Hello beautiful! My Alaska Airlines VIP Airbus A321neo.

Hello beautiful! My Alaska Airlines VIP Airbus A321neo. Yes, it is weird typing “Alaska Airlines” and “Airbus” together.

Change is inevitable — especially in the airline business.  Change can be all fine and dandy when you are talking about it conceptually, but when the time comes, it is not always easy. As you probably know by now, Alaska Airlines and Virgin America merged, and the red/white Virgin livery is quickly being retired. Virgin was known to be a bit risky in their branding and marketing…. and Alaska played it a bit more safe. Although Alaska will be sending the Virgin America brand into the history books, it has been important for Alaska to incorporate some of the Virgin culture into the new merged airline. Not just for the customers who loved the Virgin product, but also for the employees who are in the process of getting to know their new family.

Ironically the Alaska 737 with the More to Love livery celebrating their merger with Virgin was parked next to our A321 at SFO - Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren | JDLMultimedia

Ironically, the Alaska 737 with the ‘More to Love’ livery celebrating their merger with Virgin was parked next to our A321 at SFO – Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren | JDLMultimedia

I was recently invited to fly down to San Francisco (SFO) to get a first hand look of the new Alaska Airlines product that will soon be found across the fleet. At gate 54B, the airline had set up walls, and inside were a variety of new products to be experienced. Also, there were experts to answer your questions about what was new. There was a special treat, too. What better way to put it all together than to take a special VIP flight on one of their Airbus A321s (that previously flew for Virgin America, obviously)?

I was interested to see the balance Alaska decided on, and get a better idea of my hometown airline’s future.

"Just two years after acquiring Virgin America, we're thrilled to introduce a modern cabin that aligns the onboard experience across our fleet," said Ben Minicucci, president and COO at Alaska Airlines. "After extensive feedback from our guests and in collaboration with our partners, we've infused the Alaska Airlines cabin with key brand elements from Virgin America – the result is a premium experience at an affordable price."

Deplaning at SFO on the ramp — LOVE IT!

The Alaska Airlines VIP Event at Gate 54B

My day started early. Like 2:45 am early. But that is okay, as I had airplanes to see! When selecting my flight to/from SFO, I had a choice of flying an Embraer E175, Boeing 737, or Airbus A320. I opted for the E-Jet down to SFO (I freak’n love that plane), and the Airbus A320 back home. I chose the Airbus, since not only would this be the first time I will have flown an Alaskan Airbus (well, second at that point), but I figured it would be nice to compare it to the fancy new product I would experience during my trip.

My flight down was uneventful, and I was happy to de-plane from the ramp. The Alaska presence in Terminal 2 at SFO isn’t huge, so it was pretty easy for me to find our special VIP gate at 54B. I slowly made my way around the room, checking things out and learning about what’s new.

One of the first shiny objects I went to check out were the new uniforms. Now, this might shock a few folks, but I am not up with all the new fashion trends. I know what I like, I know what I don’t like, and I am not going to be able to offer a flowery description to go with it. That said, I really like these outfits. Like really, really like them.

Why does it matter? I at least know fashion is huge business, and when your employees look good, your brand looks good. Not to mention, if you wear an outfit for 14 hours, that you actually like, not only will you be in a better mood, but you are going to feel better about yourself.

The new Recaro seat. Kinda of. I mean, it is missing the tray and is bolted on the wall, but you get the idea.

The new Recaro seat. Kinda of. I mean, it is missing the tray and is bolted on the wall, but you get the idea.

Here is the big ticket item that most of you will probably care about — the seats (although yours won’t be bolted to a wall)! At first glance these probably look pretty familiar to the Alaska Beyond product you experience now. However, there are a few key differences (since I would have just re-written these in my own words and not have done as nice of a job, I have copied/pasted from Alaska below):

  • Ergonomically-friendly tablet holders at each seat that accommodate most tablets and smartphones. The holders free up tray table space and an added shelf keeps devices in prime viewing position. Flexible mesh pockets also allow for easy access to essentials during the flight.
  • Upgraded premium and main cabin seats now feature memory foam for added comfort.
  • Conveniently-placed and tilted power outlets at every seat (USB & 110V) that allow guests to easily locate and charge two devices at once. The electrical boxes under the middle seat have been relocated to provide more personal space for guests.
  • Cup holders throughout first class and premium class, so that guests can multi-task while they savor a craft beer, wine, or cocktail and have full use of the tray table.

Some fancy talk there, but these changes are legit and I will go more into my thoughts when I actually take it for a spin.

Pretty cool display with the seat in parts to better inspect it!

Pretty cool display with the seat in parts to better inspect it!

