New SFO terminal brings romance back to air travel

It was 1954 when San Francisco International Airport (SFO) welcomed it’s first flights. At the time, air travel was a luxurious experience and would-be classic airliners ruled the sky. This weekend, SFO reopens Terminal 2, thought to be the most modern and sustainable terminal in the United States, ushering in a new era of travel by air.

“An airport terminal designed to bring back the romance of travel,” airport director John Martin told KGO-TV.

The new $383 million SFO terminal will be home to American and Virgin America airlines. Airport supporters hope to recapture the golden age of air travel with local restaurant stars, artwork, a classic American Airlines DC-3 and even the ability to fill an empty water bottle and take it on board.

“We immediately felt we walked into a five-star hotel lobby that was just declared LEED gold standard in its environmental design,” said San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.

On the flip side, the new terminal welcomes the future of aviation with open arms too. Sir Richard Branson was on hand this week with Virgin Galactica’s White Knight 2 which will take passengers into space, a venture California legislators hope to see reality soon.

“This is a big part of economic growth and economic development in the region and it is a big part of keeping down the costs for passengers to fly,” said California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

That’s great news for San Francisco, not so great news for nearby San Jose where their airport has struggled, trailing behind San Francisco then Oakland, losing lucrative routes to Paris and Taiwan. The economic slump that started in 2008 pretty much drove a stake through the beleaguered airport’s heart causing a loss of a third of its scheduled flights and a quarter of it’s passengers. This probably won’t help them either.

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Bottoms up? Airports and airlines don’t want you sober

If you want to grab a beer at 5 AM, go to your nearest airport or board a flight. More airports are letting vendors sell liquor at dawn, or in some cases 24 hours a day. The move isn’t intended to keep you happy, of course, that’s really irrelevant to the aviation industry. Rather, the goal is to pump up revenues by getting you to dig a little deeper into your wallet while you’re traveling. Further, it reflects a bit of “marketing savvy,” USA Today reports, as airports and airlines are figuring out that they can sell just about everything, “from meals to day passes to their premium lounges.”

USA Today continues:

“What’s happening is airlines are becoming better retailers of products,” says Jay Sorensen, a consultant, who says the cocktail push by U.S. airlines began during the last year. “They’re doing things to highlight the fact that, ‘Yes, indeed, we do sell alcohol on the airplane.’ They’re trying to mimic what occurs on the ground in terms of consumer promotions.”

Of course, some corners of the airline industry aren’t happy about the prospect of bringing new revenue into businesses that often struggle to perform well. The concerns are legitimate, with “some union leaders, local officials and frequent fliers fear[ing] that the increased access to alcohol raises the risk of more drunken travelers, particularly at a time when many passengers find a travel experience that involves enhanced screening and crowded planes more stressful than ever,” USA Today reports.The decision to serve liquor around the clock is expected to have tangible results, however, with an extra $500,000 to $1 million in revenues for O’Hare alone, up from the current level of approximately $20 million a year.

There’s good money in liquor, and if you drink enough, maybe the airlines and airports will be able to invest in a little customer service training …

China Airlines fined for price fixing

China Airlines is the latest carrier to get fined for price-fixing air cargo rates. The Taiwan-based airline plead guilty and now faces a $40 million fine. Northwest Airlines has also plead guilty.

A total of 18 airlines have been snared by the Department of Justice in an ongoing investigation. Eight airline executives have also been charged. The Department of Justice has imposed a total of $1.6 billion in fines and given four executives jail time for a conspiracy that reaches back to early 2000. China Airlines was conspiring with other airlines to fix cargo rates to and from the United States, a violation of antitrust laws. Rates are supposed to be subject to the free market, but the airlines secretly agreed to set a rate in order to maximize profits.

For a complete list of the airlines and executives involved, click here.

Could Apple fix airports?

Maybe this is exactly what we needed – someone from outside the aviation industry to fix it. With Apple‘s latest patent, iTravel, the company stands to make some cash on mobile payments and paperless ticketing, and it could alleviate the bottlenecks we rush into at so many points while traveling. New regs look like they’ll yield a substantial paperless boarding pass/check-in market, according to a post on SocialTimes, and Apple wants a big piece of it. Hell, Apple probably wants all of it – who could blame them?

Now, it appears there’s potential beyond merely taking paper out of tickets and boarding passes. Other reservations and rentals could be brought into the system, using an approach similar to the iPhone-based payment system adopted by Starbucks. The possibilities are endless, as suggested by the hypothetical proposed on SocialTimes:

Imagine this scenario: you visit an iTravel-enabled website (or via your iPhone), book a vacation package including hotel and car rental, with details downloadable to your iPhone, which in turn triggers information for the NFC chip. A barcode or QR code on your iPhone, displayed by the iTravel app, is scanned for your airplane boarding pass. You can check in your luggage yourself, at a special unmanned kiosk, and claim your luggage on arrival at a similar kiosk, thereby reducing wait times at carousels. You arrive at your hotel without manually checking in, go straight up to your room and wave your NFC-enabled phone near the NFC-enabled security plate, and voila, your door opens. Later, when you go to the check-in desk to ask about restaurants, your iPhone gets a push notification to join an ad hoc network (courtesy of Apple’s iGroups patent) which lets you see if any contacts you know might be nearby. You also get access to special coupon offers for transportation, if you decided not rent a car. You might even potentially be able to pay transit fees with your phone – something trialled successfully in various places around the world.

Apple may not own the travel market yet, but it certainly has the potential to seize a decent portion of it. If Apple were to launch an online travel agency and integrate it with a variety of device-driven services that make lines shorter and reduce frustration, it would be an unstoppable force in this business. To see how Apple could change the business, go visit your local Tower Records. Oh, right …

Flying for the rest of the year – fewer seats, higher fares

As the financial brainiacs of the world slowly start to see some gradual improvement in the global economy, the worlds airlines are pushing through some far reaching changes to their Q4 2009 schedules.

Because the recession hit the airlines so suddenly, none of them were able to make any major cuts to their schedules (these schedules are set in stone in advance).

Overcapacity has meant that 2009 was actually a very good year for passengers, with some of the lowest airfare we’ve seen in years.

Of course, now the airlines are looking at their new schedules, they are making sure that the overcapacity is a thing of the past, and that means trimming the schedule.

Obviously, fewer seats means more people fighting for the cheapest seats, which will naturally result in higher prices. The schedule cuts will bring airlines back to the levels post 9/11.

According to an AP report, American Airlines will be hit the hardest, with a 10.5% drop in passenger miles on its domestic routes. United Airlines is hit equally hard, with a 9% drop. It isn’t all bad news though – JetBlue expects a modest increase in passenger miles for the rest of the year.

Bottom line is – don’t expect any more amazing fare deals any time soon and think about booking early, because flights are probably going to be filling up pretty quickly.

(Image from Flickr, stevelyon)