In the final days of Virgin America, we put their service to the test against new owners Alaska Airlines

On 11th January, Virgin America made its final flight under the callsign “redwood”. It’s now flying as “Alaska”, as Alaska Airlines moves towards the completion of its merger with the much loved airline.

This said, the airlines continue to each fly with their respective branding and flair, at least until April 25th (though it will take until 2019 for the brand to be fully retired), and many wonder whether the award winning Virgin service has made its way to improving that of Alaska’s… or if it will go the other way. Last year I flew both Alaska Airlines and Virgin America to find out how both airlines are fairing as the merger continues…

Flight One: Alaska Airlines

Airline: Alaska Airlines
Route: Palm Springs, CA to Portland, Oregon (Flight 973)
Seat: 9C (Aisle 3-3)
Flight Time: Two and a Half Hours
Aircraft: Boeing 737-700
On Time? Yes

Frequent Flyer System:

Alaska have their own Frequent Flyer program, Mileage Plan. Like Virgin, they’re not part of the major alliance Networks, like OneWorld – though they have a network of partners, including Qantas – which is one of the reasons that Virgin Australia Velocity customers no longer get any benefits from flying with Virgin America. You can have a look at all their codeshare partners HERE.

About the Departure Airport: Palm Springs

The airline immediately received points thank to its departure airport. The small, partially outdoors Palm Springs International Airport is quite a beautiful airport by any standards. And true to the nature of the surrounding area, there’s multiple restaurants after check-in and security, a wine bar and a Starbucks, all with a relaxed atmosphere. The staff – including security – were extra friendly, and there were no queues to check in. If I had the option to drive to Palm Springs and fly out of there just to avoid LAX, I would. Only downside was I couldn’t get their wi-fi to work.

Boarding and Cleanliness

Boarding started early, and I was greeted to an older model plane. The decor is dated, and they hadn’t done a great job of cleaning up before we boarded – there was a banana peel in the vomit bag in my seat pocket, for one. But otherwise it was a solid service.

Entertainment 

At the time of flying, Gogo Inflight wifi offered customers free chat with iMessage, Facebook messenger and WhatsApp, plus free movies and TV shows on your personal device, once you hit 10k feet. Not a huge selection, but not a bad free offerings. There aren’t any USB chargers in your seat, however, and then I couldn’t find anywhere to charge my phone at the destination airport – so try and have an external battery pack on hand, as I found myself churning through my battery. If you’re a T-Mobile Customer, you’re also offered one hour of free wi-fi on your mobile.

Food and Drink Service

They came through the cabin twice to offer us complimentary Starbucks and soft drinks with some snacks for purchase and a free cookie.

Seat and Flight Comfort

The seats were dated, thin and without a moveable headrest, but they weren’t uncomfortable. And leg room was fine. My row was a bit strange as there were no windows – though for those who want to rest their heads on a “window” seat, this could be an advantage. Take off was bumpy, but otherwise it was a comfortable flight.

About Your Arrival Airport in Portland

I couldn’t find anywhere to charge my phone on arrival, which meant my phone died before I could order an Uber. This ended up being a blessing in disguise, however, as they have a light rail which takes you Downtown for just $2.50 – so it ended up saving me quite a bit of money. And it’s a fast service, too.

Flight Two: Virgin America

Airline: Virgin America
Route: Dulles – Washington DC (IAD) to Los Angeles LAX (VX97)
Seat: Seat 12D aisle 3-3
Flight Time: Just shy of 5 hours
Aircraft: Airbus A320
On Time? 36 minutes early

Frequent Flyer System:

Elevate, the Virgin Frequent Flyer service, has now been retired, and all customers are in the process of being converted over to Mileage Plus (which you can read more about above). For details on the transition, head HERE. It’s worth noting that the Velocity partnership ended at the end of September 2017.

About the Departure Airport: Dulles (Washington DC)

Though Dulles is DC’s Major Airport, it’s significantly further out from the centre of the city than Ronald Reagan Airport. As Reagan offers a subway straight into the city, it may be a better option for you – so have a look into both airports before you make a decision on who to fly with. Dulles is a decent airport – Wi-Fi is free and reliable, and there’s a decent amount of food options. The Potbelly sandwich shop was my pick of the terminal. It’s a busy airport, and you’ll need to get a train to the B gates – which is where my flight departed from – so make sure you give yourself a decent amount of time at the airport.