There was also a pretty unique first class seat display at the gate as well. Here are is the little write up from Alaska:

  • Redesigned first class Recaro seats that evoke the feeling of both performance and comfort, like a luxury car. The sculpted design features memory foam and a 40″ pitch, along with footrests to support guests of varying heights.

I might drive a 2009 Honda Accord (I mean, it is an EX with leather, sunroof, and a six-CD changer baby!), but I would say their new first class seat feels more like a nice, upgraded domestic first class seat. I only had a few minutes with it, maybe with more time it will start to feel like I am cruising in a BMW 7-Series.

In the end, those used to Virgin first class might be a bit disappointed (not much), but those used to flying Alaska are in for a treat. That’s a solid compromise as two brands, and experiences, get merged.

The best part of the gate area was the sweet food spread, including the world’s largest Alaska Airlines food plate. #nomnom

Flying the New Alaska Product on an Airbus A321neo

Standing around the gate area and looking at the different updates before boarding, I honestly didn’t get all the hype. Sure… each of these things was an improvement, but was it that much more than the Beyond product that Alaska already has, or does it include enough of the Virgin America influence? I was starting to think that it didn’t. Before I could contemplate it any further, I was told it was time to board and I made my way to seat 23D — a window!

If you want to experience what would happen if an Alaska 737-900ER Boeing Sky Interior cabin made a cute little A321 baby with a Virgin America discotech — this would be pretty darn close. Once again, let me pull from the elegant Alaska wording then give you some of my thoughts on all this:

  • Refreshed color palette from the updated bulkhead design to the carpet, bringing in neutral tones that are associated with relaxing environments against pops of Alaska’s signature blue.
  • Ambient mood lighting with calming, cool blue hues developed by lighting and color experts to complement the human body’s natural circadian rhythm. The result is lighting that changes throughout the flight to promote an uplifting energy during the day and calming energy into the evening.

A few years back, I would totally have made fun of that stuff about the LED lighting. However, after flying on many different airlines and cabins that use the lighting, I am a true believer. As long as the crew doesn’t change it from dark to “OMG EVERYONE WAKE UP NOW” bright.

Here’s the good and bad thing about these special media flights — they are fun. We cheered when we took off, everyone gets up and chats, we have some good food, and then we land. There are times where I get caught up in all that and forget that I have a job to do. Hence why you have three very nice photos of probably the coolest upgrade — but taken by Alaska. My bad.

Adding the fold-down shelf makes it so much easier to be entertained while eating, working, and not straining your neck. So simple. So good. But also probably so difficult to let passengers know it exists (be sure to tell your friends). It can hold your iPad, it can hold your iPhone, it can probably hold other stuff too.

No question when Virgin America’s in-flight entertainment system, called RED, came out, it was amazing. It was better than anything domestically by a long shot and better than most international products. I didn’t realize how much it had aged until my flight back to Seattle on an A320 with the RED system. As long as you have your own device of some sort, I vastly prefer Alaska’s product. The big plus that Red had going for it was being able to order food and drinks from your seat (that option is not available on Alaska flights).

Thoughts on the Virgin America Influence

As we cruised at 36,000 feet above California, and I was eating my sweet ice cream (which Alaska serves to first class passengers on trans-cons and Hawaiian flights), it came to me. Each of these improvements neatly laid out might not be so obvious on their own, but when you see all of them working together, flying high above it all, it becomes much more obvious. This truly is a new Alaska with some of Virgin culture mixed in — they nailed it.

Are the Virgin diehards going to be 100% happy with everything? Probably not. Will any of the Alaska loyalists be unhappy with the changes? Probably. But that is okay. You cannot make everyone happy, and if we have seen anything from airline mergers of the past, coming together and moving forward can be brutal (for employees and passengers).

Our VIP pilots that will soon likely learn how to fly with a center yolk as well!

Our VIP pilots that will soon likely learn how to fly with a center yolk as well!

Next Steps for the Product and That Airbus Fleet

This sort of total change takes time. By early 2020, the airline expects 36% of their mainline fleet will have the updates. All new 737 Max 9 aircraft will be delivered with the new interior (although with the current headlines, who knows if that will be delayed) and I am very interested to see how this will look with the Boeing Sky Interior. There is also still the question if Alaska will keep the Airbus aircraft in their fleet. They still have them on lease for the next four to five years, and they plan to announce what they will do with the Airbus by the end of the year.

It is still weird seeing the Alaska livery on the Airbus A320, but I am pretty sure it looks good.

It is still weird seeing the Alaska livery on the Airbus A320, but I am pretty sure it looks good

What do you think of the new Alaska Airlines changes? If you flew Virgin America, do you think they have done the airline justice? Is this a good compromise or did they miss the opportunity to do more? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Disclaimer: Alaska Airlines provided for my flights, but all opinions are my own. 

