December 2, 2023

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Southwest Airlines revises pricing for its in-flight Wi-Fi

In this week’s news, Southwest Airlines revises pricing for in-flight Wi-Fi; the Japanese low-cost carrier Zipair doubles down on its commitment to the Bay Area by planning to launch SFO service; the Transportation Security Administration reports hundreds of weapons were detected in carry-ons last year at several major airports but hardly any in the Bay Area; United has postponed the planned resumption of several routes to China until the fall; Mongolia’s small national airline wants to launch nonstop service to San Francisco; United and Air Canada plan shuttle-type service this summer between SFO and Vancouver as part of a big transborder buildup; two of the world’s largest airlines, including one in the U.S., have slashed their initial summer schedules; Air New Zealand brings a new economy seating option to its Los Angeles flights; low-cost Allegiant Air unveils new routes, including some in the western U.S.; facing government pressure, United and Frontier adopt new procedures to keep parents and kids seated together at no extra cost; Kansas City’s airport shuts down two old terminals and opens a big new one; and Chicago O’Hare revives post-security transfers between terminals.

The Transportation Security Administration said the number of firearms discovered in passengers’ carry-ons at airport checkpoints in 2022 hit a record of 6,542. Bay Area travelers, however, were extremely well-behaved in this regard, with minimal gun seizures, including a slight decline from the previous year. Through the 12 months of last year, TSA said, only 13 weapons were seized at San Francisco International, down from 27 in 2021; the comparable numbers for San Jose were nine in 2022 versus 11 in 2021, and for Oakland, 13 in 2022 versus 14 in 2021. At Sacramento International, TSA found 50 firearms last year versus 49 a year earlier. By contrast, the largest number of weapons seized last year was at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson with 448. Other airports in the top five included Dallas/Fort Worth (385), Houston Bush Intercontinental (298), Nashville (213) and Phoenix (196). In related news, TSA reported that at New Orleans International Airport last week, a 52-year-old passenger booked on a flight to Houston was stopped at TSA’s checkpoint when he tried to carry on a loaded assault rifle and 163 rounds of ammo. The gun was seized, and the traveler now faces a fine of up to $15,000.

A public affairs manager with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) demonstrates proper ways travelers can bring their firearms with them when they fly.

A public affairs manager with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) demonstrates proper ways travelers can bring their firearms with them when they fly.

The Washington Post/The Washington Post via Getty Images

In December, the Japanese low-cost carrier Zipair started flying to San Jose Mineta from Tokyo Narita; now, it’s doubling down on its commitment to the Bay Area by planning to launch San Francisco International service as well. A brief announcement from SFO this week provided no details on flight frequencies, fares or a specific starting date, saying only that the service would begin sometime this summer. Zipair is a wholly owned subsidiary of Japan Airlines that operates as a separate brand concentrating on the price-sensitive market. Its 290-passenger 787s include premium lie-flat seats with a 42-inch pitch and standard seating with a 31-inch pitch. Zipair also flies from Tokyo Narita to Los Angeles and Honolulu. Simple Flying observed that Zipair will face plenty of competition on its new route this summer, with United, Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways each flying from SFO to both Tokyo Narita and Tokyo Haneda airports.

A couple of months ago, United Airlines planned to revive several China routes this spring following that country’s decision to end its most onerous COVID-19-related entry requirements, which had almost completely shut down international arrivals. But now those hopes have faded, and United has put off the resumption of most service to China. The airline’s latest summer schedule update, effective from March 26 through late October, includes just one daily San Francisco-Hong Kong 777 flight and four weekly departures from SFO to Shanghai Pudong, increasing to daily service May 8. United recently eliminated the Seoul stopover on its SFO-Shanghai route, but it had previously planned to operate two daily nonstop flights in the market as of late March. Other United routes that are now suspended through late October “at earliest,” according to Aeroroutes, include SFO-Beijing, SFO-Chengdu, Los Angeles-Shanghai, Chicago-Shanghai, Chicago-Beijing, Washington Dulles-Beijing, and Newark to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Bloomberg News said United’s route suspensions were extended because “the two nations remain deadlocked over lifting Covid flight caps.”   

Meanwhile, the U.S. Transportation Department has granted a request from Airlines for America — the leading industry trade group — to extend “slot waivers” through the summer for certain routes to Asia. Without the extension, carriers would have to operate at least 80% of their normally scheduled flights from busy slot-restricted airports or lose those rights. The exemption from slot waiver rules applies to routes to Tokyo Haneda Airport and cities in mainland China. 

