United sets SFO-Hong Kong revival for March

In this week’s air travel news, Air India kicks off a new nonstop route from San Francisco, with another one coming in mid-December as India eases up on COVID-19 entry restrictions; United pushes back SFO-Bengaluru flights by several months but sets a March launch for resumption of San Francisco-Hong Kong service; US airlines turned in a good operational performance over the busy Thanksgiving week, with few cancellations; a European low-fare airline plans to compete on the busy New York-Paris route next year; Air Canada plans to drop San Jose-Vancouver service next summer, plus international route news from American, Icelandair, SAS and Hawaiian Airlines; Delta tries to reduce overcrowding at its Sky Club airport lounges with tough new restrictions on who can use them — and membership in the program will cost more; Frontier opens up its all-you-can-fly GoWild! Travel pass program for children; and Alaska Airlines starts distributing its electronic baggage tags to elite Mileage Plan members.

In the latest sign of a reviving trans-Pacific air travel market, Air India this week resumed service on a major long-haul route from San Francisco International to Bengaluru (Bangalore), the hub of the country’s thriving tech industry, operating three flights a week with a Boeing 777-200LR (long range). The airline also plans to add new service Dec. 15 between SFO and Mumbai, India’s financial hub, also with three 777-200LR flights per week. Air India’s SFO-Mumbai schedule is expected to increase from three flights a week to four starting in late March of next year. The carrier also flies to Delhi from SFO 10 times a week. Air India’s winter schedule to the US also includes a new route from New York JFK to Mumbai starting Feb. 14, supplementing its existing Newark-Mumbai flights.

Flying to India is easier now following the Indian government’s recent decision to ease up on COVID requirements for international visitors. According to Simple Flying, the government no longer requires foreign travelers to show proof they’ve been vaccinated (although it prefers that they are) and has dropped its rule that visitors must register their health status online through the government’s Air Suvidha portal before boarding a flight to India. The government is still recommending that air travelers wear masks in-flight, although they are no longer mandatory. India still warns that incoming travelers who show signs of COVID could be subject to isolation after arrival.

Flight attendants of Vistara’s Airbus A320neo pose at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi in this undated photo.


In related news, Air India and Vistara — the country’s two full-service airlines — are planning to merge by early 2024. Air India was acquired earlier this year by Tata Sons, a major conglomerate in that country, while Vistara is jointly owned by Tata Sons and Singapore Airlines. The latter company has a 49% stake in Vistara and will reportedly hold a 25.1% equity in the combined carrier.

United Airlines has also been planning to launch a new nonstop service from San Francisco to Bengaluru, but it has delayed the route several times and now has pushed it back once again, according to Simple Flying. Most recently, the airline had been targeting a March 24, 2023, start for the long-haul route, but now it has been pulled from the airline’s summer 2023 schedule and reportedly moved back to October of next year. Meanwhile, previous reports that United expected to resume San Francisco-Hong Kong flights as soon as January 2023 were a bit premature, but now the airline has reportedly put that route into its schedule beginning March 2. United plans to offer two flights a day between SFO and Hong Kong using 276-seat 777-200ERs.

A passenger carries a bag at the Newark Liberty International Airport on Nov.  23, 2022, in New Jersey.

A passenger carries a bag at the Newark Liberty International Airport on Nov. 23, 2022, in New Jersey.

VIEW press/Corbis via Getty Images

After US airlines subjected customers to unusually high levels of flight cancellations last summer, mainly due to labor shortages, the Transportation Department warned them repeatedly to get their act together — and by last week’s Thanksgiving rush, it looks like they did. From Nov. 20 through 27 — one of the busiest times of the year for air travel — US carriers canceled less than one-half of 1% of their scheduled departures. As usual, the level of flight delays was higher than the cancellation rate, including on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, when the delay rate hit 5.3% due to a series of storms in the eastern half of the country, but at least delayed passengers eventually got to their destinations. By the way, the number of passengers screened at TSA checkpoints on that Sunday (Nov. 27) exceeded 2.56 million — the highest number of air travelers in a single day since the pandemic began in 2020.

Last month we reported on JetBlue’s plans to add Paris as its second European destination next year, offering flights from New York JFK and later from Boston, although it has not yet announced start dates. But JetBlue will find another newcomer on that JFK-Paris CDG route. Norse Atlantic, the low-fare Oslo-based carrier, plans to launch daily 787 flights on that route starting March 26, supplementing its summer service from JFK to London Gatwick, Berlin and Oslo. JetBlue and Norse Atlantic will compete against six airlines already flying the JFK-Paris route.

