BIG Updates About The Future Of Alaska & Virgin America

Alaska’s takeover of Virgin America closed in mid-December, though we haven’t seen much in the way of integration so far. The two brands are very different, and their marketing campaigns have been based around that, acknowledging the differences between the brands, but arguing that “different works.”

One of the biggest remaining questions has been what the future of the Virgin America brand will look like. Will the entire airline be named “Alaska,” will they somehow run two brands side-by-side given their relative strengths, or…? They said they hoped to decide on that in early 2017, and it looks like they’ve now made those decisions.

Alaska has just shared a huge amount of information about the future of the combined airline. To sum it up, expect the Alaska brand and product to stick around, with a few small Virgin America elements.

So, what have we learned?

The Virgin America brand will disappear in 2019

The combined company will be adopting Alaska’s name and branding, and the Virgin America brand will be retired sometime in 2019. However, the combined airline will adopt many elements from Virgin America, including “enhanced in-flight entertainment, mood lighting, music and the relentless desire to make flying a different experience for guests.”

Alaska-Virgin-America

Virgin America planes will get more first class seats

Starting in late 2018, Virgin America planes will be equipped with an additional four first class seats. Presently Virgin America has eight first class seats per plane, while going forward they’ll have 12 first class seats. These seats will feature 41″ of pitch, “improved seatback storage pockets, cup holders, footrests, and personal power outlets throughout the cabin.”

New-Alaska-First-Class
Virgin America’s new first class

Unfortunately this is very bad news for Virgin America first class. Virgin America first class seats presently have 55″ of pitch, and are like old-style international business class seats. Going forward they’ll just have slightly more legroom than traditional domestic first class seats.

virgin-america-first-class
Virgin America’s current first class

Elite members will get free upgrades on Virgin America

Historically Virgin America hasn’t offered complimentary upgrades for elite members. That’s not surprising, given that they only have eight first class seats per plane, and it’s better than domestic first class on other airlines. As of late 2018, elite members will receive complimentary upgrades on Virgin America. That’s not too surprising, given that Virgin America’s first class is being brought in line with Alaska’s, and not the other way around.

Virgin America will get extra legroom economy seats

Alaska has been working on installing Premium Class seats on their planes, which are extra legroom economy seats with free drinks and snacks. Starting in late 2018, Virgin America planes will feature 18 Premium Class seats, with 35″ of pitch, and complimentary beer, wine, and cocktails.

alaska-premium-class
Alaska’s Premium Class

Virgin America’s Elevate program will be retired

In 2018, Alaska Mileage Plan will become the sole loyalty program for both Alaska and Virgin America. Alaska has said that the program will continue to be distance based rather than revenue based. This is very good news, as it’s “business as usual” for Mileage Plan.

A redesigned Alaska cabin is coming in 2018

In 2018, Alaska will debut a redesigned cabin with new seats and amenities.

But beyond that they’ll be making all kinds of branding updates. Over the next year, Alaska will be working to “create a warm and welcoming West Coast vibe throughout the guest journey.” In 2019 they’ll also introduce new employee uniforms.

Expect high-speed satellite wifi

Alaska will begin equipping their 737 fleet with satellite wifi starting in fall 2018, and both the Airbus and Boeing fleet should have satellite-equipped wifi by the end of 2019.

Free messaging is coming to Virgin America

Earlier this year Alaska introduced free messaging on their flights, where you can use your device to message people for free through Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and iMessage. This will be expanded to Virgin America planes in August 2017.

alaska-inflight-messaging

Food & drink changes

By June 2017, Alaska will allow first class passengers to pre-select meals before they fly. By early 2018, Alaska economy passengers will be able to pre-pay for their food before they fly. This will extend to Virgin America sometime in the future.

Alaska is opening lounges in New York and San Francisco

By early 2019, Alaska will be opening lounges in New York and San Francisco. On top of that, they’ll refresh their lounges in Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle.

Alaska-Board-Room-LAX-02
The Alaska Lounge LAX could use a refresh…

Bottom line

Ultimately this is exactly what I expected. It’s more or less business as usual for Alaska, except we’ll see a few “hip” touches to the product. Meanwhile Virgin America’s onboard product will be brought down to the level of Alaska’s.

On one hand it’s a shame that Virgin America’s superior first class is being eliminated, given that it was by far the best shorthaul first class in the U.S. As an elite member I still view that as a net positive, since I’ll take free upgrades to a mediocre first class over no upgrades.

