Alaska And Virgin America Are Swapping Planes On Some Routes, And It’s Problematic

Update: Here’s what Alaska is doing for those passengers impacted by this cross-fleeting change; they’re truly going above and beyond.

While Alaska’s takeover of Virgin America formally closed late last year, so far it has more or less been business as usual for customers. Typically it’s 1-2 years after an airline merger closes when customers are most impacted, as the airlines align policies. This applies to their onboard products, frequent flyer programs, schedules, etc.

A few weeks ago we learned about Alaska’s plans for Virgin America. Essentially, the Virgin America experience will be discontinued, including their superior first class product, frequent flyer program, etc. However, it’s going to be several years before those changes are fully implemented.

Now we’re starting to see the two airlines swap planes on some routes. The airlines have very different fleets — Virgin America exclusively has Airbus A320-family aircraft, while Alaska has 737s, along with some regional jets. So they can now do a better job of flying the right size plane on the right route.

virgin-america-a320

Unfortunately this also has some potentially negative implications for their onboard products. Reader Michael shared how he booked Virgin America first class from Dallas to New York for later this year, and just got a notification that his flight was swapped to an Alaska regional jet.

Yesterday Alaska announced some service expansion and changes as they relate to Dallas Love Field, and as part of that, they’ll be operating Alaska regional jets between Dallas and New York, rather than Virgin America planes.

Alaska Skywest airplane

The problem is that people who booked a Virgin America first class seat, featuring 55″ of pitch, will instead find themselves in a regional jet first class product instead, which simply doesn’t compare.

virgin-america-first-class

Alaska isn’t even trying to charge the same for first class, because they know the product isn’t as good. Previously Virgin America charged a minimum of $399 for first class on the route, one-way.

Virgin-Flight-1

Meanwhile Alaska’s standard first class fare once they take over the route seems to be $269, which is $130 cheaper.

Virgin-Flight-2

Michael explained that he called Alaska and was told there was nothing that can be done, and that they wouldn’t even issue a credit for the fare difference. Virgin America’s contract of carriage also permits this type of a change:

Virgin America may, without notice, substitute alternate carriers or aircraft and, if necessary, may alter or omit stopping places included in the Guest’s original flight itinerary.

While cross-fleeting is common following airline mergers, I hope Alaska approaches this more carefully than other airlines have in the past. Unlike other airlines, there’s a big difference between the first class products on Alaska and Virgin America. The airlines recognize that, because they don’t offer complimentary upgrades to elite members on Virgin America planes, while they do on Alaska planes (that will change eventually, as they reconfigure Virgin America planes).

So they also shouldn’t be able to just swap planes and leave Virgin America first class flyers on an inferior, lower priced product.

If they’re going to cross-fleet more, hopefully they develop a system to address this.

About lucky

Ben Schlappig (aka Lucky) is a travel consultant, blogger, and avid points collector. He travels about 400,000 miles a year, primarily using miles and points to fund his first class experiences. He chronicles his adventures, along with industry news, here at One Mile At A Time.

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Comments

  1. I would be mighty pissed. He should keep going up the chain. Is this F class fare non-refundable? Could he just cancel and rebook at the cheaper fare?

  2. I would assume there should be good chances to dispute this, if he booked with an airline that has exactly one type of aircraft it should be obvious that an equipment swap is not something a customer should reasonably expect, no matter what the contract states.

    On Alaskas side this is just really poor and probably will cost them more dollars in the long run than they ‘scam’ from people who booked the virgin fare.

  3. Honestly I dont think this is really that horrendous nor that it will impact that many people. They announced the LGA changes as of August 27, and the DCA changes as of February 18 next year. This will impact relatively few people. Feel bad that those few people who actually booked tickets for these flights this far in advance will be negatively impacted, but that’s the way things work. I’d be surprised if this impacts more than a few hundred people at most.

  4. @ Jason — Oh, I agree this specific change won’t impact that many people, but this is only the start of their cross-fleeting. Given what a common practice this is during a merger, I suspect this will be done on much more important routes and with less notice in the coming years. Just something they should be aware of, in my opinion, given that they’re selling the cabins in different ways (one allows upgrades, the other doesn’t, etc.).

  5. I know the CoC talks about aircraft swap and blah blah blah, but is there any legal recourse to classify this as a Bait and Switch? Especially if the ticket was purchases prior to the closing of the deal wherein you’ve purchased expecting a certain level of service but situations beyond your control but certainly within control of the airline forces you into a lower standard of service? As mentioned by BenBen, Virgin has exactly one type of F product, so it’s not a crap shoot as to what you’ll get. This sounds sketchy and I’d be interested to know if there’s something he could truly do.