In other international route news, Simple Flying got a look at Air Canada’s 2023 summer schedule starting in May and it seems that the carrier’s three daily regional jet flights between Vancouver and San Jose have been cut. San Diego-Vancouver will decrease from three flights a day to two, and Portland-Vancouver will drop from four a day to three. The French island of Martinique in the Caribbean once again has nonstop service from the US mainland as American Airlines has resumed its suspended flights from Miami. AA offers MIA-Martinique flights four days a week. Icelandair will add its 13th US gateway in May when it expects to begin seasonal service between Detroit and Reykjavik four days a week. SAS plans to start flying from New York JFK to Copenhagen five days a week on Feb. 9, increasing to daily service in the summer. Most of SAS’ New York-area operations are out of Newark Liberty International, since it is a partner in United’s Star Alliance. Need to get to the Cook Islands in the Pacific? Hawaiian Airlines said this week it will start flying there from Honolulu on May 20, with one flight a week to Rarotonga.

General view of the Delta Sky Club at Los Angeles International Airport in September 2022.

General view of the Delta Sky Club at Los Angeles International Airport in September 2022.

AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

Last week, we noted that Delta was planning to install express entry lanes for its busiest Sky Club airport lounges, offering preferred access to its most valued customers. But that’s only one small part of a major Sky Club overhaul the airline announced this week. Delta acknowledged what Sky Club members already knew: that the growing popularity of the clubs “has outpaced Club capacity — resulting in frustration for some customers who find themselves waiting in lines or searching for seating once inside.” So a host of new restrictions and rules will take effect next year. The biggest changes: Starting Jan. 1, Delta customers won’t be able to buy or renew Sky Club annual memberships unless they have elite-level SkyMiles status (Diamond, Platinum, Gold or Silver Medallion levels), and the annual membership fees will increase. Individual memberships, currently $545 or 54,500 miles, will rise to $695 or 69,500 miles; executive memberships increase from $845 or 84,500 miles to $1,495 or 149,500 miles. On Feb. 2, the cost of a Sky Club companion pass goes from $39 to $50.

Sky Club paid members won’t be allowed entry starting Feb. 2 if they’re flying on a basic economy ticket (unless they have access via an eligible American Express card). On the same date, Delta will no longer allow access to Diamond, Platinum or Gold Medallion elites traveling on international flights in the main cabin or Comfort+ seats unless they are paid Sky Club members or eligible for another reason (like the right credit card). Starting next month, Delta will offer an enhancement to its Fly Delta app that lets customers in Atlanta and Detroit see the current occupancy levels of Sky Clubs in those airports, in four categories ranging from “not busy” to “extremely busy.” “Expansion to include all Delta Sky Clubs is planned for the first half of next year,” the airline said.

Delta has opened four new Sky Clubs this year — at New York LaGuardia, Los Angeles International, Chicago O’Hare and Tokyo Haneda — and it has expanded its clubs at Boston and Nashville. In 2023, the airline plans to open new Sky Clubs at Kansas City International, Minneapolis-St. Paul’s Concourse G, New York JFK’s Terminal 4A and Newark Liberty International’s new Terminal A, and will expand clubs in Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson’s E Concourse, Miami International and Fort Lauderdale.

Alaska Airlines is the first US airline to launch an electronic bag tag program.

Alaska Airlines is the first US airline to launch an electronic bag tag program.

Courtesy of Alaska Airlines

Frontier Airlines has expanded access to its new GoWild! unlimited travel pass, now making it available to children under the age of 18. Children’s passes must be purchased by someone 18 or older; for children under age 13, the pass must be purchased by a parent or legal guardian. Passes are now on sale and are good for 12 months of unlimited travel on Frontier starting May 2, subject to restrictions (eg, numerous blackout dates when travel is not permitted, and confirmation of domestic flights only on the day before travel). Frontier is currently offering the 12-month passes for $799 through Dec. 12; it said the “retail and renewal price” is $1,999 a year. When passes expire, they are renewed automatically unless the buyer cancels.

This week, 2,500 elite-level members of Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan were the first customers to receive the airline’s new, reusable electronic bag tags. The tags enable users to tag their own luggage by loading their flight information into the device through the carrier’s mobile app before they get to the airport. Starting next year, the 3-by-5-inch tags will be available for purchase by any Alaska Airlines customer. “The Alaska Airlines electronic bag tag is estimated to reduce the time guests spend in airport lobbies by about 40%, including reducing lines and the use of paper bag tags. In addition to the device’s impressive lifespan and durability (Alaska Airlines employees tested it by running it over with a truck), the devices don’t require charging or batteries,” the airline said.

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