In other Asia route news, Cathay Pacific’s latest summer update provides for daily A350 flights between Hong Kong and San Francisco, increasing to eight flights a week as of Aug. 1; and nine weekly departures from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, gradually increasing to 12 weekly frequencies by Aug 1. Meanwhile, Singapore Airlines plans to stop flying to Vancouver — its only route to Canada — in October due to weakening demand.

A view from the statue of Genghis Khan in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, on April 4, 2022.

A view from the statue of Genghis Khan in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, on April 4, 2022.

Anadolu Agency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Are you looking for an easy way to get from San Francisco to Mongolia? It sounds like a story from the airline industry equivalent of The Onion, but View From the Wing reports that MIAT Mongolian Airlines has started filing papers with the U.S. Department of Transportation for rights to fly nonstop from San Francisco to its capital city of Ulaanbaatar (previously spelled Ulan Bator). The airline reportedly plans to acquire a second 787 next year to use on the proposed route, but it can’t fly anywhere in the U.S. until the Federal Aviation Administration gives Mongolia a Category 1 safety rating, and there’s no word on when or if that might happen.

View From the Wing notes that there has never been a nonstop passenger flight between Mongolia and the U.S. and that the passenger market isn’t large enough to support such service. Why do it? “As a state-owned carrier, [the airline’s] interests aren’t strictly in earning a profit on air service,” View From the Wing observed. “As an airline this route seems absolutely nuts. Instead, it should be viewed largely from a geopolitical standpoint, enhancing Mongolia’s relations with the United States by making the two countries more connected.”

Joint business partners United and Air Canada said they plan to increase their combined transborder capacity by 20% this summer, operating more than 260 flights a day, including 80 transborder codeshare routes. As part of that cooperative schedule, the two carriers will offer a shuttle-type service between San Francisco International and Vancouver, with 11 daily departures in both directions. From SFO, flights will depart from 6:45 a.m. to 9 p.m. The expanded joint schedule also provides for seven daily flights between Los Angeles International and Vancouver, 13 a day between Chicago O’Hare and Toronto, 16 a day between Newark and Toronto, and nine a day between Vancouver and Newark. In addition, United will introduce service between Washington Dulles and Calgary, and Air Canada will begin a new route between Vancouver and Dulles, both starting at the beginning of June.

Remember last summer how major airlines sometimes removed hundreds or thousands of flights from their schedules after they realized they didn’t have enough staff to handle them all, contributing to the season’s air travel chaos? Well, we’re starting to see something similar happening for the 2023 peak season. This time, however, the schedules are being downsized a lot earlier, giving the customers with reservations on those flights more time to get rebooked or arrange for a refund. According to Simple Flying, American Airlines has removed nearly 50,000 departures from its summer schedule, most of them in June and July. That might seem like a lot, but when you consider that American operates about 5,500 flights a day during peak season, and the cuts are spread over five months, it’s really not that much. “According to the airline, this is standard as it finalizes schedules closer to the upcoming season,” Simple Flying said.

A passenger yawns while waiting in a very short line to check in at Southwest Airlines on Dec. 9, 2022.

A passenger yawns while waiting in a very short line to check in at Southwest Airlines on Dec. 9, 2022.

Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

In Europe, meanwhile, Germany’s Lufthansa has had some big problems in recent days, including a shutdown of all its flights Feb. 15 after workers accidentally cut a critical underground computer data cable near Frankfurt Airport and a full-day strike by German airport workers Feb. 17 that caused the cancellation of more than 1,300 flights. And labor issues — specifically staff shortages at the airline — have now led Lufthansa to cancel more than 30,000 flights from its summer schedule, especially from its Frankfurt and Munich hubs. The airline said it has already started to inform passengers who have reservations on the affected flights so they can be rebooked with minimum inconvenience to their travel plans.

Air New Zealand is introducing a new seating option on its Los Angeles-Auckland route, available starting Feb. 27. Economy Stretch seats — in the first four rows of economy on the airline’s 777s — provide a 35-inch pitch, or up to 39% more legroom than the standard economy seat. The new seats carry a $109 surcharge one way. Air New Zealand has been quite innovative with its economy cabin, introducing a Skycouch product a few years ago that lets a whole row of economy seats be converted into a couch. Next year, it plans to roll out Economy Skynest, six “sleep pods” in the economy cabin for long-haul flights. 