  6. I’m planning to use the Virgin First Class LAX-BOS for an award trip next Spring.

    Hoping they keep that route!

  7. Two things in his favor possibly – what DOT regs allow for cancelling flight due to equipment swap (or their own CoCs) AND the fact that there is still no single operating certificate (which brings into question switching the plans and effectively, a different carrier during normal ops.)

    He should file a complaint with the DOT regardless, and HUCA to deal with this ticket. Maybe his credit card would protect him via a dispute too.

  8. Alaska: “What are you trendy hipster millennial fliers upset about? You’ve still got your fancy mood lighting!”

    I’d wager he has a good case to escalate this- it’s not just the same service on a different aircraft, it’s a completely different experience altogether. Excluding transcons, Alaska has the worst domestic first class by far, whereas Virgin has the best. Alaska’s food and catering is perhaps the worst in the industry (then again, AA is pretty bad), their seats have about as much legroom as JetBlue coach, they don’t have any IFE, And uh, heaven forbid if you want a friggin blanket or pillow. Hell, I’d be pissed if I was him and booked a coach ticket- he’s losing out on the far superior IFE, the comfier seats, better food offerings, etc.

  9. VX doesn’t charge cancellation fees on F tickets.

    https://www.virginamerica.com/cms/vx-fees

    So cancel the ticket, rebook, difference is fare credit in travel bank.

    Or are you saying this guy’s gripe is he bought a nonrefundable ticket and he can’t get a refund? To which my response is “duh?”

    What am I missing here?

  10. Hi all, I am the Michael from the article.
    Alpha that was my gripe exactly…
    What I had to do was cancel the booking with Virgin America, it was a first class booking and at first they wanted to put it in the travel credit but I said that wasn’t acceptable, then they said they would be refunding to my credit card, but would take up to 30 days…for something that would or should only take about 1 day.

    Now you are correct in that it would at this point impact only those that have booked out fare ahead, I knew I was going to be in Dallas for an event and would need to be back in New York as I am flying out to Australia a few days later on Singapore Airlines awesome a380 suites.

    For me it easy I will get my money back ( 30 days I guess ) and I will fly with another airline, I just don’t like the e175,It wasn’t what I booked and it wasn’t what I paid for.

  11. Wait, so your actual gripe at the end of the day is that they changed service (which is something they have a right to do) but you weren’t going to get a refund to your credit card within 24 hours? Not that they wouldn’t refund you at all?

    Lucky, you seriously mischaracterized this person’s issue by saying “nothing can be done”- they got refunded. Wow. Maybe you should try getting the whole story before publishing blog entries. This is Chris Elliott-style sensationalism here.

  12. @kiwicanuck:

    In other words, something can be done in this situatio (at least until the merger completes to the point of SOC and there is no more VX or VX tickets); you can get a refund.

    Also… hey, everyone, how many times do airlines change service levels down if the current F service is making them lots of cash?

    That’d be “zero”. Like it or not, VX mood lighting and fancy white leather seats doesn’t make enough money on shorthaul/mid haul compared to a standard F config and 149 total seats on an A320. The tipoff is that JetBlue isn’t converting ALL their planes to Mint.

    It sucks that there aren’t enough people who will drop $400 on a DAL-LGA or SFO-DEN flight in VX F to make up for the low cabin density but it is what it is. AS didn’t want to run a subfleet like B6 does (they might be wrong on that, but whatever).

  13. No my gripe was that they changed the plane, Virgin was unique and the first class was great, the Skywest e175 in fact all e175’s for that matter are not really a first class product.
    My gripe was they didn’t see that I paid more for a seat that was now being sold ( due to it being a lesser service ) and weren’t prepared to refund the difference.
    I accept and have had on several occasions booked a first class seat and them changed the plane ( Etihad a380 switched to 777….) but it still a similar product, it wasn’t swapped over to a North Korean plane and service.
    Every person that has booked with Virgin can not longer rely on them honouring the booking and you may very well find yourself on a Skywest
    NB in my initial message to OMAAT exactly the scenario I have written is what was explained.
    It is true that nothing can be done if your wanting to fly in first out of Dallas in first class you are no longer able to use the a320 and the alternative is not even really a first class.

