Slowly, Virgin America is disappearing. That's bad news for its loyal customers in San Francisco, Los Angeles and other parts of the country. But it's necessary. Virgin America was too small as a stand-alone carrier to compete with the nation's four largest carriers.
Virgin America, the upstart California airline that probably did more than any U.S. carrier except JetBlue Airways to improve the overall passenger experience over the past decade, no longer exists — at least not officially.
Alaska Airlines, its owner since December 2016, said Thursday it has obtained a single operating certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration. For U.S. regulators, Alaska and Virgin America are one — even if plenty of planes still say Virgin America on them.
It’s the latest in a series of changes required in an airline merger. Today, even with the single operating certificate, passengers still check-in with one airline or the other, and they use the website or app from the airline they’re flying. But by April, Alaska expects to have a single reservations system, and to customers, the airlines will be one — more or less.
It will take longer to paint the planes, retrofit Virgin America’s interiors to match Alaska’s, and co-locate gates and check-in areas at airports. But eventually, many of the touches that made Virgin America special will disappear, including the white leather business class seats, and in-seat television screens. Alaska will keep Virgin America’s snazzy mood lighting, though it’ll be a blue hue rather than red. Alaska also is upgrading all planes across both fleets, adding improved Wi-Fi and better in-flight entertainment, though it will be streamed to passenger’s own devices, rather than embedded in the seat.
Virgin America has its loyalists in San Francisco, its largest city; Los Angeles, a focus airport, and elsewhere in the U.S. But it was never much of a threat to the four largest U.S. airlines — American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines — that dominate most of the nation’s air routes.
With only about 60 planes at its peak, Virgin America was too small to offer the breadth of flights most frequent flyers expect. Business travelers often want to fly where they want, when they want, nonstop. One or two flights a day from L.A. to Chicago didn’t entice them.
But from a product perspective, Virgin America almost certainly pushed major U.S. airlines to improve. A decade ago, on lucrative routes from New York to San Francisco and Los Angeles, Virgin America offered a more comfortable business class seat and better amenities than most big airlines. Since then, American, Delta and United have improved their seats and food, while Virgin America’s transcontinental product changed little.
Virgin America was also the first U.S. airline to have W-iFi on every plane, installing Gogo fleetwide by 2009, celebrating with an air-to-ground Skype video call with Oprah Winfrey. It helped that its fleet was tiny — at the time Virgin America had only 100 daily flights — but it still showed customers the airline understood what the modern traveler wanted. In 2009, major U.S. airlines had connected only a small fraction of planes, and some executives thought Wi-Fi might be a passing fad.
Virgin America was also the first U.S. carrier to sell premium economy class, rather than just seats with extra legroom. Technically, it wasn’t a standalone class because Virgin America took the bulkhead rows and exit rows and called them Main Cabin Select. But it came with priority security screening and free food and drinks — something no other airline offered. Today, Delta’s Comfort Plus product also includes free food and drinks.
Then there was Virgin America’s frequent flyer program. It may not have been the most lucrative program for flyers, but its structure was slightly forward-leaning. Virgin America allotted points based on how much money a traveler spent, not the flight’s distance. In recent years, American, Delta and United have all copied this idea, which had been earlier been used by Southwest and JetBlue.
Interestingly, Alaska still allots miles based on distance, and the combined airline has gone with the distance approach.
Photo credit: With fleetwide Wi-Fi by 2009, Virgin America was ahead of the in-flight Internet trend. The airline no longer has its own operating certificate. Virgin America