaccination, submit a negative PCR result from a COVID test no more than 24 hours before leaving home and take another PCR test on their second day in Hong Kong. 

Cathay Pacific’s route network was devastated by the earlier COVID restrictions, but the airline said this week it now expects a steady revival of service. Last month, Cathay started to bring back routes to points in Asia and Europe and will now accelerate that process. The airline said its total passenger capacity should be back to 33{6932ee47e64f4ce8eedbbd5224581f6531cba18a35225771c06e4f1b3f0d9667} of pre-pandemic levels by the end of this month and up to 70{6932ee47e64f4ce8eedbbd5224581f6531cba18a35225771c06e4f1b3f0d9667} by the end of next year. Cathay already flies from San Francisco to Hong Kong; United Airlines is expected to resume San Francisco-Hong Kong service in early March.

United this week increased frequencies on its San Francisco-Sydney route from seven flights a week to 10, a schedule that will continue through Feb. 8. With its new SFO-Brisbane route that started six weeks ago, United now claims more capacity between the U.S. and Australia than any other carrier. Its other non-stops include SFO-Melbourne, Los Angeles-Sydney, LAX-Melbourne and Houston-Sydney. Also in Los Angeles, Delta this week kicked off a new route to Papeete, Tahiti, in French Polynesia, operating three 767-300ER flights a week (on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays). And Aeromexico this week resumed its suspended service from LAX to Monterrey with daily 737 MAX flights.

President Joe Biden arrives on Air Force One at Mather airport in Sacramento, Calif., in Monday, September 2021. 

President Joe Biden arrives on Air Force One at Mather airport in Sacramento, Calif., in Monday, September 2021. 

San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Sacramento will get new service to Texas next spring with American Airlines planning to introduce daily flights to Austin on May 5. It will give some competition to Southwest, which already flies the route. Redding, California, this week lost Avelo Airlines’ flights to Las Vegas, which the low-cost carrier had been operating twice a week since January. Avelo said the route hadn’t generated sufficient traffic. United Airlines, which dropped dozens of small cities from its network this year, is losing another one: United Express/SkyWest short-haul service from Denver to Pueblo, Colorado, will end on Jan. 14.

A federal judge is currently preparing his decision in the Justice Department’s big antitrust case against the JetBlue-American Airlines Northeast Alliance following a three-week trial conducted last month. But the two airlines don’t seem too concerned — they just announced an expansion of that route-planning and code-sharing partnership in New York and Boston. American will add six new routes from New York LaGuardia on May 5, including daily service to Birmingham, Alabama; Buffalo, New York; Columbia, South Carolina; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Greenville, South Carolina; and Knoxville, Tennessee. JetBlue plans a spring launch for new routes from LaGuardia to Atlanta four times a day along with daily service from LGA to Hyannis, Massachusetts; Bermuda; and Nassau, Bahamas. At Boston, JetBlue will introduce daily summer seasonal service to Vancouver to supplement the New York JFK-Vancouver flights it started earlier this year. To the Caribbean, JetBlue will add daily Newark-Montego Bay, Jamaica service this summer along with weekly Newark-Aruba flights.

On the international side, American said its summer schedule will include several peak season routes that had been suspended over the past year or two due to the COVID pandemic and late deliveries of new widebody aircraft. American’s summer schedule next year includes flights from its Charlotte hub to Paris and Dallas/Fort Worth to Tokyo Haneda. Suspended routes revived this winter that will continue into summer include DFW to Santiago, Chile; Los Angeles to Sydney and Tokyo Haneda; and Seattle to London. The airline also plans to increase frequencies from DFW to Paris and Rome starting in April, and from Miami to London and Sao Paulo.

A traveler looks out at American Airlines planes at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, on July 2, 2022. - US airlines are bracing customers for what will probably be a bumpy Fourth of July holiday weekend as the industry struggles to manage a surge in travel demand that probably exceeds its current capacity. Flight delays and cancellations created a difficult start for many travelers leaving town for the holiday. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds / AFP) (Photo by STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

A traveler looks out at American Airlines planes at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, on July 2, 2022. – US airlines are bracing customers for what will probably be a bumpy Fourth of July holiday weekend as the industry struggles to manage a surge in travel demand that probably exceeds its current capacity. Flight delays and cancellations created a difficult start for many travelers leaving town for the holiday. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds / AFP) (Photo by STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

In a move similar to one announced a week ago by JetBlue, American Airlines said this week it will make some changes to its AAdvantage loyalty program next year that include new perks available to members even before they achieve elite status. Starting in March, American said, it will “introduce opportunities to receive benefits and earn rewards more often and give members more options to customize their travel experiences.”

For example, under the new spending-based Loyalty Points metric the airline introduced last winter, members need 40,000 points to achieve AAdvantage Gold status. But starting in March, earning 15,000 points will give them Group 5 boarding for the membership year and either priority check-in, priority security and group 4 boarding for one trip, or five preferred seat coupons. Piling up additional Loyalty Points, even after achieving elite status, will unlock even more special perk options.

American said it will also remove the 75,000-mile limit on miles that could be earned on a single ticket, and will give members two miles per dollar spent on basic economy fares starting March 1. Meanwhile, ViewfromtheWing.com said it was told by AAdvantage’s managing director that the program will continue to maintain a public chart of award travel costs next year, but that it will bring an end to MileSAAver and AAnytime award levels. 

JetBlue said that starting next spring, its in-flight entertainment system will introduce an exclusive streaming partner: NBCUniversal’s Peacock. Accessible through the airline’s free in-flight Wi-Fi, Peacock programming can be streamed on seatback screens or through the passenger’s own device. The airline said it will also link Peacock to its TrueBlue loyalty program: “TrueBlue members will have access to special offers on Peacock subscriptions, allowing them to earn points for subscribing to the streaming service, and will be gifted a one-year Peacock Premium subscription, included with eligible TrueBlue Mosaic status,” JetBlue said. 

Members of Delta’s elite SkyMiles Diamond and Platinum Medallion levels will now be able to request upgrades when they make new bookings on the airline’s website, according to The Points Guy. During the checkout process, members with unexpired Regional or Global Upgrade certificates can submit their request through a new “Upgrade Certificate Request” window that appears on the site. The airline will let them know via email and a notification in its mobile app whether they’ve been upgraded or put on a wait list.