Welp, Alaska is shutting down the Virgin America brand, and if my Facebook feed is any indication, people in the Bay Area are losing their shit.
Here’s the thing, and I’m pretty sure anyone who flies even somewhat often already knows this: Virgin America isn’t that great. Don’t get me wrong – their first class product is the best domestic non-transcon option, their food is pretty good, and their flight attendants are all pretty nice. However, I keep seeing people on social media acting like Virgin’s planes were kitted out with hot tubs and massage chairs or something – and these aren’t people who ever fly first class, by the way. I think the real success with the Virgin brand was to make people think that flying was already worse than it actually was, and then to make some fairly cosmetic adjustments and trumpet how much better it was as a result. Mood lighting and hip EDM boarding music is cool; standard pitch and seat width isn’t. And when you fly for five hours, the cool boarding atmosphere lasts for a few minutes, and then you’re stuck in basically the same situation you’d be in on any other airline save for Spirit or Frontier.
Even more annoying, however, is the idea that Alaska is some cut-rate downmarket carrier that’s trying to shit all over everything Virgin accomplished. In general, Alaska has my favorite flight attendants of any airline. And while their planes aren’t as stylish as Virgin, they’re no less comfortable – the seats on a 737 might be slightly narrower than an A320, but it’s not anything I’ve ever been able to discern in situ. People in San Francisco are like that, though – they make up their mind about something that’s really not all that great (sourdough bread, the SF Giants, 3rd wave coffee, the city of San Francisco), and then act like the world is ending if anything ever changes. Alaska Airlines could fly planes where each passenger had their own private suite, and San Franciscans would still complain that it wasn’t as nice as Virgin America because [insert some dumb bullshit that only someone from San Francisco would ever say].
What I find fairly shocking in this day and age is how Alaska anticipated exactly this response and has gone out of their way to ease people into the transition. While I don’t think anyone reasonably expected them to keep the Virgin brand alive just to placate a bunch of whiny San Francisco whiners (especially with the royalty that Richard Branson required them to pay), I think they’ve done a good job of setting expectations on the integration. Even better, they’re upgrading their own planes and introducing a lot of stylistic aspects of the Virgin brand, actually making Alaska better (arguably better than Virgin was in the first place, although the loss of Virgin’s first class is a downgrade any way you slice it). Still, this doesn’t look that bad – in fact, it looks a lot better than most domestic first seats, including Alaska’s existing product.
What’s most surprising to me is how Alaska has used the merger as a way to get better. It’s the rarest of the rare: a merger actually helping consumers by providing more robust competition with the big four and forcing the merged company to up its game in order to sell itself as the dominant player on the West Coast. In the past year or so, American Airlines has made it clear that it wanted all along to participate in the United/Delta race to the bottom, it just couldn’t for operational reasons as it merged with US Airways. (Arguably, that bottom has been reached, since both United and Delta have had to add amenities to lure customers back. It’s arguable, because basic economy is still a thing, so who knows how much lower we can really go.) Now that American is done with the merger, they have gutted their award program, drained away most availability on their own flights, rejiggered their boarding order to create 174 individual boarding groups, changed to a revenue based frequent flyer program, and added a new status tier (“Platinum Pro,” because you want your elite status to sound like what you’d call the extended warranty coverage on a laser printer). It’s honestly as if American Airlines executives realized that most people considered them to be the best domestic airline and were upset how much money they were leaving on the table. “We’re the best?!? Well clearly we have to take a weed whacker to everything people like about us, since no one ever got rich by being popular!!”
That’s what makes me happy about Alaska – so far, at least. First they improved short-haul redemptions, so it only costs 5000 miles for me to fly from Oakland to Seattle. Then they gave me 10,000 points just for being an awesome dude (points which I just redeemed for a roundtrip flight to Seattle). Then they instituted a generous point transfer ratio with Virgin’s loyalty program, then they announced new Bay Area service, then they announced terminal/lounge upgrades. The list goes on – meanwhile American is instituting basic economy fares and advertising how they have the youngest fleet, as if that makes up for the fact that their planes are usually about as comfortable as a sock made out of steel wool.
I’m excited about the future of the combined Virgin/Alaska carrier. Sure there are things I’ll miss about Virgin (I may be the only person in the world who likes their safety video, for instance). But overall, I think the merger will actually be better for passengers on the West Coast, and it’s really rare to be able to say that about a merger.