- Virgin America has been one of the best airlines in the US since its launch in 2007.
- In 2016, Alaska Airlines acquired Virgin America for $US2.6 billion.
- Virgin America will merge into Alaska Airlines on April 25.
- In March, Business Insider took a roundtrip flight between Newark Liberty International and San Francisco to experience Virgin America one final time.
In August 2007, Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson launched the US wing of his aviation empire. With Virgin America, the charismatic billionaire wanted to bring the chic style and lighthearted fun of his brand to our nation’s flying masses.
In the decade since its inception, Virgin America has become one of the best and most beloved airlines in North America. It took home the Travel & Leisure’s award for best domestic airline 10 years in a row.
However, the airline’s 10th anniversary passed last year without Sir Richard’s traditional pomp and circumstance. That’s because everyone knew that Virgin America would probably not be around long enough to celebrate its 11th birthday.
This isn’t because Virgin America was going bust. On the contrary, it is one of the most successful airline startups in recent history.
Instead, Virgin America had been acquired by Alaska Airlines in 2016 for $US2.6 billion. Even though the airline’s fans held out hope that it would be able to fly on using Virgin Group’s branding, Alaska Airlines confirmed last October that two carriers would merge operations on April 25th of this year.
In a statement to Business Insider, Alaska Airlines wrote:
“On April 25 we’ll integrate our passenger service systems, which means we will have one inventory of flights, one customer website (alaskaair.com), one mobile app, and only Alaska kiosks. Gates, ticketing, and check-in areas will all be Alaska-branded at the airport. It will take more time for us to update branding on the Airbus fleet, including the livery and the interiors, but in the meantime, we’ve started selling Virgin America’s Main Cabin Select seats as Premium Class for Airbus flights after April 24.”
In fact, Virgin America’s fleet of Airbus A320-family jets is already being repainted with Alaska Airlines livery. In addition, the ex-Virgin America Airbus jet will also receive new Alaska Airlines interiors. The airline expects to have the complete Airbus fleet re-configured by the end of 2019.
So before Virgin America disappears into aviation history, we decided to take one final trip with the airline. Here’s what we saw.
I arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport about an hour before my flight to San Francisco was set to depart. But with a powerful Nor’Easter storm bearing down on the Northeastern US, my flight was delayed.
Finally, it was time to board our Airbus A320.
Here’s what it looks like during the day.
The first thing you notice is the mood lighting. The entire cabin is bathed in a blue and purple glow. This is a hallmark of all the Virgin-branded airlines.
Here’s a shot of a slightly toned down mood lighting on board a Virgin Atlantic Airbus A340-600.
Virgin America’s economy cabins are equipped with black leather seats. While its premium cabin is upholstered with white leather.
On both legs of my trip, I was able to secure an exit row seat.
This meant I got way more than the 32 inches of seat pitch Virgin promises in economy. But, with another exit row behind me, I could not recline my seat all during my late night flight.
With my flight expected to take roughly six hours, I settled in for the ride.
Shortly before take off, Virgin America’s trademark safety video came on the in-flight entertainment screen. The full-on song and dance number has become something of an internet sensation. Some love it, while others hate it. Regardless, it’s uniquely VA.
Time for takeoff!
After takeoff, I commenced my exploration of VA’s Red IFE system. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed about the airline and it’s one of the best systems I’ve ever encountered. Red is expected to remain in place on ex-Virgin America planes until their interiors can be converted over to Alaska Airlines spec.
The system can be controlled by touchscreen or using this handy armrest-mounted wired remote.
The entertainment options are quite extensive and available free of charge.
There’s a large collection of free on-demand movies and TV shows as well as…
…Live satellite TV.
There’s also a collection of music and…
… Gaming options.
Passengers can even text one another using the system’s inflight chat function. If you prefer to use your phone or tablet to chat, Virgin America does offer free wi-fi-based messaging.
I also found the interactive map to be shockingly entertaining.
Passengers can also order food and drinks through Red.
Snacks and meals cost extra.
Booze also costs extra.
However, all sodas and soft drinks are free.
Flight attendants do come around the cabin for a traditional beverage service. But drinks can also be ordered separately through the system at any time. I used the ordering system a couple of times and my drinks were always brought to my seat within a couple of minutes. Food and drink orders through Red are expected to remain for the time being as well.
By the time we landed in San Francisco, it was well past 1 am. I deplaned as quickly as I could and bolted straight for my hotel room.
A few days later, it was time for my return trip to Newark. Same route, the same type of plane, and same seat.
Time to get on the plane again.
On my flight back, I thought about what the end of Virgin America means for aviation in the US.
And it’s not all doom and gloom.
I’m certainly sad to see Virgin America go. The airline delivered top-notch service at an affordable price with an undeniably charming style. In addition, one fewer airline means one less choice for consumers.
But, with Virgin America on board, Alaska is now the fifth largest airline in the US behind American, Delta, Southwest, and United. With Virgin America on board, Alaska has put itself in a much better position to compete.
I recognise that Alaska Airlines and Virgin are two very different monsters. However, Alaska is also one of the country’s highest rated carriers and its management team has expressed its commitment to incorporating some of the Virgin flavour into its product.
This leaves me hopeful that some of what allowed us to fall in love with Virgin America will stick around for years to come.