Skift Take

It looks like an Alaska tie-up is more likely and more beneficial to passengers.

As Virgin America mulls takeover bids between JetBlue and Alaska Airlines this week, many frequent flyers are waiting with bated breath for what may be some positive changes to the airline’s Elevate program.

Traditionally, Virgin America’s loyalty program has been mildly received by the business and frequent flying communities. A revenue based program, Elevate rewards fewer miles to passengers compared to a traditional distance-based program, while the carrier’s limited number of routes, smaller business class cabins and lack of upgrade instruments make the airline less appealing for mileage junkies.

With JetBlue and Alaska Airlines now in the picture, however, the Elevate program may have much more promise.

Combined with Alaska Airlines, which looks like the most likely suitor, Virgin America would probably adopt the larger carrier’s loyalty program. For Mileage Plan members, this means a better route network in which to earn miles, particularly in the transcontinental, San Francisco, and Dallas markets. For Elevate members though, joining Mileage Plan means a transition to a distanced-based program where miles are easier to earn and where traditional instruments like mileage-based upgrades are available. Mileage Plan also has the advantage of working with a broad spectrum of partner carriers (such as the much discussed Emirates partnership), making their miles far more useful than Elevate miles.

As a result, business travelers have much to earn from an Alaska and Virgin America matchup, particularly if they can apply the benefits of Mileage Plan to the network and product that Virgin America has cultivated.

One caveat of this matchup, however, is that Alaska may use the merger as an excuse to push their loyalty program towards a revenue-backed model, something that most other U.S. carriers have already done.

JetBlue’s Downside

From a JetBlue and Virgin America matchup, business travelers have less to look forward to. JetBlue’s True Blue program operates with a similar model to Virgin America’s Elevate, awarding miles based on revenue and offering few partner awards. Considering the similarities, loyalty members primarily have the opposing carrier’s routes and aircraft to look forward to. In particular, JetBlue’s Mint business class can fill gaps in Virgin America’s substandard premium transcontinental product, while JetBlue’s frequent flyers can enjoy Virgin America’s access into San Francisco and Dallas.

Regardless of the carrier that purchases Virgin America, the good news is that members of Elevate have only benefit to reap from an upcoming combined loyalty program. Whether that’s traditional loyalty program perks such as upgrades and partner awards on Alaska or access to great new business class seats and the New York market with JetBlue will be determined when the bidding comes to a head early this week.


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Tags: alaska airlines, frequent flyer miles, jetblue airways, loyalty, virgin america

Photo credit: Promotional image from Virgin to coincide with feature allowing loyalty members to connect with other passengers via in-flight entertainment systems. Virgin America

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