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United, Alaska change miles plans just as summer travel kicks off

In this week’s news, airlines and airports are bracing for big crowds next weekend as the summer travel season kicks off; San Francisco International Airport says it expects to handle twice as many travelers May 26 as it did earlier in the month; a federal judge rules that American Airlines and JetBlue must end their Northeast Alliance; AAA predicts passenger numbers next weekend will jump 11% over last year’s levels; two foreign carriers revive SFO routes; United resumes nonstop service to a major European destination; more international route news comes from Delta, Ethiopian Airlines and Norse Atlantic; Alaska Airlines will expand at the Orange County airport later this year, and additional domestic route news comes from United, Frontier and JSX; Hawaiian Airlines reveals interiors of its new 787 Dreamliners; United award travel to Europe just got more expensive; Alaska frequent flyers can no longer earn 100% of miles flown for all fares; Southwest quietly raises the top price for Early Bird Check-In; new concessions open at San Jose Mineta International Airport; and a new deal between Dallas Fort Worth International Airport and American provides for billions of dollars in improvements, including a new sixth terminal.    

Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start of the summer travel season, and it will also serve as a stress test for the airline industry. After last summer’s operational difficulties — marked by periodic problems with disruptive flight cancellations, delays and lost baggage — major airlines have been promising things will be better this summer, as they rushed to hire and train thousands of new employees in time for the peak travel season. With summer 2023 passenger numbers widely expected to match or beat the pre-pandemic year of 2019, airlines will have to prove they’re up to the task, especially since the Transportation Department has put them on notice that it will be closely watching their performance — and their treatment of passengers when something goes wrong.

San Francisco International Airport said it reached “a post-pandemic milestone” May 11 and 12, “exceeding 70,000 departing passengers per day through its checkpoints for the first time in over three years.” And for the coming summer, it is predicting the highest passenger numbers since the pandemic started. At the start of Memorial Day weekend on Friday, May 26, SFO expects to handle 140,000 passengers, and it is forecasting a total of 14.9 million from Memorial Day through Labor Day, or about 85% of summer 2019 levels. “Passengers traveling during the summer season are strongly encouraged to arrive at the airport at least two hours prior to departure for domestic flights and three hours prior to departure for international flights,” SFO said. Travelers are also encouraged to use public transit or ride-hailing services to get to the airport; those who plan to drive there should book a parking space in advance at parking.flysfo.com, the airport said, since garages are likely to fill up. 

A federal judge ruled Friday that American Airlines and JetBlue must end their Northeast Alliance, a partnership by which they coordinate schedules and routes in the New York and Boston markets and also code-share on a number of flights. The alliance had been challenged by a Justice Department antitrust suit on the grounds that it impedes competition. According to Reuters, U.S. District Judge Leo Sorokin said in his decision that the two airlines “act as one entity in the northeast, allocating markets between them and replacing full-throated competition with broad cooperation.” He said the effects of the alliance “resemble those of a merger of the parties’ operations within the northeast,” and gave them 30 days to end their partnership. The alliance had been approved by the Transportation Department under the Trump administration, but it had become an antitrust target under the tougher standards of the Biden administration. The Biden Justice Department has also filed suit to block JetBlue’s planned acquisition of Spirit Airlines.

Amid a busy getaway travel day for the Memorial Day weekend, travelers hug goodbye at LAX on Friday, May 28, 2021.

Amid a busy getaway travel day for the Memorial Day weekend, travelers hug goodbye at LAX on Friday, May 28, 2021.

Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

AAA’s annual Memorial Day weekend travel forecast said the number of airline travelers for the period is expected to increase by 11% over last year to a total of 3.4 million. “Air travel over the holiday weekend is projected to exceed pre-pandemic levels, with 170,000 more passengers — or 5.4% more — than in 2019,” AAA said. “Despite high ticket prices, demand for flights is skyrocketing. This Memorial Day weekend could be the busiest at airports since 2005.”