In domestic route news, low-cost Allegiant Air announced several new routes in secondary markets beginning this spring, including some in the western U.S., all with twice-weekly service. May 26, Allegiant will start flying from Phoenix to Asheville, North Carolina; in mid-June, it will add flights from Los Angeles to Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Denver to Allentown, Pennsylvania; Portland to Appleton, Wisconsin; Austin to Omaha, Nebraska; Las Vegas to Lexington, Kentucky; and Chicago Midway to Provo, Utah. 

As Southwest Airlines continues to improve its in-flight Wi-Fi services, including adding a second vendor for new aircraft, the carrier this week overhauled its Wi-Fi pricing for customers. Previously, passengers could purchase an all-day Wi-Fi pass for $8, but now the service will cost them $8 per flight segment. The price change will not affect most Southwest customers, since they take single point-to-point flights rather than making connections. The airline noted that its in-flight entertainment portal for customers who use their own electronic devices will still be free. 

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks to the press in the South Court Auditorium at the White House complex Feb. 16, 2023, in Washington.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks to the press in the South Court Auditorium at the White House complex Feb. 16, 2023, in Washington.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In his State of the Union address this month, President Joe Biden said his administration wants to get rid of so-called “junk fees” that many companies impose on consumers, and he singled out the airline industry — especially seat-selection fees that make travelers pay extra for their family members to sit together, which he said could amount to $50 roundtrip. “Baggage fees are bad enough,” Biden said. “Airlines can’t treat your child like a piece of baggage.” And airlines are starting to respond to the criticism.

United Airlines this week announced a new family seating policy “that makes it easier than ever for children under 12-years old to sit next to an adult in their party for free — including customers who purchase Basic Economy tickets.” The airline said it has developed a new seat map feature that “dynamically” locates available adjacent seats at the time of booking. “The online seat engine first reviews all available free Economy seats and then opens complimentary upgrades to available Preferred Seats, if needed,” United said. Passengers traveling with kids under 12 “will start to see more adjacent seat options immediately,” and the full policy will take effect next month, the airline said. If adjacent seats aren’t available before departure, customers will be able to switch flights at no charge — even if there is a fare differential between the original and new flights. The new policy doesn’t apply to Polaris, First Class or Economy Plus seating.

A day after United’s announcement, Frontier Airlines said it has made improvements to its system “over the past several months” to make sure a child will be seated with “at least one responsible adult in their party.” As a result of those changes, Frontier said, “at least one parent will automatically be seated with any children within their family group who are under the age of 14. At no additional charge, the airline automatically assigns seats based on family members’ ages before the check-in window opens.”

Carlos Dunlap of the Kansas City Chiefs waves a flag as the team arrives at Kansas City International Airport on Feb. 13, 2023, in Kansas City, Missouri.

Carlos Dunlap of the Kansas City Chiefs waves a flag as the team arrives at Kansas City International Airport on Feb. 13, 2023, in Kansas City, Missouri.

Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

After four years of planning and construction, Kansas City International Airport will cut the ribbon on a new single terminal building linked to two new concourses with a total of 39 gates Feb. 28. Like most new airport projects, the terminal and concourses have floor-to-ceiling windows, and the 39 gates will have glass passenger boarding bridges, making the new airport “the largest all-glass facility in the United States,” officials said. Of the airport’s existing three terminals — A, B and C — Terminal A was already closed, and B and C will shut down Feb. 27. The new $1.5 billion terminal will have upper- and lower-level roadways to reduce congestion, as well as an adjacent parking garage that holds 6,300 cars. A consolidated security checkpoint will screen all passengers, and airport officials say the new terminal will be the first in the U.S. to offer wireless electric bus charging. More than 80% of the terminal’s concessions will come from local Kansas City vendors, and the facility will feature an extensive collection of public art installations. 

Got a connection at Chicago O’Hare that requires you to get to or from Terminal 5, where many international flights operate? The Chicago Department of Aviation plans to revive post-security bus transfers March 1 to Terminal 5 from Terminals 1 and 3 and vice versa. The secure airside bus service has been suspended for the past three years. Without it, travelers switching terminals had to use the Airport Transit System people-mover, which required them to exit the secure area and get rescreened at their connecting terminal. The bus service will use two routes and operate every 15 minutes from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. One route runs between Gate B1 in Terminal 1 and Gate M13 at Terminal 5. The other operates from Gates G17 and K20 in Terminal 3 to Gate M13 at Terminal 5.