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The Future of Virgin America, Revealed (and Richard Branson’s Reaction)

SmarterTravel

Perhaps no other airline merger has raised more questions than Alaska Airlines’ acquisition of Virgin America. Two certifiably fine airlines, with very different corporate cultures and products. Oil and water. How would they mix?

Specifically, how much of what made Virgin America the recurring winner of reader-favorite polls would be carried over under the new owner’s regime?

Alaska itself seemed ambivalent in the early stages, at one point signaling there was a chance the Virgin branding and some semblance of its service product might be retained long term.

This week, almost a year after the merger’s announcement, Alaska finally clarified its plan for Virgin America, positioning it as a “shared vision” of the two carriers.

The Virgin America name and logo will be retired, “likely sometime in 2019.” However, “the combined airline will adopt many of the brand elements that Virgin America enthusiasts love about their favorite airline, including enhanced in-flight entertainment, mood lighting, music and the relentless desire to make flying a different experience for guests.”

Among the more substantive changes:

  • New, redesigned cabin interiors beginning in 2018
  • New uniforms, designed by Luly Wang, in mid-2019
  • High-speed inflight Wi-Fi on all planes by end-2019
  • 50% increase in first-class A320 seating and new Premium coach seats from late-2018
  • Mileage Plan replaces Virgin Elevate program in 2018
  • New and renovated airport lounges by early-2019

Mood lighting and fashion-forward uniforms won’t transform Alaska into Virgin. But neither can such enhancements be dismissed as lipstick on a pig. Alaska is a solid airline, albeit a company with a less flamboyant character than Virgin’s. There’s as much reason for hope as there is for pessimism.

Sir Richard Responds

Perhaps no one is more emotionally invested in Virgin’s fate than the airline’s founder, Sir Richard Branson.

In April of last year, Branson expressed his opposition to the merger as follows:

I would be lying if I didn’t admit sadness that our wonderful airline is merging with another. Because I’m not American, the US Department of Transportation stipulated I take some of my shares in Virgin America as non-voting shares, reducing my influence over any takeover. So there was sadly nothing I could do to stop it.

This week, in response to Alaska’s announcement, Branson again expressed sadness, as well as some skepticism regarding any attempts to sustain the Virgin experience in a new corporate environment:

When a company goes public, decisions are made that benefit the shareholders. In the best of times, they also benefit consumers. It remains to be seen what will happen now – for travellers – with fewer airlines in the US than ever. Being different and on a mission to truly reinvent an experience for the customer is increasingly rare in this business.

After extolling Virgin America’s accomplishments and lavishing praise on the airline’s workers, Branson signed off on a semi-hopeful note:

George Harrison once said, “All Things Must Pass.” This was the ride and love of a lifetime. I feel very lucky to have been on it with all of you. I’m told some people at Virgin America are calling today “the day the music died”. It is a sad (and some would say baffling) day. But I’d like to assure them that the music never dies.

While the music may not die for Virgin’s employees, it remains to be seen whether the airline’s loyal customers will be left singing Alaska’s praises, or singing the blues.

Reader Reality Check

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about Alaska’s ability to incorporate Virgin’s strengths into its own operations?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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