File photo of a Virgin America Airbus A320 (N849VA, SF Giants special livery). Image courtesy of Tomás Del Coro.
Edit: Alaska Airlines has revealed that the first ever Airbus A320 to be repainted in their own livery was N625VA (named Jefferson Airplane), on January 24, 2017.
In the past year alone, we have seen many airlines succumbing to pressures from the highly competitive commercial aviation industry. We lost Air Berlin (Europe's 10th largest airline by the way), Monarch (a UK leisure airline), as well as countless others. Now, although we are in the first month of 2018, it looks like we'll be loosing another famous airline brand soon.
Today, Virgin America will "officially" cease as an airline.
That's right, as of January 11, 2018, the two airlines' operating certificates will be integrated into one, so in the FAA's eyes, Virgin America and Alaska will be seen as the same airline. Furthermore, this integration also means the end of Virgin America's unique "VRD" or "Redwood" callsign. Instead, moving forwards, every Virgin America flight will use the "Alaska" or "ASA" callsign from now on. A couple of months ago, Virgin America added an "1" to the front of most of their flight numbers in order to make them 4 digits as to align with Alaska's future flight number scheduling for former Virgin America flights. At the end of last year, Virgin America's Elevate frequent flyer program officially ended, and former members are being encouraged to use Alaska Mileage Plan instead. After over 10 years of existence, Virgin America would no longer be flying legally.
However, that doesn't mean that the entire Virgin brand will be abolished immediately. In fact, planes painted in the Virgin America livery will be flying for at least until the next year, and the award-winning service that Virgin America is known for will not disappear until at least quite a few months into the new year.
Aircraft painted in Alaska colors have already started flying for the airline, and it is widely expected that more will soon follow. The first example, N925VA, is an A321neo that wears the "More West Coast" special livery, albeit without the signature Alaska Eskimo tail. Its sister ship, N926VA, has been seen in Hamburg, Germany with a modified Eskimo tail, signifying that this aircraft will be painted into the Virgin America-Alaska hybrid "More to Love" livery. Airliners.net forum users also indicate that N848VA, an Airbus A320 built in 2011, is currently being painted, and will likely receive the no-frills Alaska cabin as well.
The first Airbus A321neo to be painted in an Alaska special livery (N925VA). Image courtesy of Jose Gomez on planefinder.net.
In case you didn't already know, Virgin America has long been regarded as one of America's best airlines, because it was arguably more "full service" than legacy full service carriers, because it offered far more amenities than other airlines in operation at that time. Personal video screens at the back of each seat allowed one to order food and drinks directly from their entertainment system, and First Class was composed of just eight large recliners with an insane amount of pitch. Oh, and let's not forget their spirit, with lots of mood lighting, their fun-loving website, as well as music playing at the check-in counters and gate areas.
Virgin America's current A319/A320 cabin concept. Image courtesy of Virgin America.
Alaska, on the other hand, could not be more different than Virgin America at the time the merger was announced. It isn't regarded as a bad airline, because of its distance-based frequent flyer program as well as satisfactory customer service, but its hard product leaves a lot to be desired. Since Alaska flies only 737s up until this time, it offers 17-inch pitch across all economy rows, compared to Virgin America's 18 inches. Furthermore, these ultra-slimline Recaro seats honestly do not offer any padding, making the seat feel like a piece of cardboard. Worst of all, they don't have any planes with seatback entertainment screens, instead forcing you to bring your own device with you and stream a very limited selection of content over Wi-Fi. This system is also not always known to be in full working order. Furthermore, if you look at the below rendering of Alaska's new economy class, it seems like they will be putting entertainment boxes below the middle seat, despite the fact that onboard entertainment is provided by a server. Thus, it's best to avoid the middle seats on the refurbished aircraft. That being said, Alaska does offer up to 1 inch more legroom in economy compared to legacy carriers, and each seat has a personal power outlet.
Alaska's new economy seats. Image courtesy of Alaska Airlines.
Moving forward, Alaska has announced a cabin refresh, coinciding with the merger. When an airline refreshes a cabin, it will usually (in most cases) make people happy, but this represents a significant downgrade compared to the Virgin America experience. The new cabin will preserve exactly nothing of the Virgin America experience, and it appears to be 85% similar to what Alaska has today. There will be an increase in first class seats from 8 to 12 for the former Virgin America planes, and blue mood lighting, tablet holders, as well as satellite Wi-Fi will be added to the fleet from now on.
To be honest, this merger has been one of my least favorite developments in the aviation industry. It's always sad to see a unique airline brand go, and to make matters worse, I've never flown on Virgin America. However, I am also amazed by how Alaska is making the merger work, given that the two airlines can't be more different than each other. Of course, I'm sad to see Virgin America go, but at the same time, I'm optimistic that Alaska can use this as an opportunity to better the image that customers have of them.
Farewell, Virgin America.