by John Webber
After months of speculation about the fate of the Virgin America Airways (since 2007 a perennially top ranked Best Domestic Airline) brand and product under Alaska Airlines ownership, Alaska’s management has finally decided: The Virgin America name will gradually disappear, but passengers’ many favorite Virgin features will migrate into Alaska’s aircraft – and vice-versa.
Alaska’s brand and logo will take over Virgin’s fleet and facilities over time, with the Virgin identity phased out by mid to late 2018. But the combined mainline fleet of Alaska’s 737s and Virgin’s Airbus planes “will adopt many of the brand elements that Virgin America enthusiasts love.”
Sangita Woerner Alaska Airlines’ VP of Marketing and Andrew Harrison, Chief Commercial officer, said that their goal, after Alaska Airline’s buyout of Virgin America last year, is to create “a warm and welcoming West Coast-inspired vibe.” Sir Richard Branson, Virgin’s Founder, couldn’t have said it any better.
FLEET: The fleet of the combined mainline carrier will be Airbus/Boeing for at least the next six years. Alaska plans to take ten Airbus A321 NEOS over the next two years. But this arrangement may not last forever. A spokesman told TravelSkills: “We are working through a process with both Boeing and Airbus to arrive at a decision later this year as to whether we will remain all Boeing or move forward with a duel fleet strategy for future purchases.”
SEATS/UPGRADES: Virgin’s eight-white-leather-seat First Class section will be retired. In its place Alaska will install 12 irst class seats. Virgin’s Main Cabin Select (premium economy) product will also go away, replaced by 18 of Alaska’s Premium Class seats. The new first class seats will have 41-inch pitch, footrests, personal power outlets, cup holders and more seatback storage space, while the 18-seat Premium Class section will have 35-inch pitch. Alaska has no plans to move to lie-flat seating on transcontinental flights. And upgrades will be more generous, Alaska said: “With 50 percent more premium seats being introduced to the Airbus fleet, elite loyalty members will enjoy the most generous complimentary upgrades in the industry. Mileage Plan MVP Golds and above are upgraded to First Class or Premium Class 75 percent of the time…Complimentary upgrades to first class on Airbus aircraft (something Virgin never offered) will debut for the first time ever in late 2019.”
LOUNGES: At San Francisco International’s Terminal 2, Virgin America’s Main Hub; Alaska Airlines will construct a completely new rooftop Alaska Lounge, which could include an outdoor deck. Looking at the renderings from SFO, I’m guessing the new Alaska Lounge will be on the opposite end of the structure that will contain the airport’s new observation deck, expected to open in 2019. In the meantime, Alaska is working on getting Alaska Lounge members access to American’s Admiral’s Club on the main floor of T2. (Right now, Alaska Airlines is in the International Terminal at SFO.) There will also be a new Alaska Lounge at New York JFK, but its location is TBD. Alaska also promises “refreshed and expanded” airport lounges by early 2019 in Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles.
INFLIGHT ENTERTAINMENT: Sangita said that Alaska is leaning toward pursuing a “bring your own device” strategy for inflight entertainment. She said passengers who don’t have their own device can get one onboard, distributed by flight attendants. Without seatback entertainment systems, Virgin’s famous (but kinda irritating) pre-flight safety video will also go by the wayside. Effective immediately, passengers on its Boeing aircraft can now stream Alaska’s in-flight entertainment catalogue of 200 movies and TV shows to their personal electronic devices at no charge, making permanent an innovation that started as a temporary promotion in January. This will be extended to Airbus aircraft via their Red entertainment system in August of this year.
CONNECTIVITY: Alaska will also install high-speed satellite Wi-Fi in its 737s starting late next year, followed by the Airbus fleet. “Both fleets are expected to be fully satellite-equipped by the end of 2019,” Alaska said. Whether or not Gogo will continue to provide inflight Wi-Fi for Alaska will be determined by this summer. Alaska said it will also extend its in-flight “Free Chat” feature to the Airbus fleet in August.
FOOD/DRINK: Virgin’s popular seatback food/drink ordering system will likely go away. “We are currently exploring a new way of doing this via passengers’ mobile devices instead,” said Sangita. Instead of unlimited free food and drink, Main Cabin Select will switch to the Premium Class policy of a free boxed meal and unlimited beverages. By June of this year, Alaska said, first class passengers will be able to pre-select meals before departure, and by early 2018, main cabin flyers will be able to prepay for meals before departure. Pre-ordering meals will be available for Airbus flights “sometime in the future.”
MOOD LIGHTING: Virgin’s famous deep purple mood lighting will fade away and be replaced by Alaska’s cool blue, which Sangita said is just as “modern, warm and welcoming.”
LOYALTY: Virgin’s Elevate Mileage program will disappear in 2018– all members will fold into Alaska’s Mileage Plan program. The best part about Mileage Plan is that it still rewards a mile flown with a mile earned, unlike other programs (including Virgin America’s) that reward based on how much money you spend. Alaska’s program will become even more generous with upgrades as more first and premium economy seats are added. Plus, Mileage Plan’s intricate web of partnerships provides access to 900 destinations worldwide. For now at least, it appears that Alaska will stick to its mileage-based program as a marketing tool that separates it from competitors. Will it last? Who knows…
“Do not go where the path leads, travel instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” @wbbrjp