‘Alaska’ to stay, ‘Virgin America’ to fade away

Many planned changes on target while others miss the mark

Seattle-headquartered Alaska Air Group, which completed its acquisition of Virgin America in December 2016, announced March 22 that it will retire the name Virgin America but create a combined airline that will adopt many of the brand elements identified as important by Virgin devotees.

Virgin America A319 departs SEA
“After careful consideration, the combined company will adopt Alaska's name and logo, retiring the Virgin America name likely sometime in 2019,” according to an Alaska Air Group (NYSE:ALK) statement announcing the decision.

“However, the combined airline will adopt many of [Virgin’s] brand elements … including enhanced in-flight entertainment, mood lighting, music and the relentless desire to make flying a different experience for guests.”

My wife’s immediate reaction: “Give us more legroom and we’ll be impressed.”

Extra room. There’s a brand element definitely worth adopting. However, Alaska’s announcement said it is going to do just the opposite: Take leg room away on the Airbus A319 jets that currently bear the Virgin livery.

While the changes to come will include the addition of more premium seats, additional First Class seats will have 41 inches of pitch compared to the 55 inches currently available on Virgin aircraft. Premium economy seats to be added beginning in 4Q18 will offer 35 inches of pitch compared to 38 inches today.

It is also important to note that, according to SeatGuru.com, all Virgin A319s have economy and premium economy seats that are 17.7 inches wide. Alaska’s Boeing (NYSE:BA) 737s have standard economy and premium economy seats that are consistently 17 inches wide, among the narrowest in the industry. Although Alaska’s announced plans did not address seat width, an extra three-quarters of an inch is much more noticeable than one might think, especially on longer flights.

The company said the goal of combining the carriers under one flag is to create a warm and welcoming West Coast-inspired vibe.

"We spent the last 10 months conducting extensive research and listening carefully to what fliers on the West Coast want most," Sangita Woerner, Alaska's VP of marketing, said.

I don’t disagree that a more modern vibe, high-speed satellite Wi-Fi connectivity, more premium seats (available at a cost of either dollars, frequent flier miles, or both), free movies, West Coast-focused snacks and other elements are nice-to-haves. However, I cannot accept that, in 10 months of extensive research, the theme of “more space” didn’t emerge extremely high on the list.

Modern, blue mood lighting will help soften the on-board ambience, which is fine, but many of the other brand elements might be regarded as window dressing, with actual impacts that will be questionable at best.

Personally, I don’t care whether flight attendants sport “Modern, stylish uniforms by fashion designer Luly Yang.” No one sees those uniforms when the F/As disappear behind their curtains to gossip or read their latest fashion magazines or pulp novels. If one is not an “elite loyalty member,” it won’t make any difference that there will be 50 percent more premium seats available for upgrades.

“West Coast-inspired food and beverage” and new and expanded Boardroom lounges are also nice but they each come at a cost. While passengers in all cabin classes may appreciate and take advantage of the upgraded food offerings, the majority of the airline’s customers will likely never see the inside of one of its lounges.

Finally, the airline’s announcement barely touched on one brand element that is vital to creating what CEO Brad Tilden called “[A]n airline people love”: crew members on the ground and in the air who obviously enjoy what they do.

The biggest single thing that sets Virgin America apart from other U.S. airlines today is, in my view, that Virgin’s people have a lot more fun than crews aboard other carriers. That translates to friendlier customer service and results in guests who are indeed happy to be aboard rather than enduring their flight because they have to get from Point A to Point B.

Mr. Tilden, add “Have fun!” to your carrier’s to-do list: Let your employees have a bit of fun. It’ll be good for everyone involved.

About the airlines

Alaska Airlines and Virgin America, along with their regional partners, fly 40 million customers a year to 118 destinations with an average of 1,200 daily flights across the United States and to Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica and Cuba, according to the company. With Alaska and Alaska Global Partners, customers can earn and redeem miles on flights to more than 900 destinations worldwide. Alaska Airlines, Virgin America and Horizon Air are subsidiaries of Alaska Air Group.

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

Photo and chart by Carl Dombek
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