Chris Barnett on Business Travel
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California Dreams of Travel Alternatives
March 23, 2017 -- The world is turning upside down for California frequent travelers--and that world is good. Or, at least, better than it has been for a long time.

Bay Area construction executive Don DeBeaumont can dash from his desk to little-known Buchanan Field Airport in Concord and be aboard a $79 one-way flight to Burbank on an Embraer 135 flown by JetSuiteX, a public charter carrier. Elapsed time from desk to airline seat: 30 minutes.

Business travelers on the North Coast can cruise into the practically empty Charles M. Schulz Sonoma Airport in Santa Rosa, dash past Lucy's famed Psychiatric Help: 5 Cents booth and board a Horizon Air flight to five major West Coast cities. Flying from Sonoma County saves a two-hour commute and a bridge crossing to Oakland or San Francisco International on traffic-clogged US 101.

Later this year, the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) will launch diesel trains on newly laid track from Schulz Airport to San Rafael, about half way to SFO. Billed as "clean, green and quiet" and currently undergoing tests, the trains seat 300 and have drop-down seatback tables, free WiFi and AC power outlets. The 43-mile ride, extending to Larkspur in 2018, will eventually connect with existing ferry boats to San Francisco.

A rising tide of business travelers in the Golden State are scrambling for alternatives to pricey, packed planes; jammed big-city airports; long, slow security lines; and congested freeways. And the options are growing: not just planes from small, close-by airports and shiny, new trains, but buses, too.

In Santa Rosa, toy-like Sonoma County Airport not only has those daily Horizon Air flights, but other service, too. In February, American Airlines launched three daily regional-jet flights to its Phoenix hub. In mid-May, United Express will launch three daily regional jet flights to SFO, a 66-mile run. Sun Country launches the airport's first long-haul service in August when it adds a seasonal weekly flight to Minneapolis-St. Paul. Bare bones Allegiant Air also operates twice-weekly flights to Las Vegas.

"We had American Eagle and United Express here earlier, but both pulled out before 9/11," says airport manager John Stout, who notes Schulz also has six car-rental firms and a steakhouse and bar that's becoming a gathering place for Sonoma County's business barons.

More big news in the California skies? JetSuiteX. It has a fleet of ten Embraer 135 jets that once flew for American Eagle. The Irvine-based scheduled charter carrier has tarted up the interiors and removed seats. Now the aircraft seat just 30 passengers in a 1x2 configuration with 36 to 40 inches of legroom at each leather-covered chair. Onboard WiFi is free and there is AC power at every chair. Snacks and beverages are free. The planes fly to smaller airports around the state as well as Las Vegas and Bozeman, Montana. Flights start at about $79 each way.

JetSuiteX has a frequent flyer scheme that will be familiar to business travelers because JetSuiteX flights earn and burn JetBlue TrueBlue points. The promotional partnership isn't surprising. JetSuiteX founder Alex Wilcox is one of the founders of JetBlue and David Neeleman, JetBlue's creator and first chief executive, sits on the JetSuiteX board.

The appeal of JetSuiteX is its ability to fly those reconfigured and upgraded EMB 135s into smaller, more convenient California airports such as Concord and San Jose in the Bay Area, Burbank near Los Angeles and Cochran Regional in the Coachella Valley.

"I've had a great relationship flying Southwest out of Oakland to Burbank," says DeBeaumont, the construction company chief. "Their people are terrific." But he switched to JetSuiteX because it is "light years ahead of other airlines."

DeBeaumont claims he saves three hours a day booking JetSuiteX in Concord over driving, parking and trooping through Oakland International.

"They remember my name," DeBeaumont says of JetSuiteX. "They have even called and texted me to say 'Where are you? We're about to leave.' I say, 'I'm on my way. I'll be there in three minutes.' And I am."

Meanwhile, there are innovations for California and West Coast business commuters still tied to the traditional carriers. Almost a year ago, Delta Air Lines trumpeted a three-class "shuttle service" between Los Angeles, San Francisco and its Seattle hub. While it's not exactly a clone of its Northeast shuttle, Delta West has dedicated check-in counters and it does provide free food, drinks and newspapers in all three classes.

Still, Delta's West Coast shuttle doesn't match the hourly or better frequency of much-missed predecessors in the California Corridor such as PSA and Air Cal. And Delta's fares are depressingly high. With a 14-day advance purchase, SFO to LAX flights were quoted online at $442 roundtrip for coach, $470 for Comfort+ and $522 for first class. Delta competes in the California Corridor with as many as six other airlines: United, Southwest, JetBlue, Alaska, Virgin and American. None differentiate their California service and none have designated their flights as "shuttles," a term that doesn't mean as much as it once did.

Travelers who have sworn off the California skies don't have any "business buses" yet, but I recently discovered Amtrak motorcoaches. They run parallel to the Amtrak Coast Starlight train from Seattle to Los Angeles and are often speedier than the train.

I like riding and working on the Amtrak buses, but only when I can spread out on a table in the observation car. Regular assigned seats are crapshoots since there often are no drop-down trays where you can work.

Amtrak also runs trains from Union Station in Los Angeles to downtown San Diego with stops in Orange County and North San Diego County. It's a smart option compared to driving from Los Angeles to San Diego on perennially busy US 101.

This column is Copyright 2017 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Chris Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.