  14. At the end of the day consumers choose their carriers on the service level they want, when it changes in the situation has done in this case,you deserve a refund, my issue about the length of time to process a refund is simply the length of time is a joke.you can’t tell me it can take up to 30 days to do it.
    I suppose it is a unique issue as the first class virgin cabin was unique, but i guess it is buyer beware, if you book Virgin America and spend the money on a first class fare..be aware you could get bumped to a e175 with no IFE and a cold turkey sandwich as what they deem an adequate alternative,

    A side note, when I called the Denver based Virgin America call centre, I was told that you will not be able to use your travel credit for Alaska Airlines…I hope that changes as if they for some people in areas that are now no longer going to be serviced by Virgin, the money will be lost.

  15. Seriously? Check out expertflyer flight loads for July/August/September. Less than 1 person per day is affected by this. Are you going to write a post when Delta downgrades their daily LAX-ATL 777 to a 737?

  16. @ KCTravels — I think you’re missing the point of my post, or maybe I didn’t express it properly. My point is that cross-fleeting is extremely common after mergers happen, though I think Alaska and Virgin America have to be more careful about it than other airlines have been in the past. It’s one thing to go from an ex-American 737 to an ex-US Airways A321, but with Alaska and Virgin America, the two airlines have fundamentally different products that they sell differently, in terms of price, upgrade policy, etc.

    So I just hope they’re careful going forward. In other words, if they give a month notice of swapping 737-900s for A320s on their JFK-LAX/SFO routes (as they eventually plan on doing), I think a lot of people would be very unhappy. Hopefully we can agree on that.

  17. @Michael you say “the Skywest e175 in fact all e175’s for that matter are not really a first class product.” – How so? The e-175 has full size bins for your items, 36 inches of leg room, power at ever seat,wi-fi, free BYOD movies and tv, free texting to the ground, and Alaska Airlines e-175s have ovens so they even have warm food unlike DL/UA/AA. Your leg room is only an inch less then AA’s A319s in F. So really you’re not missing out on much. Yes the product is a downgrade from VX’s first class, but the e-175 is a very standard domestic first class seat used for short/medium haul flights.

  18. Alaska Travel Wallet funds can’t be used for VX (and seems like vice versa), but seems like an IT issue primarily, or some sort of segregation of business for now. AS companion fare works on VX now, but even that took some time

  19. Alaska has confirmed they are calling every passenger affected. They aren’t just swapping the plane out and sending a blanket general schedule/aircraft swap email. They are actually going far beyond expectations to handle the change.

    In addition the changes have not been loaded into GDS yet and all flights affected appear to be zeroed out on expert flyer to help reduce the number of people who may be disappointed by the change. Essentially Alaska is freezing the sell of tickets until the aircrafts can be swapped and current passengers can be notified of the change.

    https://twitter.com/AlaskaAir/status/852574462734204929

  20. I’d advise the reader who got screwed out of his VX F seat to write a letter to Alaska. Their customer service team will most certainly do something about it.

  21. Doublewidesfly – I am on the phone with them now, and the call centre knows nothing about the twitter reply, I had to point it out to them, but if correct and those that have flights are getting a refund and the option of getting there ticket that is a great outcome, won’t be much good to me though as I cancelled the flight already…that will teach me.
    Now as to whether they would of called every passenger affected had I not complained about it..who knows

  22. To end this discussion..
    The issue was from the end of Virgin not Alaska…
    I have just got off the phone with Alaska and the matter has been resolved.

  23. I used to work in finance and the 30 day refund is a standard disclosure because of the way revolving accounts work. It’s typically not that they’ll take 30 days to process the transaction, it’s that it may not appear on your statement fort up to 30 days, depending on you’re cards cycle date and how you’re bank handles refunds. In other words, it might appear in 2 days or 30 days. The company issuing the credit can’t control this so their staff is instructed to disclose that it’ll take up to 30 days. This isn’t an airline trying to keep your money in a savings account for an extra 29 days, it’s the way some credit cards work.

  24. Just flew first class on Alaska from Puerto Vallarta to LAX. They ran out of meals, constantly let people in coach walk through to use the bathrooms, and other than free drinks and two seats on each side (as opposed to 3 in coach), there was basically no difference than sitting in row 6 in coach. As a Virgin flyer, I’m legitimately shocked by how little of an upgrade “first class” is on those planes. What was the point of them buying Virgin? To kill the competition of the only enjoyable domestic flying option available?

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