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & FOUNDER - SEATTLE, WA. David has written, consulted, and presented on multiple topics relating to airlines and travel since 2008. He has been quoted and written for a number of news organizations, including BBC, CNN, NBC News, Bloomberg, and others. He is passionate about sharing the complexities, the benefits, and the fun stuff of the airline business. Email me: david@airlinereporter.com

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15 Comments
Michael Fullmer

Was able to see all three types (A/B/E) of Alaska’s planes when I landed in SFO last Thursday on Delta. Like the new livery. THANK YOU for using the proper term for the ramp/apron/taxiway area! Tarmacadam hasn’t been used in decades!

Hey Michael,

Our loyal readers remind us often of when to not use tarmac and I love it. Almost become an inside joke :).

David

David Jelinek

Great article. Just one note. The A321 you flew on was not a previously owned VX aircraft that’s been redesigned. It’s a brand new A321 that was just delivered a few weeks ago. There are currently 9 A321s in the fleets. 8 have the Red interior and the newest one has the new “Aura” interior as they are calling it. One more A321 will be delivered in the next few months. There are 2 A320s that have been retrofitted with the new interior and they expect to do 3-4 each month until all are done.

Hey David,

Hmm, yea looks like that might be the case. I was told that this aircraft is the fourth A321neo that was delivered and it has the RED interior and was retrofitted to the new Alaska product. Since N928VA was delivered in May 2018, after the airlines had a single operating certificate, it would just be AS’ aircraft. I love the details that folks catch :). Thanks for that.

David

I really don’t like how the food cannot be ordered through the system anymore. That was so convenient and everything was ready for you by the time the flight attendants got to you.

History and perhaps even current events will look back on this as an EPIC failure by Alaska NOT to bring MORE of the VA brand into Alaska. But let’s face it. Alaska OVER BOUGHT VA as a defense play for it’s routes. The most innovation here may be the locking/storing mechanism for personal devices. Branson has it right to say what’s been said on the demise of the VA brand. Alaska has now LOST what was a great opportunity. Yes I’ve flown both for context.

Bernice

Virgin America was a classy airline. I always had great service and clean planes.

AS will love the review as it’s written from a AS homer. Some good insights and appreciated. But how on earth you can equivocate Virgin’s first class to AS’s boring standard stuff as a Virgin customer being slightly disappointed is akin to AS marketing crap. Virgin’s product lost basically – everything. Credit to AS, and assistance to folks like you, for owning the conversation how this new set-up is close to Virgin. It’s the boring, bland Alaska Beyond with a new bulkhead and blue lights.

I’m not sure what was used as a comparison for this article. Nothing meaningful or valuable from the Virgin America purchase was retained ( and Alaska seems proud of this fact). The new uniforms are so anti-classy from the red and black of VA to the new faded blue/greens with black (seriously the color scheme is so institutional it could be United). Replacing purple lighting with blue does not make an airline “cool”. Shrinking the seating space (first class and coach), removing innovative ordering were poor moves and having a pleasant gate and inflight experience should have been retained. At least try to do a decent safety video or demonstration vs. making the flight attendants unnaturally say “ cheers” at the end of each line they read or force the customers to sit through a 5 minute commercial to sign up for a credit card— on EVERY FLIGHT! Using a blue “visor” to separate first class section from coach is as bad as doing nothing. If Alaska ever intended to merge the “best of both worlds”, they seriously have failed in this regard.

John Gray

ALASKA clearly only wanted the gates. Don’t forget how much better VA’s website and booking process was, but Al”ass”ka threw that away too!! I was top tier on both out of necessity.
Also remeber, VA was voted the best airline 5 years running by flyers. History will show just how poorly Alaska handled this Hostile takeover. Shame on Alaska and thier management.

Wow what an awesome job you have . How does one find a job like that ?

Pretty sure 23D is not a window seat on an Airbus.

Edgardo

Lots of armchair CEOs in this comments section, and most of them ex-VX fans it seems. What no one ever mentions or considers is who AS was fighting with to buy VX. B6 would have gutted the carrier in an instant and slathered over everything with their typical dirty LCC drivel. AS at least has tried to incorporate some of what made VX appealing without going overboard the way Branson’s products always do. VX was a niche product for a niche market that was never going to survive or be profitable

You seem to like being wrong John. A hostile takeover implies the company that was bought out had no say. Virgin chose to sell itself to the highest bidder, and just because an airline is popular with passengers doesn’t mean it’s gonna make money, which Virgin America didn’t. They were gonna get bought up or merged by someone.

Also, VA = Virgin Australia.

The review started out with the goal of reviewing the product, but at least admitted partway through that the actual “job” including self-taking photos was forgotten as a result of taking in the festivities. If I wanted to read Alaska’s own corporate spun marketing blurbs and bullet points on this product, I could’ve just read their social media platforms or the email they sent to Mileage Plan members and other subscribers, which I already addressed on said platforms (and possibly again here, if Jerry above hasn’t or hadn’t beaten me to it), not a review.

