Virgin America’s decade-plus run as a standalone brand is finally ending next week, and if all goes well, passengers will hardly notice.
The big day is April 25. Late the night before, or early that morning, crews will remove Virgin America signage at 29 airports and replace it with your Alaska Airlines’ branding. Red-eyes will depart from the West Coast on April 24 as Virgin America, but when they fly their first flight the next day, they’ll be Alaska — even if the plane’s paint reads Virgin America. Overnight, the airline will have one website, mobile app, and call center.
Behind the scenes, Alaska, which acquired Virgin America in December, 2016, will transition from having two reservations platforms — or passenger service system in airline lingo — to one. It’s the type of thing that has tripped-up airlines in the past, most recently when United Airlines switched systems in 2012. At United, customers complained about delayed flights and poor customer service.
Travel experts sometimes recommend passengers get to the airport early during a cutover, but Alaska executives say they expect business as usual, though they have culled some late-night flights on April 24 to simplify operations.
“It’s the single biggest milestone of the merger integration,” Sandy Stelling, Alaska’s managing director for process engineering, said in an interview. “But we hope it’s a non-event for guests.”
Alaska executives have reason to be bullish. They say they’ve learned lessons from United, and from another difficult cutover after the US Airways/America West merger more than a decade ago. Alaska is also much smaller than United, which after merging with Continental was briefly the world’s largest airline, so that makes it easier.
“The industry has figured it out,” said Charu Jain, Alaska’s chief information officer and a former United executive. “If you make decisions that are riskier, then the cutover becomes riskier. Airlines are now tending to take the least risk approach because you just don’t want to impact all your guests and customers at one time.”
Simplicity was important to Alaska, Jain said. Usually, when airlines migrate from one system to another, they must move passenger reservations. Perhaps, for example, a Virgin America customer bought a ticket nine months ago, expecting to fly that airline. At some point, the airline would have to migrate that reservation to the new system.
But Alaska chose a different approach. For months it has been selling tickets after April 24 as Alaska, so it doesn’t have to worry about moving reservations. And because customers bought the tickets as Alaska, they shouldn’t be confused when they show up and Virgin America signage has disappeared.
“They have been in the Alaska Airlines systems since the time they made their purchase,” Stelling said. They didn’t purchase a Virgin America ticket that overnight had to become an Alaska Airlines ticket. They only purchased an Alaska Airlines ticket.”
While Virgin America is disappearing as standalone brand, customers will see vestiges of it for a long time. Alaska has not yet started retrofitting Virgin America interiors to match its standards, but it will begin the project this fall. And though it has begun painting planes, it is far from done. The company does not expect to have a cohesive brand experience on all aircraft until the end of next year.
Interestingly, to the government, Virgin America and Alaska are already one airline. In January, Alaska said it had a single operating certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration. After that happened, Virgin America was effectively no longer its own carrier, but most passengers didn’t know it.