Alaska Airlines is celebrating today the official conclusion of its merger with Virgin America. The combined airline is the fifth largest in the nation (after United, Delta, American, and Southwest), and Alaska is advertising it as the “antidote to the ‘Big 4’ airlines that currently control 84 percent of the domestic market.”
This morning Alaska Airlines will officially unveil an airplane specially painted to celebrate its merger with Virgin America on a flight down to San Francisco. I’ll be on it along with other friends — both Alaska employees and media. Maybe I’ll meet some new friends at Virgin America, and I’ll be sure to add pictures here as the day progresses.
The special event will bring together employees from both airlines for the red carpet arrival of a one-of-a-kind commemorative aircraft at SFO Terminal 2. The new, combined airline will be the fifth largest in the nation – and will offer more nonstop destinations from the West Coast than any other carrier.
My own attitude is obviously biased. As someone who lives in Seattle I have the advantage of being able to fly on Alaska Airlines to more non-stop destinations than any other carrier can provide in this market. But they have built a pretty strong presence throughout the West Coast, and that will become even stronger with the addition of Virgin America.
I’ve also learned a few things from my first quarter of business school. (Caveat: I am in no way a qualified business expert after one quarter.) We learned a bit about competitive advantages, and I think what fundamentally distinguishes the combined Alaska/Virgin carrier from other competitors is its West Coast focus. That’s not saying it won’t eventually spread eastward. It’s already adding more destinations every year to the Midwest and Eastern states.
But what I like about it, speaking as someone who has spent his whole life on the West Coast, is that I can take Alaska Airlines nonstop to most places I need to be. Even to the South Atlantic and to second-tier destinations in the Midwest. Most other carriers require a connection — something I’m increasingly unwilling to do as I get older and my time becomes more valuable.
Alaska Airlines is strong in Alaska, Washington, and Oregon. Virgin America provides a much stronger presence in California that, I think, will make this value proposition even stronger for customers living on the West Coast.
What will things really look like once the dust settles? No one knows. Anyone who tells you they know is lying. But I really do hope that this is a different kind of merger from what we’ve seen before. It’s not just a bigger airline. I think it’s a bigger airline that still has a West Coast focus, that brings together two carriers with best-in-class customer service, and that really tries to stand apart from the average travel experience. That’s something to look forward to.