To the RED IFE: Alaska had been cutting features of the system in the past year, including getting rid of the in-seat ordering of food and amenities, the Live TV (even Southwest of all airlines has this on BYOD, while Alaska doesn’t), and the games (one purpose of the remote in the armrest), but no; apparently it just “aged”.

Since the end of the article prompts the question; no, I don’t feel Alaska has done the airline justice. The soft product at Alaska was already good, at least if you regularly sit in the front, but the seats themselves are inferior with less legroom (just ask any regular traveler from Virgin America’s First Class about the footrests). But, the soft product wasn’t necessarily something from Virgin America to be used as evidence of compromise. The hard product could’ve been different from the likes of American or United, but Alaska chose to be like them instead. In turn, airlines like Delta and JetBlue have more in common with what Virgin America was than what little Alaska claims they share. These cost cut features like the handheld device holders, slimline seats, and that pitiful excuse for a bulkhead should be called out for the cost-cutting features they are, or at best obnoxiously marketed as eco-friendly developments, not presented as enhancements to the passenger experience. There’s practically no hint of anything from Virgin America other than the fact it’s an Airbus and claiming otherwise is stretching it. Though that may as well be the purpose because Alaska gives the impression of eliminating anything vaguely related to the brand (as David, not the reviewer, pointed out above), especially since the brand is not licensed from Virgin Group anyway. They can’t get rid of so much of the Virgin America product (especially if Virgin America’s markets and yields were as marginal as people claim) and then blankly wonder where a share of the customers (and yields) went, when Virgin America’s product was a stronger aspect of their brand to begin with.

Furthermore, AFA Alaska is investigating concerns of for safety issues for this Airbus interior, namely the unusability of assist handles at the front L/R1 doors (the bulkheads were moved forward, whether to accommodate the additional seats added to the cabin) and the placement of the seats by the L/R2 emergency exits potentially causing flight attendant harm or impediment in the event of an evacuation, so things aren’t all happy auras and roses either.

Edgardo – The end of the article specifically asks former Virgin America customers for their comments, including whether Alaska has made an effective compromise, so of course there will be comments concerning Virgin America. You are free to respond to them however you want, but that’s why they are there.

To an “ex-VX fan” at least unlike Alaska’s unveil, JetBlue’s unveiling of their cabin restyling is actually exciting, and the hard product speaks more to Virgin America fans without needing to claim that it “brings the best of Virgin America and Alaska together” like Alaska tries to put it. I agree in that JetBlue is a self-proclaimed LCC, but onboard passenger experience is hardly “cheap” with lots of things including free snacks, drinks, seatback entertainment, and streaming-supporting Internet even to people booked in coach.

And Alaska “slathered over everything with their typical dirty LCC drivel” anyway, because despite JetBlue saying Basic Economy was “on the way”, Alaska implemented their restrictive Basic Economy-esque Saver fares before JetBlue (and in US3 fashion the fares haven’t actually dropped, you just get less for your buck compared to last year), reduced their carry-on bag size allowance, followed JetBlue in suit anyway by hiking checked bag fees by $5, removed the option to buy amenity kits or blankets and pillows, removed their flight change fee waivers on reservations 60+ days out, and discontinued their price guarantee. (Well, unless you’re an elite with MVP or similar…for now.) This, in addition to Virgin’s other policies and services that were discontinued like Travel Bank credit for compensation that could be used for anything from booking new tickets (for yourself or anyone else) to service fees (checked bags, pets, etc.), rather than Alaska Discount Codes that can only be used toward booking new tickets for yourself only, or Virgin’s “Plans Change Pass” for waiving the change fees for any number of flight changes.

Legacy Alaska and Virgin consumers alike therefore lose out and foot the bill for the cost of the acquisition; hardly benefiting for consumers. I haven’t even gotten into the mechanical failures and fume-related mishaps that ensued on the Airbus fleet when maintenance culture became more lax—at Alaska’s command, by the way. See further to your point on profits–

Lin – Virgin America in its last two years prior to any Alaska involvement recorded its highest profits to date (2015 in the hundreds of millions). The airline was on the rise rather than ailing, and had restarted expansion and accepting of aircraft deliveries (ETOPS A320s and A321neos for Hawaii in particular), but (sadly) the 75% of Virgin America owned by US firms chose to sell while they were ahead, or at least that part is my my interpretation. Whatever would have actually happened, we will never know for sure.

“VA” was the emblem used on serviceware and some branding elements from its startup, and abbreviations are also a thing; not every two-character code is someone trying to use the IATA code, and not every airline was fortunate enough to have its abbreviation be its IATA code.

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