Two more foreign airlines are reviving service to SFO. Australia’s Qantas is due to resume SFO flights to Sydney on May 22 after suspending them for three years due to COVID-19. The airline is initially planning to fly the route three days a week (Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays), with a 787 departing at 10:25 p.m. from SFO, arriving in Sydney two days later at 6:05 a.m. (Note: It doesn’t take two days to fly there; it takes a little over 13 hours, but crossing the international date line westbound overnight vaults you ahead in time.) The SFO-Sydney route is also served by United. Over the Atlantic, Spain’s Iberia this month resumed seasonal service from SFO to Madrid, using an Airbus A330-200 to operate three flights a week (on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Mondays). The Iberia flights — the only nonstops between the two cities — are due to continue through Oct. 27. Iberia has also started flying between Madrid and Washington Dulles, with four weekly departures. 



Another international service revival at SFO is coming next week from United, which has set May 25 for the resumption of daily flights to Rome, providing the only nonstop service in that market until July 1, when the Italian airline ITA is scheduled to begin flying between the two cities. United’s summer schedule includes the addition of some other routes to Europe beginning May 25, including daily flights from Chicago O’Hare to Shannon, Ireland; from Washington Dulles to Berlin, Germany; and from Chicago to Barcelona, Spain. On the same date, United will add a second daily flight from Newark to Edinburgh, Scotland, continuing through Oct. 27. 

In other international route news, May 25 is also the date for Delta to resume daily flights from its New York JFK hub to Berlin, to add a third daily seasonal flight from JFK to Rome and to Paris, and to begin seasonal service from its Atlanta hub to Edinburgh, operating five days a week. Also at New York JFK, Ethiopian Airlines plans a May 23 start for service to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, with an onward connection available to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Norse Atlantic Airways will begin flying to London Gatwick from Orlando four times a week May 25 and from Fort Lauderdale three times a week starting May 26.

An aerial view of the business district of Le Plateau in Abidjan, along the southern Atlantic coast of Ivory Coast.

An aerial view of the business district of Le Plateau in Abidjan, along the southern Atlantic coast of Ivory Coast.

Andia/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In U.S. route news, Frontier Airlines is about to start flying its second new route out of San Francisco International this month. Two weeks ago, the low-cost carrier introduced daily flights from SFO to Orlando, and May 21, it will add daily flights from SFO to Chicago’s close-in Midway International Airport. Alaska Airlines plans to add two new winter routes from Southern California’s Orange County airport in Santa Ana later this year, introducing daily flights to Tucson, Arizona, and to Bozeman, Montana, beginning Dec. 14. On the East Coast, The Points Guy reports that United Airlines will drop New York’s Westchester County Airport from its network June 30, eliminating its only remaining route there — to Chicago O’Hare.

The site also noted that Frontier Airlines on July 2 will pull out of New York’s Stewart International Airport, about 70 miles north of Manhattan, terminating Stewart-Orlando service — its last route out of the upstate airport. But Westchester County Airport will get some new service June 22 when regional carrier JSX introduces new routes there. JSX, which operates 30-passenger regional jets configured with business class-type seating and amenities, will start flying from Westchester to Portland, Maine; Nashville, Tennessee; and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. It will also start new service from Nashville to Dallas Love Field and to Destin, Florida.  

Hawaiian Airlines unveils its Boeing 787 Dreamliner cabin design, including the lavish Leihoku suites.

Hawaiian Airlines unveils its Boeing 787 Dreamliner cabin design, including the lavish Leihoku suites.

Courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines

Hawaiian Airlines this week revealed plans for the interiors of its new Boeing 787-9s, which will start flying on some mainland routes early next year. The 300-passenger aircraft will feature a new premium cabin consisting of 34 Leihoku suites in a 1-2-1 layout. They’ll have privacy doors (although adjoining middle seats can be combined for couples), lie-flat seats, 18-inch video screens, wireless charging and personal outlets. The main cabin’s 266 seats will include 79 “Extra Comfort,” seats with extra legroom and access to AC power outlets. All main cabin seats will have 12-inch video monitors, along with USB-A and USB-C charging ports, and will feature a new design that “maximizes seat space” and “offers more shoulder and hip room,” Hawaiian said.

Planning to use some of your hard-earned United MileagePlus miles to score a long-delayed trip to Europe this summer? If so, it’s going to cost you. The One Mile at a Time blog reported this week that United just made “a no-notice mileage devaluation” for transatlantic award travel. Like other major carriers, United no longer publishes an awards chart, so One Mile at a Time looked up award trip costs for a number of European journeys and found that the mileage cost of the lowest-level “saver” awards has increased by an average of 30%. It said one-way transatlantic award travel that used to start at 30,000 miles in economy and 60,000 in business class now starts at 40,000 and 80,000 miles, respectively — an increase of 33%. And don’t look for a better deal on United’s Star Alliance partner airlines. “Partner awards have similarly been devalued,” One Mile at a Time said. “For example, one-way saver transatlantic awards for travel on partner airlines used to start at 30,000 miles in economy and 70,000 miles in business class. Those costs have increased by 39-47%, as these awards now start at 43,900 miles in economy and 97,100 miles in business class.”

One Mile at a Time also reported a big change in Alaska Airlines’ mileage plan this week: Customers who buy the carrier’s Saver fares (X class fares, or the equivalent of basic economy, i.e., the lowest fares available) will no longer earn 100% of miles flown. Instead, their earning rate has been slashed to just 30%. “This applies to both redeemable and elite qualifying miles, so it’s quite the devaluation,” the site said. “Alaska has long marketed how you earn at least one mile for every mile flown, but that’s no longer the case. It’s the end of an era for mileage programs in the United States, as there are no longer any programs awarding 100% miles for all fares.”  

People line up based on boarding group numbers to board a Southwest Airlines flight at Oakland International Airport on Jan. 5, 2020. 

People line up based on boarding group numbers to board a Southwest Airlines flight at Oakland International Airport on Jan. 5, 2020. 

Smith Collection/Gado/Gado via Getty Images

Southwest Airlines this week raised the top price for its popular Early Bird Check-In product, which lets customers buy a coveted spot in the airline’s A1-A15 boarding positions. Top priority for those positions — which let users get on the plane ahead of everyone else and thus have the best choice of seats — automatically goes to passengers who buy Business Select fares, followed by Southwest A-List or A-List Preferred elite members. Any that are left over for a given flight are available to Early Bird Check-In buyers, and they can be purchased at the time of online check-in. The special boarding positions are dynamically priced (they vary by flight length and passenger demand), and they used to cost $30 to $60. But the View From the Wing blog, citing an internal Southwest memo, said the highest price point for Early Bird Check-In is now $80. 

San Jose Mineta Airport has cut the ribbon on two new concessions operated by WSE Group, both located in Terminal B. Runway Deli offers “on-the-go meals, grab-and-go snacks, and made-to-order sandwiches,” the airport said, and the new Jamba Juice location provides fresh-squeezed juices and smoothies

Dallas Fort Worth International Airport was planning a major capital improvements and expansion program before it was derailed by the pandemic, but now everything is back on track. The airport announced it has entered into a new 10-year lease agreement with American Airlines. According to DFW, the deal with American — which has its biggest hub at the airport — provides for $4.8 billion in “pre-approved capital investments,” including the construction of a new Terminal F (the airport’s sixth terminal), a major overhaul of Terminal C and the addition of more gates to existing terminals. The projects will make American an even more dominant presence at DFW and will enable it to expand operations there in the years ahead. The new Terminal F at DFW will feature a 15-gate concourse, while Terminals C and A will get new piers with a total of 24 more gates.