Sunday, January 14, 2018

Is there Gold on Virgin America?

It’s like walking into a night club.

A hip feel, signature purple lighting, in-seat video.

The Virgin America built its brand out of California, appealing to a younger, hip clientele.

Alaska Airlines purchased Virgin America in 2016.  The final stage of combining the two airlines is underway. Already a Virgin America airplane wears the Alaska livery on the outside. The two airlines operate as one, with the Redwood call sign shelved, all flights report "Alaska" to Air Traffic Control.  (see an update from Alaska at the end).

Onboard, the differences are significant. There are 8 first class, 12 main cabin select seats, and 6 exit rows seats with extra legroom.

As an Alaska MVP Gold frequent flier, I value both the in-flight benefits and the freedom to change a flight at will. I had no concerns booking a Virgin America flight from Los Angeles to Orlando.  Perhaps I should have taken a closer look, because I did not know how to opt-in for Main Cabin Select and maybe missed out on at Exit Row too.

The day before leaving, I went to check on my flight and was horrified to learn it was canceled, in spite of the assurances above. Not the flight itself, just my seat.  I booked the flight through Alaska, so they were my first call. After 20 minutes on hold, the agent reported the problem was on the Virgin America side, the cause was unknown.  About an hour later I was booked on a new ticket, no charge, but my seat was moved back a couple of rows.

Thanks to an unexpected 45 minute shuttle ride from dropping my car rental off (Thrifty), I got to the gate late. A very long line of people were waiting to board (all stages had been called). Virgin America had no second lane for premium passengers to jump the queue. I saw one passenger cut the line, but I had no such gumption. There was still room in the overhead bins, so no problem.

I was happy to see Virgin America does not serve exclusively from carts in the aisle. Ordering “on-line” using the in-seat display was easy and efficient. I struggled a bit with the credit card swipe; it goes in at an angle. 

My order was delivered quickly, and the winter protein plate was great. 

I truly hope Alaska takes this opportunity to revisit cabin food and drink service, that they move forward with these concepts, and not to return to classic food cart service. I know some airlines, Southwest in particular, value pax-attendant interaction gained by taking orders and delivering them individually.

The most noticeable difference from Alaska, while sitting in the seat, is the in-seat display providing a comprehensive catalog of movies, TV shows, songs, games, and a great moving map. The only product sold onboard is headphones for $3. There were no items under “make a difference”.  The live TV channels were turned off.

The Gogo Wi-Fi/Vision is equivalent to that found on Alaska, including free chat (my favorite connectivity product). I did not find in-seat power plugs.  Once everyone is seated, unless you know, you would never find them.  They were there, though.
Virgin America offers a very small number of premium and first class seats for sale ($179 and $399). They do not upgrade to First Class. Probably the most important comfort factor for me is leg room. I always get exit row on Alaska flights, or get upgraded to premium or first.

The 32" seat pitch leaves my knees 1” from the seat back in front of me. The seat itself was very comfortable. 

The pax in the seat reclined, leaving the in-seat monitor about 8” from my face.  I never realized how hot the monitors are, noticeably baking my face.

I booked well in advance and paid less than $150 fees and taxes inclusive, which is a great value. Sometimes I think Alaska direct fares are expensive. While I wonder what the magicians at Revenue Management have in mind going forward, good fares are always available to those that can shop in advance. With the MVP Gold benefit of no cancellation, buying cheap fares early has no risk (which is the real gold in Gold).

Booking straight into Main Cabin Select or First Class is noticeably more expensive.
LAX-MCO Fares - the night before departure on Jan 14

With a higher cost per air-seat mile (CASM), and lower passenger revenue per air-seat mile (PRASM), Virgin America features took a toll on margins, especially compared to Alaska Airlines. 

Virgin America 2015 Annual Report

Alaska Airlines 2016 Annual Report

Alaska consolidated operations are reporting lower CASM with the combined fleet than operating solely as Alaska.  Very impressive financial performance!

Alaska Airlines Consolidated Sep 30, 2017 Quarterly Report

I will give Virgin America another chance once the dust settles. Meanwhile, I await for what is in store for me on Alaska flights this year, with twelve flights already ticketed.

Here is the official Alaska advice on combined Passenger Experience (Alaska Airlines 10-Q, Sep 30, 2017):
We are focused on the successful integration of Virgin America, which includes obtaining a Single Operating Certificate ("SOC") in early 2018 and a single Passenger Service System ("PSS"), or more commonly known as the reservations system, in the second quarter of 2018. 
The single PSS has been accelerated from later in 2018 and is expected to bring forward approximately $20 million of revenue synergies into 2018. Our priority throughout the integration process is to run our airlines well and maintain a safe, compliant and low-cost operation, while providing a remarkable experience for our guests. 
The combined airline will adopt Alaska’s name and logo, retiring the Virgin America name sometime in late 2019. Over the next several months we will focus on enhancing our guest experience and will adopt certain aspects of Virgin America’s brand elements, including enhanced inflight connectivity, inflight entertainment content, mood lighting, music and the relentless desire to make flying a different experience for guests. 
We will continue to enhance our fresh, healthy, West Coast-inspired onboard food and beverage menus and expect our First Class guests on Alaska will be able to pre-select meals before they fly starting this year. Alaska’s main cabin guests will also be able to pre-pay for their meals in advance in 2018, with Airbus flights soon to follow. 
Our onboard Free Chat service and free entertainment was added to Airbus flights in August 2017. We also plan to expand the premium class offering on our Airbus fleet beginning in 2018 and have our entire fleet equipped with high-speed satellite Wi-Fi by early 2020. 
In January 2018, Alaska Mileage Plan™ will become our sole loyalty program, offering guests more rewards, an expansive global partner network and the only major airline loyalty program that still rewards a mile flown with a mile earned on Alaska and Virgin America flight

Stay tuned!

Peter Lemme

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Follow me on twitter: @Satcom_Guru
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Peter Lemme has been a leader in avionics engineering for 35 years. He offers independent consulting services largely focused on avionics and L, Ku, and Ka band satellite communications to aircraft. Peter chairs the SAE-ITC AEEC Ku/Ka-band satcom subcommittee, developing ARINC 791 and 792 characteristics and contributes to the Network Infrastructure and Interfaces (NIS) subcommittee developing Project Paper 848, standard for Media Independent Secure Offboard Network.

Peter was Boeing avionics supervisor for 767 and 747-400 data link recording, data link reporting, and satellite communications. He was an FAA designated engineering representative (DER) for ACARS, satellite communications, DFDAU, DFDR, ACMS and printers. Peter was lead engineer for Thrust Management System (757, 767, 747-400), also supervisor for satellite communications for 777, and was manager of terminal-area projects (GLS, MLS, enhanced vision).

An instrument-rated private pilot, single engine land and sea, Peter has enjoyed perspectives from both operating and designing airplanes. Hundreds of hours of flight test analysis and thousands of hours in simulators have given him an appreciation for the many aspects that drive aviation; whether tandem complexity, policy, human, or technical; and the difficulties and challenges to achieving success

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