Travel + Leisure has a good article that summarizes many of the changes coming to Alaska Airlines and Virgin America this year. As you already know, the merger was approved in late 2016, and during 2017 it was revealed that the Virgin America brand would officially end. Planes, crew, and schedules would be rolled into Alaska Airlines while Alaska simultaneously looked for ways to integrate some of Virgin’s features into its own product. (Alaska had already started a brand refresh in early 2016, so this is convenient.) In addition, the Virgin America Elevate program has now ended, with all members transitioning to Alaska’s Mileage Plan in the coming weeks.
Update: Alaska Airlines has posted a story on their company blog outlining some of these changes. There’s not much new you won’t find here, but they do share that the Alaska Lounge at JFK will open in April 2018.
But what, exactly, will happen next? Alaska’s already committed to keeping Virgin’s Airbus A320 fleet for the time being. On the inside, it’s going to look a lot more like Alaska Airlines. Travel + Leisure reports that eight first class seats with extended recline — in fact, some of the best recline on domestic routes — will be converted to 12 first class seats with more standard recline. This was inevitable given how unusual Virgin’s configuration was in the U.S. market. On Alaska’s part, the carrier has also made plans to extend the seat pitch of its own first class seats, which was less than average, and has rolled out a new Premium Class that is similar in some ways to Virgin’s Main Cabin Select.
Alaska claims to be keeping some features of Virgin America, including in-flight entertainment, but it’s not clear how this is defined. Alaska already offers free in-flight streaming entertainment on your own device. Virgin America provides entertainment on built-in screens. It may be that Alaska is simply making the obvious choice: if you’re keeping the planes then you don’t really need to replace the seats, and if you don’t replace the seats then you’re more likely to keep the screens. But if Alaska decides to ditch the Airbus fleet in the future, don’t expect to see the screens installed on any new planes.
Tomorrow, on Thursday, January 11, will be the last time that Virgin America will use its “Redwood” callsign with the FAA. Flights after that will be using Alaska Airlines’ callsign, which is simply “Alaska.” That means the two carriers are the same airline as far as the FAA is concerned, even though the paint, cabin interiors, and service offerings are still different.
It’s not clear when Virgin’s existing Airbus fleet will be repainted. That takes time and money, and it’s expensive to pull an aircraft out of service. However, AirlineGeeks reports that a new A321neo with Alaska’s signature tail showing Chester the Eskimo was sighted at Hamburg. (The “Most West Coast” livery that Travel + Leisure mentions is different and does not appear to have any tail colors.)
Worth noting: This is NOT the standard Alaska Airlines livery using light blue and green colors resembling the aurora. Instead, this appears to be the Airbus equivalent of the dark blue and red “More to Love” livery that Alaska has been using the celebrate the merger. Alaska is known for many special liveries, and I was fortunate to be on the first flight with the Boeing “More to Love” plane last year, traveling from Sea-Tac to San Francisco. It makes sense to create a matching Airbus version.
But even with Chester on the tail and an Alaska callsign, Virgin America will still exist in some form, and you can continue to book flights on Virgin America’s website through April 24. Beginning on April 25, Virgin America will redirect to AlaskaAir.com. There have been inevitable complaints from passengers about difficulty with seat assignments, upgrades, and flight changes over the past year. The centralized booking should hopefully resolve most of these issues.