Chinese, American airlines ramp up plans for US service

In the latest air travel developments, United and other carriers are planning to revive service to China from San Francisco and other gateways following that country’s decision to drop its most onerous entry restrictions; the U.S. and other nations impose new testing requirements on all travelers coming from China; American Express reopens its Centurion Lounge at San Francisco International after four months of renovations and expansion; Delta rolls out free Wi-Fi for all passengers next month; Southwest struggles to atone for its massive holiday operational blowout as it faces tough scrutiny from the Transportation Department and hearings in Congress; there’s domestic route news this week from United, Southwest, Alaska and Frontier; and Los Angeles International has a new sundries store that eliminates standing in line to pay for purchases.

After three years of extremely tough pandemic-related entry restrictions for international travelers, China is finally starting to reopen following its government’s decision last month to drop its controversial “Zero COVID” policy. As a result, United and other airlines are preparing to revive suspended routes into China — including some from San Francisco.

Starting Jan. 8, the Chinese government will end its mandatory five-day quarantine for inbound travelers (reduced late last year from 10 days), although it will still require a negative result from a PCR test taken no more than 48 hours before departing from home. The government will also reduce the previous limits on the number of international flights allowed into the country. Visas to China are required for travel there, and the government reportedly wants its reopening to be gradual, initially focusing on business travelers, students and Chinese nationals returning home rather than foreign tourists. 

Passengers walk out of the international terminal and greet family members at the SFO.

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Although traveling to China will be easier, flying back home will get tougher. China’s sudden reversal of its Zero COVID policy and revival of free internal movement for its citizens has led to an explosion of COVID cases among the population — in the hundreds of millions, according to some estimates. As a result, the U.S. this week started to require a negative COVID test result for passengers flying in from China or anyone arriving from a third country who has been in China during the previous 10 days. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also urging Americans to “reconsider travel to China, Hong Kong, and Macau due to the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases and limited health care resources.”

Other nations — including Canada, Australia, Japan and several European countries — have also imposed new pre-departure testing rules for passengers coming from China, and that policy has created some controversy. According to the Washington Post, a Chinese government spokesperson criticized the West’s newly imposed test requirements on inbound passengers from China and hinted at retaliation by saying China might take “corresponding measures.” The International Air Transport Association — a trade group of the world’s airlines — also criticized the new testing rules from those countries, noting that “the virus is already circulating widely within their borders. It is extremely disappointing to see this knee-jerk reinstatement of measures that have proven ineffective over the last three years.”

A Boeing 747-400 ready for departure to Hong Kong from SFO in May 2012.

A Boeing 747-400 ready for departure to Hong Kong from SFO in May 2012.

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United, which currently operates a few flights a week from SFO to Shanghai via a stop in Seoul, plans to revive nonstop service on that route effective March 25, operating two 777 flights a day from San Francisco International along with daily nonstops from LAX, Chicago O’Hare, and Newark. On the same date, United is due to revive daily Beijing flights from San Francisco and to bring back Beijing service from LAX, Newark and Washington Dulles. But booking a trip to China won’t be cheap in the early days after service resumes. We checked availability this week on SFO-Shanghai nonstops in Google Flights for early April and found economy class round-trips priced at more than $5,000 and premium economy seats at more than $14,000. 

Chinese airlines are also ramping up plans for U.S. service. Air China told the Transportation Department it wants to begin four flights a week between San Francisco and Beijing starting March 1 as well as three weekly flights from Washington Dulles to Beijing as of March 2. The airline will also boost its Los Angeles-Beijing schedule from one weekly flight to daily service. China’s Hainan Airlines plans to add three weekly flights to Beijing from both Boston and Seattle starting Feb. 17, along with three weekly Boston-Shanghai frequencies and two flights a week from New York JFK to Chongqing.   

Hong Kong, which recently ended its mandatory quarantine for inbound travelers, eased up its restrictions even more last week, dropping its requirement for several COVID tests after arrival, although a negative test result before departure from home is still required to enter the territory. United is planning to resume daily San Francisco-Hong Kong nonstops with a 777-300ER effective March 3.

Guests at Coi restaurant enjoy a first taste of chef Daniel Patterson's then-new menu for the Centurion Lounge at SFO in August 2016.

Guests at Coi restaurant enjoy a first taste of chef Daniel Patterson’s then-new menu for the Centurion Lounge at SFO in August 2016.

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After a four-month closure for renovations, the American Express Centurion Lounge at San Francisco International has reopened. The facility has almost doubled in size, to 16,000 square feet, so it now offers more seating as well as a second bar with “specialty wine flights” that will rotate seasonally and a new menu from executive chef Ravi Kapur of San Francisco’s Liholiho Yacht Club.

The lounge on the mezzanine level of Terminal 3 also got more restrooms, private phone rooms, and private workspaces. AmEx’s 40 Centurion Lounges at major airports are open to the company’s premium cardholders with a same-day boarding pass, including Centurion members, Platinum Card holders (regular, Business and Corporate), and Delta SkyMiles Reserve Card and Reserve Business Card members. Starting Feb. 1, AmEx said, qualifying Platinum cardmembers who want to bring a guest into the lounges will have to pay a $50 fee, although they will qualify for free access for up to two guests per visit if they spent $75,000 on their cards in the last calendar year. 