Baggage

It’ll cost you $25 for your bag, which you can pay on check in.

Customer Service / In Flight Experience

There’s a playfulness to the in flight experience that Virgin America has always been known for, and nothing has changed here. There was playful banter from the announcing steward, and the crew were friendly and quick to help.

Food and Drink Service

There was one formal service early in the flight, and then you ordered food and drink from the famous touch screens from there. Even on a flight this long, you’re not going to get any free food – but all non-alcoholic drinks are free and available on demand.

Entertainment

Satellite TV worked on the touch screen for almost the whole flight, with a wide range of channels available. Films and TV shows are available on demand for a small fee. And you’ll find a plug beneath your seat to charge your devices. If you want internet, you can get it on the coast-to-coast service for about $17.99.

Seat and Flight Comfort

It was a perfect flight – barely a bump from start to finish. There’s plenty of leg room especially if you used the overhead bins and the seats were very comfortable. If you get priority boarding due to a higher frequent flyer status, you’ll be able to ensure some space – which is not always possible on flights due to overcharging of luggage and the resulting frequency of passengers to bring bags that don’t fit under the seats.

The Verdict (In Memoriam)

Virgin America, without question, utilise the better planes. There’s a better vibe on board, and the seats are more comfortable. In terms of the staff, both airlines boasted excellent customer service, but Virgin certainly provide the more entertaining banter and all-in-all provide a better atmosphere. Though I wasn’t able to access any free connectivity on board the Virgin flight, they did have free satellite TV and the availability of the plug under the seat meant I could easily keep myself entertained on the flight.

The Alaska / Virgin merger is an interesting one because it’s an example of an inferior product, taking over the better product, and eliminating it. And the differences between the airlines are rather significant. The alliances were completely opposite – the Qantas versus Virgin Australia being particularly relevant to our market, and given the Qantas alliance, Alaska won’t be doing anything to remedy this loss.

Furthermore, Alaska fly almost exclusively with Boeing aircraft. Virgin with Airbus. One of Virgin America’s final orders before the sale was of 10 brand new A321neo aircraft – they were in fact the launch customer. Reports indicated that Alaska tried to get out of the delivery, but in the end have accepted the aircraft. And while they have committed to operating the Airbus aircraft once belonging to Virgin America to 2024, chances are they’ll retire or sell the aircraft by then to maintain their Boeing alliance. That’s fair though – it’s not cheap to operate two sets of mechanics and maintenance facilities.

This said, the airline has indicated that this year they will start to incorporate Virgin America’s blue lighting into their design, and roll out new seats and new uniforms across the network – as well as a product that will sit comfortably alongside Virgin’s much loved touch screen service. Of course, this was originally reported almost a year ago – so it’s anyone’s guess how much of this will actually happen – and when.

By 2019, the Virgin America that without question changed the face of travel in the United States when it launched in 2007, amidst an industry that had stopped evolving, will be completely gone. And the US airline industry is worse off for it. Thankfully Delta in particular have stepped up their game, and the airline who competed for the purchase of Virgin, JetBlue, seem poised to sit comfortably in the “top of the Customer Satisfaction” lists that Virgin America dominated for so long. They’re already winning in the WiFi game.

But thankfully, in true Branson style, the Virgin brand won’t be going anywhere. In 2020, they will start operating cruises to the Caribbean with the new Virgin Voyages cruise line. And Branson has indicated quite unequivocally that if Alaska do indeed retire the brand in 2019 as they currently plan to, then he’ll bring it back. And wouldn’t that be something.

Alaska aren’t a bad airline by any means. They tick all the boxes for service – but they just aren’t as good as Virgin. Here’s hoping they do stick true to their promises of taking the best parts of the Virgin service and blending it in with their other offerings. Because irrespective of further possibilities of the airline returning one day, Americans deserve to fly better – and a better Alaska Airlines experience will benefit everyone.

The author travelled to Portland with the support of Travel Oregon. The author travelled with Virgin America at his own expense.