Meanwhile Virgin America’s first class product has long been sup-bar in the New York to Los Angeles/San Francisco market, where other airlines have flat beds. Now they’ll have an even less competitive product in those markets. I have to imagine they’ll still consider installing some special product on those flights, as they really can’t compete with other airlines there.

What do you make of these Alaska & Virgin America updates?

Comments

  1. Unfortunately, Alaska remains a sub-par airline all-around.

    Delta is going to eat Alaska alive: the premium shuttle flights between SEA-SFO-LAX with 30 min cut-off, free snacks and alcohol.

    Internationally-configured lie-flats for transcons, but also SEA-JFK now. For tomorrow, 2/4 SEA-JFK flights have beds, and it goes to 3/4 next month. In summer, 4/5 flights!

    Free meals in coach for many ex-SEA routes. Most with IFE.

    Wi-fi and a/c power on nearly every plane.

    Alaska is going to lose whatever little premium traffic they had, and that’s particularly going to hurt for their inherited Virgin routes.

    99% of people don’t make their flying decisions based on frequent flyer programs. Doesn’t matter how good the Mileage Plan program is. No IFE, crappier First Class seats, no more order-on-demand. Those are the things that ex-Virgin fliers will notice.

  2. @keitherson — your last stat sounds fishy, even if it’s meant to be hyperbolic. SEA-SFO is a trivially short flight and I suspect a nontrivial number of passengers _will_ care about accruing miles and segments.

  3. Lucky, “presently” and “currently” do not mean the same thing. “Presently” means “in the near future,” not “now.”

    Also, you use the word twice in adjacent sentences.

    Love the blog, but this drives me nuts

  4. @Eliyahu — google’s infobox —

    pres·ent·ly
    ˈprez(ə)ntlē/
    adverb
    1.
    at the present time; now.

  5. @Eliyahu So does not using a period to end a sentence. Was their something else after nuts? I will never know. Correcting people on grammar is lame (yes I know the irony of me doing it right now).

    For the record look it up. PRESENTLY can mean BOTH right now or in the near future. Read a dictionary before you correct someone.

    As far as the story, a little disappointed that upgrades on Virgin for AS elites won’t start until 2018.

  6. @Eliyahu/@Jason, from dictionary.com…

    presently
    [prez-uh nt-lee]

    adverb
    1. in a little while; soon:
    They will be here presently.

    2. at the present time; now:
    He is presently out of the country.

    3. Archaic. immediately.

    So both definitions are correct. 🙂 I personally associate it more with definition #2.

  7. This stinks, and seems like a missed opportunity.

    First off, the Virgin ‘brand’ was much stronger and -way- more aspirational. I get there’s a licensing fee involved, but all things being equal that ‘Virgin’ logo next to a flight is going to command a premium, and that brand was that airline’s most valuable asset. They could’ve literally killed off the name ‘Alaska Airlines’ and most of the cities they serve wouldn’t miss it, -and- they’d have brand recognition as they expand to new cities.

    Second, it’s a missed opportunity to capitalize off of Virgin’s expectation for superior product. A slightly less-crappy Alaska cabin is a missed opportunity to leapfrog, say, JetBlue Mint, as both Virgin and Alaska’s products were due for a rethink in the transcon wars, and JetBlue Mint is coming (not soon enough) to Seattle. Even if it was years off (see: Polaris), it’d at least

    Third, Delta is pretty much getting ready for an all-out war with Alaska. While Alaska can hold their own operationally (which certainly matters), they don’t really have much going for them other than that good-ol-homey feel in terms of experience. I’m pretty sure Alaska flyers wish they could be in those gleaming SkyClubs instead of the cramped Alaska Boardroom. Delta’s a terrible airline, but they’re going to hit them hard luring both the cheapskate basic-economy Spirit Air flyers and the premium customers who would prefer a bed and widebody on a redeye flight. Alaska has no actual positioning against either of that.

    Fourth, I can’t imagine any Virgin America flyer looking at these changes as a positive in terms of experience. Good way to drive that revenue into the arms of the competition.

    Mileageplan is great though.

  8. For the record the west coast run (SEA to SFO and LAX) are major business runs, and Alaska has a more favorable plan for those. All Seattle-based business travelers I know have and love Alaska’s mileage plan.

  9. All of this just points to the tremendous opportunity that JetBlue missed when they couldn’t find a way to buy Virgin America.

    You had two airlines with complementary route networks, complementary fleets and phenomenally compatible brands – arguably the most flyer-friendly airlines in the US, and the two least enslaved by analysts and the short-term demands of Wall Street.

