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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
— David Parker Brown (@ARdpb) February 28, 2019
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).
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.
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.