Fulfilling a years-old promise, Delta CEO Ed Bastian said at the big CES expo in Las Vegas this week that his airline will provide free in-flight Wi-Fi “to all customers” on most domestic mainline flights effective Feb. 1. Delta has been testing the free satellite-based Wi-Fi in the past few months, first for Medallion-level members of its SkyMiles loyalty program, and more recently for all SkyMiles members. The only other large U.S. carrier that provides free Wi-Fi is JetBlue, but Delta’s announcement will certainly put pressure on giant rivals like United and American to do the same. Delta said it will offer the new perk in partnership with T-Mobile, although passengers do not have to be T-Mobile subscribers to get it. The free Wi-Fi will be available on Delta aircraft equipped with Viasat satellite technology, whose numbers are gradually increasing, with more than 700 planes expected to have it by the end of this year.

Beyond that, Delta will expand the technology — and the free Wi-Fi — to its international and regional aircraft fleets in 2024, Bastian said. He said that in the spring, Delta also plans to introduce a new “Delta Sync Exclusives hub” for SkyMiles members. The company describes this as a “mobile platform … aimed at elevating the in-flight connectivity experience with exclusive offers, access and entertainment from beloved brands that are mainstays of everyday life.” Those brands will include Paramount+, Atlas Obscura destination guides, Resy restaurant guides and bookings, New York Times Games, and more.

Passengers lined up by the Southwest Airlines counter at SFO on Dec. 26, 2022.

Passengers lined up by the Southwest Airlines counter at SFO on Dec. 26, 2022.

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If you Google the term “Southwest Airlines Christmas meltdown,” you’ll find more than 2 million results documenting the worst week in that carrier’s history. Southwest has been under a media microscope in the past two weeks, with articles examining every aspect of the airline’s operations, corporate culture, business model, employee relations and more (including an analysis by SFGATE’s Silas Valentino) — not to mention scores of opinion pieces about how Southwest should be punished. The airline says it finally straightened out its operational fiasco with a network reset in the days before Jan. 1, so now it has shifted its priority to “atonement” mode — and with good reason. The Transportation Department has put Southwest on notice that it will be scrutinizing how effectively it handles passenger refunds, rebookings and lost luggage returns, with the threat of big federal fines hanging over the airline.  

DOT announced on Twitter that Southwest passengers who faced a flight cancellation or lengthy delay “regardless of reason” between Dec. 24 and Jan. 2 are entitled to a full cash refund unless they agreed to be rebooked. The agency said the refund should be made within seven days if the passenger paid by credit card or 20 days for other means of payment. DOT noted that the airline is also responsible for a passenger’s additional costs incurred by flight disruption, including meals, hotel accommodations and ground transportation. And the agency said Southwest should return lost bags to customers “as quickly as possible,” and would have to reimburse passengers up to $3,800 for bags damaged while they were in Southwest’s care.

Besides scrutiny from DOT, Southwest also faces oversight from Congress. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who chairs the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said her panel will hold hearings to investigate the causes of Southwest’s holiday flight disruptions and their impact on consumers.

Southwest said this week it is making “solid progress” on those matters. It said “nearly all” baggage that was delayed or misrouted during its Hell Week should now be delivered or on its way. It has also created a website where affected customers can fill out forms to request a refund, locate lost luggage and submit receipts for reimbursement of hotel, meal and ground transportation costs made necessary by flight disruptions. The airline said it is also offering “a tailored gesture of goodwill” by email to affected customers. According to The Points Guy, this includes 25,000 Rapid Rewards bonus points as well as an extension of A-List elite status for those who hold it and an extension of Companion Passes. 

All those problems at Southwest hit California residents especially hard because the airline dominates the market in seven of the state’s 10 busiest airports — including Oakland and San Jose in the Bay Area, as well as Sacramento. According to the New York Times, “Southwest’s highly publicized woes have rattled the confidence of travelers and commuters who rely on the airline to shuttle between Northern and Southern California. Despite mild winter weather, California’s medium-size airports had some of the worst cancellation rates in the nation last week because Southwest accounts for so much of their traffic.”

A wide-angle view of the Nashville downtown skyline.

A wide-angle view of the Nashville downtown skyline.

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In domestic route news, United Airlines this week ended its nonstop service from Los Angeles to Hilo on Hawaii’s Big Island — the only route from the continental U.S. to that airport, although other carriers offer plenty of inter-island flights to Honolulu and Maui from Hilo for onward connections to the contiguous U.S. Southwest Airlines this week discontinued its routes from Orange County Airport in Santa Ana to both Salt Lake City and Chicago Midway but introduced new daily service between Salt Lake City and southern California’s Long Beach Airport. Alaska Airlines on Jan. 9 plans to end its flights between Los Angeles International and Austin, a busy route also served by five other airlines. Frontier Airlines this week launched a big route expansion at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, adding service from PHX to Seattle, Kansas City, Nashville, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Indianapolis, with three or four flights a week on each route.

Did you ever have to stand in line for several minutes at an airport sundries store to pay for a candy bar and bottle of water? A new concession in Los Angeles International’s Terminal 3 is designed to eliminate that annoyance. It’s a store called Hudson Nonstop, using technology from Amazon that allows customers to make their selections and just walk out the door. “By inserting a credit card or hovering their palm over the Amazon One device, guests can enter the store, pick up their must-have travel essentials, food and beverage products, and local favorites, and then exit without stopping to pay,” LAX said. “As customers move through the store, cameras identify what products customers take off the shelves. Then as customers exit the store, their credit card is charged for the items selected.” 

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