    Instead, we have a lot of fluffy language about how great all these changes will be as two wholly incompatible airlines merge in the name of eliminating competition. More choices for West Coast flyers! In-seat chat programs! Mood lighting! The only upside I see in this news release is that Alaska’s shamefully outdated lounges will get a refresh. Everything else is bad news dressed up with PR speak.

    This was about Alaska getting more access to SFO and LAX and very little else. It’s not as offensively bad as the Southwest-AirTran merger, but it’s close. Consumers lose again.

  10. I posted a reply to the blog over on Alaska, however I doubt the moderators, aka brown nosers in the PR dept, will approve it so I’ll post it here so it will live on in one form or another.

    It’s been interesting reading these comments, half of them are clearly written by Sangita’s spineless underlings. Just one look at Sangita and you can tell she should be designing Pullman Stagecoaches or igloos, not an airline of the future. Now for some hard truths. First, you won’t see Sangita, the room-temperature IQ Alaska CEO, or half of their board of directors still employed at Alaska come 2020. This bungled merger will wipe out most of the stock value and a lot of employee 401Ks. But maybe they can cry into their designer uniforms or something. Second, no premium Virgin flyer will stick with Alaska after this messy back alley abortion masquerading as an improvement. I personally have been Gold for many years, earned close to half a million elevate points, and will be going to JetBlue starting tomorrow. And if I want a stodgy Piece of Garbage 1970s throwback airline, there will still be plenty to choose from, no need to go with downgraded seats, lame music, and blue lights. While Alaska may have made a lot of money over the past 60 years taking advantage of unsophisticated Inuits, that’s not the Virgin customer base and shining blue lights in my eyes with garbage music isn’t going to cut it. Alaska is downgrading first while JetBlue is upgrading to larger A321s with trans-oceanic level private pods. All for less than Alaska will charge for their First class seats, which they probably got from the trash dumpster behind the hangar where Delta tossed their old seats during the last retrofit. So lets recap, Alaska buys Virgin, lies to the Virgin customers for over a year, and then when its all said and done, they spent $4Billion for the privilege to downgrade the interior and repaint the exterior of 10-year-old planes. Smart move Alaska. And once that’s done, the Virgin premium customers will be gone to JetBlue or Delta, the Virgin cost-conscious customers will be gone to whoever has the lowest price, and those that enjoyed the higher quality economy experience will realize it’s gone so will either migrate to low-cost customers or up to premium customers. Leaving Alaska with who, exactly? Disagree with me Sangita, well you’ve got access to my email below, call my bluff, see if I am the Gold customer I profess to be, ask me to email you a Mint reservation (happy to), give me your mailing address and I’ll send you my cut-up Alaska AND Virgin Credit Cards. You are a highly successful VP of Marketing, no reason to be scared of me. Let’s talk.

  11. @Lucky: there are more photos out on Alaska’s blog of the cabin and seats, which look quite nice compared with the one photo they included in their presser.

    Still, I shared my disappointment of this for the transcon flights with Alaska; bad news there, and hope they reconsider, unless they’ve actively decided not to compete in the premium market. There could be a strategy there, however misguided.

  12. Wait, so is Milage Plan taking on the Elevate partners? That would be amazing if Virgin Australia became a Milage Plan partner.

  13. So, are they keeping the Airbus fleet and just going to change the livery and cabins of the planes themselves to match AS’ existing Boeing fleet? I thought I’d read they were going to do away with the Airbus fleet since it was adding a logistical nightmare. Instead, it seems they’re spending a lot of money to “enhance” the Airbus fleet just to do away with the Virgin brand. Sounds like AS will now have two separate-but-sorta-equal aircraft floating around. That kind of detracts from the brand’s experience since it’ll be painfully obvious if you’re on an ex-Virgin aircraft.

  14. @Michael hey Michael have you considered being less autistic? airlines are a business, not a support group for whatever psychological problems you may have. if you are an unhappy customer, just LEAVE. airlines have thousands of passengers a day and don’t care about you.

  15. Not sure what Kietherson is smoking concerning his comment that AK Air is subpar I have flown AK Air 100s of times MVP Gold for many years. Never had a bad experience, good service, great award availability and the best mileage plan. AK Air consistently ranks in the top 3 of JD Powers survey. No comparison to Delta.

  16. What a shame… Virgin brand & product is a million times better & stronger than Alaska. I will also miss their killer $50 per ticket sales…Oh well…

  17. Let’s talk about the real issue here, when do we start earning American EQM’s for AS marketed flights on VX metal?

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