Alaska Airlines versus Virgin America

You may be aware of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group’s attempt to create an American domestic airline to go with their Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia airlines.  I’ve made a couple blog posts about the airline in the past.  Virgin Group was not the majority owner of Virgin America.  Based on some articles I read online, there is a federal law that prohibits foreign companies from owning a majority share of a US airline.  So American venture capitalists owned the majority of the airline.  According to Wikipedia, the venture capitalists were Black Canyon Capital and Cyrus Capital Partners and that Virgin America began operations on August 8, 2007.  Virgin America was then subsequently purchased by Alaska Airlines in April 2016 although the airline did not fully disappear until Alaska completed integration of the airline on April 24, 2018.  However, Alaska had not repainted all of the planes until months after that date.  Media reports stated Sir Branson had not wanted to sell Virgin America, but since it was owned by American venture capitalists, Virgin Group couldn’t stop the sale.  Sir Branson was quoted as saying he might start another Virgin America in the future.

When flying to/from California, I usually flew on Virgin America between 2008 or 2009 and when it fully ceased to exist on April 24, 2018.  Since then, I’ve been flying on Alaska Airlines for now. Alaska doesn’t give me the same feeling though.  Alaska feels more like the major American airlines, just a little different.

Virgin America was customer service oriented.  They had traditional ticket counters and unless you were there right as they opened and thus were still in the middle of booting up their computers, you could easily go up and get full service from an employee.  There were a handful of kiosks, but you didn’t have to use them.  Either way, a Virgin America employee tagged your checked baggage.  Virgin America would have flowers in a vase on every ticket and gate counter.  At the gate, you could buy Virgin America branded over-the-ear headphones for $2 on the honor system.  The headphones were stored in a box while next to that box was a box with a hole where you put in your money.  However, I occasionally saw what looked like people taking headphones without putting any money in the box to pay for it.  In the plane, Virgin America offered outlets throughout the plane and a seat-back screen where you could watch the flight safety video, Dish Network TV, movies, listen to music, play video games, chat with people in other seats, or even order your food or drink.  They did not run a meal cart down the aisle.  They did run a drink cart through the plane at the beginning though.  Instead, you placed your order on the seat-back screen at any time through the flight and the flight attendant would deliver the food to you.  So the lines at the lavatories weren’t very long since not everybody eats or drinks at the same time so the eating and drinking were spread throughout the flight.

On the other hand, Alaska has a sea of kiosk machines that they appear to want you to use.  Plus you have to tag your own checked baggage.  The employee standing there just checks your ID and takes your already tagged baggage from you.  Then you walk away without really interacting with the employee.  At the gate, they don’t sell headphones.  You can instead buy earbuds on the plane.  On the plane, there’s no seat-back screens, so you have to setup your own devices in advance to use their in-flight Wi-Fi.  And you can’t order meals, so they run a meal cart at the beginning of the flight.  On my most recent flight on Alaska Airlines, it was a brand new plane.  That sounds like a good thing, but it was so new, they hadn’t even installed the in-flight Wi-Fi yet.  So you couldn’t even use your own devices unless you downloaded everything in advance to your device.  The flight attendants then ran a cart down the aisle to offer passengers the opportunity to rent an Alaska Airlines tablet preloaded with movies for $10 per tablet.  And of course, no in-flight Wi-Fi so the tablet couldn’t access the Internet either.  Oh and since there’s no seat-back screen, there was no flight safety video.  Flight attendants have to do it the old-fashioned way by announcing the instructions and using demo items to show how to put on seat belts, life vests, and oxygen masks.

So in conclusion, on a scale of Excellent, Very Good, Average, Poor, and Terrible, I would rate Virgin America an Excellent and Alaska Airlines to be somewhere in between Very Good and Average.  There are things to like about Alaska Airlines, but Virgin America was much better.  I was once on a SuperShuttle van with some other people after a flight and one of the others was someone on the same Virgin America flight.  That passenger told me that this wasn’t her final destination.  She was going to take a train to New York the next day.  She apparently could not get a direct flight to New York on Virgin America, so she opted to fly somewhere near New York and then take the train to New York.  And then do the reverse to return back to California. I think that shows Virgin America had some pretty dedicated fans.  Oh and I hope Alaska Airlines continue to use Airbus A320 series jets like Virgin America did.  I like those Airbus jets better than the Boeing 737 jets.  Especially now, when Boeing is having trouble with the 737 MAX jets.


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