An open letter to Alaska's CEO

Alaska Airlines and Virgin America are my two favorite U.S. airlines. Alaska always gives me very good – and occasionally great – service and goes most everywhere I need to go. Virgin’s service is equally good but they have more fun doing what they do; that is why it once referred to itself as “A breath of fresh airline.”

The acquisition announced Monday causes me concern that Virgin’s culture will be lost when it is assimilated into Alaska, and that would be a shame. To that point, I have written this open letter to Alaska’s CEO, Brad Tilden.

Dear Mr. Tilden:

Congratulations on Alaska’s (NYSE:ALK) bid to acquire Virgin America (NASDAQ:VA). As with the acquisitions of Mirow Air Service, Lavery Air Service, Pollack Flying Service, Al Jones Airways, Cordova Airlines, Marine Airways and Ellis Airways in Alaska’s past, I am sure the acquisition of Virgin America will only make Alaska Airlines stronger and more competitive in the U.S. airline market.

However, as a loyal Alaska customer since moving to the Pacific Northwest in 1983, I urge you to look at this acquisition as more than just acquiring the routes, equipment and personnel. Look at it as an opportunity to acquire at least a measure of Virgin’s culture.

Your predecessors Ron Cosgrave and Bruce Kennedy began changing Alaska’s culture from “Elastic Airlines,” a reference to its erratic schedule under Charlie Willis’ chairmanship, to what it is today: an airline that has the best on-time arrivals record of all U.S. mainland airlines. Among all U.S. carriers, only Hawaiian Airlines (NYSE:HA) has better on-time performance.

You now have the opportunity to morph Alaska from a fine, if a bit conservative, airline to one that, as Virgin’s founder Sir Richard Branson said, offers “Guests … more choice and control and friendly customer service in an otherwise demoralising commercial airline environment.”

If you follow social media, you will see that comments about the acquisition on Alaska’s Facebook page are somewhat mixed, while the comments articulated by Virgin America’s Facebook fans all have essentially the same tone: It’s too bad; we’ll miss you.

It needn’t be.

In my experience, Alaska’s culture is more customer-centric than any of the other four major U.S. carriers. But that does not mean there is no room for improvement.

Reacting to the merger news, Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare, cited Alaska’s bag guarantee and Virgin America’s “trendy mood-lit cabins, comfortable seats, free entertainment options, witty videos and a Branson-esque flare” as positives the two carriers bring to today’s marketplace.

None of the two carriers' positive attributes are mutually exclusive. Creativity can co-exist with punctuality. Service can co-exist with a smile.

Branson said he founded Virgin America as well as his other airlines to “[Make] flying … no longer a dreaded chore [but] something to look forward to.” Your company's leaders have been quoted as saying Alaska is "[A]ll about making the travel experience better for our customers." The two companies are already on the same page.

Adopting some of Virgin's positive attributes while maintaining those Alaska already offers would provide passengers with the best of both worlds. The power to make that happen when the two carriers merge is firmly in your hands. Please use it.

Carl Dombek

Visit my main page at for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.

Photo by Carl Dombek, merger graphic provided by Alaska Air Group
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