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In a video and accompanying email, Alaska Airlines CEO Brad Tilden tried to reassure Virgin America employees of good things ahead as the merger between the two companies proceeds.
In characteristic Alaska Airlines fashion, Tilden was humble, candid, sincere, and approachable in both.
For the video, he stood on an airline tarmac wearing a simple blue button-cuff shirt. Though his sleeves were not rolled up, he wore a bright yellow safety vest. He might not have been confused for a ground worker, but he certainly resembled a line supervisor.
Tilden began with strong with words of solidarity and unity, referring to himself not as the chief executive, but as a member of the Alaska Airlines family.
“My name is Brad Tilden and I am with Alaska Airlines,” he said.
Both Tilden’s words and body language were perfection. But was the essence of his message enough to assure Virgin America employees and customers?
Same, but Different
He complimented the strong Virgin America brand and the commitment of Virgin employees to offering customers an exceptional product and “incredible service.”
“We like the innovative experience that you’ve designed on board your airplane with the entertainment and the seatback ordering and the mood lighting. And finally, we see a fighting streak in you that you want to do things differently,” he said. “You’ve got sort of an independent attitude about how airlines should take care of customers, a different way that airlines should take care of customers in this industry. And I’ll just tell you, we respect that.”
Beyond the double reference to Virgin America’s rebel streak, there was no straight commitment to adopt any of these admirable features, merely to sit together and review what works best.
What Tilden revealed was the approach Alaska Airlines will take to harmonize these two corporate cultures.
“I wouldn’t say that we’re identical on all of these fronts, but I would say that we really want to operate well, we really do value the experience we provide our customers and we really respect what you guys have done,” Tilden said.
In his email to Virgin America employees, Tilden elaborated more on this concept, pointing out that the Alaska Airlines character is just as strong.
“I might just say that the reason we are here and remain independent is because we share many of your values — a fighting streak of independence, a focus on operating well, a deep commitment to our customers, and a belief that we are successful only by working together as a team,” he wrote.
“Our vision for the future is not only to preserve the high level of customer service you have built, but to build upon this foundation of strength over time,” he added.
Both in the video and in the email, Tilden addressed operational issues, assuring Virgin America employees that Alaska Airlines wants to coordinate an exemplary merger, avoiding the difficulties encountered by other airlines in the market.
“Two or three or four or five years from now, we want to say, ‘That was textbook. Those guys wrote the book on how to do a best-in-class integration,’” Tilden said in the video. “What that means to me is that employees feel aligned and engaged, customers say, ‘Man, this is even better than what we had before.’”
He explained the motivation of the merger for Alaska Airlines entirely in terms of routes and scale.
“Simply put, this deal puts Alaska Airlines squarely on the national map — something that would have taken years to accomplish on our own,” Tilden wrote in the email.
Some Job Security
While acknowledging that Virgin America employees will have many questions, Tilden’s answers were scant in both presentations, though he went into a bit more detail in the email.
“Many of you are wondering how your jobs might be affected. We don’t have all the answers, but let me tell you what we think. We do not expect any reductions for frontline employees (Pilots, InFlight Teammates, Guest Services Teammates and Maintenance Technicians),” Tilden wrote. “In fact, I expect we’ll see growth in these ranks.”
For top jobs though, the tune is slightly different.
“There likely will be overlap in some Headquarters and other management positions that will need to be addressed after the transaction closes, during the integration process,” Tilden wrote. “However, the bottom line is that many of the people who want to work at the combined airline should be able to find a role. We don’t know which yet, but it’s likely that some Headquarters jobs will move to Seattle after closing. While we don’t have all the details today, we are committed to communicating with you throughout this process when we have information to share.”
Tilden also made a commitment to immediately familiarize himself with the team he’s effectively acquired, and to be open to Virgin America employee suggestions.
“Alaska’s chief operating officer, Ben Minicucci, and I will be spending a lot of time visiting Virgin America employees in the coming weeks,” he wrote. “I hope to get acquainted with you, learn how you’ve made Virgin America such a special airline, and get your thoughts on how we can ensure that our combined company will be a great place to work and a great airline to fly.”
A Bright Future?
His message in the video was even more upbeat, and designed to also reassure Virgin America customers.
“We’re super excited about the future,” he said. “I hope you guys are, too. I can understand if there’s a little bit of anxiety, but I think coming together, we’re going to work together and build an airline, a combined airline, that everybody, anywhere on the West Coast, is going to very, very proud of in the years to come.”
Alaska Airlines has always been an exceptionally good airline because it’s a strong and proud family with long history and a common purpose. Virgin America has been successful because it has fought as one family to forge a unique niche in its market and do what others might never have tried.
Brad Tilden’s commitment to make this merger an example for the airline industry is admirable, but the core message still reveals sacrifices ahead for the Virgin America team.
It also repeats what is either Alaska’s genuine indecision on brand integration, or its unwillingness to pull the Band-Aid and admit that Virgin America, as we know it, will be no more.