Q&A: What the Alaska Airlines and Virgin America deal means for travelers

Alaska Airlines on Wednesday completed its purchase of Virgin America, kicking off a merger process it hopes to complete within three weeks.

The Seattle-based parent of Alaska Airlines paid $2.5 billion for Burlingame, Calif.-based Virgin America, a week after getting approval from the U.S. Department of Justice contingent on Alaska Air Group Inc. reducing the scope of its code-share agreement with American Airlines, the world’s largest airline based in Texas. Alaska expects to receive approval from regulators and Virgin America shareholders by Jan. 1.

The merger Alaska and Virgin America will create the nation’s fifth largest airline, with nearly 1,200 daily flights to 118 destinations in North America, Costa Rica and Cuba. Based in Seattle, the combined airline will be a West Coast powerhouse, with hubs in Seattle; Portland, Ore., Anchorage; San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Here are some answers to questions travelers may have:

Q. Where can Virgin America tickets be bought online?

A. Starting Dec. 19, customers can buy Virgin America tickets at AlaskaAir.com. They also can continue to buy tickets at VirginAmerica.com for the immediate future.

Q. Are there any new routes?

A. The combined airline will offer new daily flights to Minneapolis; Orange County, Calif.; and Orlando, Fla.; from its San Francisco hub starting in summer 2017. The schedule will be announced on Dec. 21, the same day tickets to those places go on sale.

Q. Will the Virgin America name and/or experience go away?

A. Travelers should not see “major changes” to the Virgin America product or flying experience in the next 12 months. Alaska said it’s “conducting extensive customer research to understand what customers value most” and hopes to have a decision about the Virgin America brand in early 2017.

Q. If you have an existing flight reservation, what should you do?

A. If you have an existing reservation, your reservation remains the same, and each airline’s current travel policies still apply. If you have a flight on Virgin America, check in at a Virgin America counter. If you have a flight on Alaska, check in at an Alaska counter.

Q. What changes will loyalty program members of each airline see?

A. Alaska Mileage Plan and Virgin America Elevate will continue to operate as separate programs. Starting Dec. 19, Virgin America Elevate members and Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan members can earn rewards on each other’s flights and elite members will receive priority check-in and boarding on each other’s flights. Starting Jan. 9, members of both frequent flier programs will be able to redeem award travel on both airlines and Elevate members will be invited to open new Alaska Mileage Plan accounts.

aa-va-merger-chart
Courtesy of Alaska Airlines Group Inc.

Q. What does the merger mean for California customers?

A. The combined airline offers 289 daily flights to 52 places in California. Just from the San Francisco Bay Area, there are 113 daily flights to 32 destinations.

Q. Will Alaska’s fleet change?

A. Alaska said it has not made any long-term decisions about its fleet. For now, Virgin America’s Airbus A319 and A320 jets will join Alaska’s all-Boeing fleet.

It remains to be seen how the Alaska and Virgin America merger and their different styles will shake out. Virgin America is known as young, fun airline with cabin mood lighting and touch-screen personal entertainment. Alaska has invested in technology, such as luggage tags customers can print at home, for more efficient operations.

“Alaska Airlines and Virgin America are different airlines, but we believe different works – and we’re confident fliers will agree,” Alaska Air Group CEO Brad Tilden said in a statement. “The two airlines may look different, but our core customer and employee focus is very much the same.”

Travelers can find more answers on an Alaska web page designed for that purpose.

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New government rule would require airlines to refund baggage fees

Here’s some good news about airline baggage fees.

U.S. airlines must refund a customer’s baggage fee if that person’s luggage is “substantially delayed,” though that term wasn’t defined. That’s probably the most consumer-friendly change of the new rules, which were announced today by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The DOT already requires airlines to reimburse consumers for checked bag fees if luggage is lost or damaged. And some airlines already offer baggage fee refunds or other financial aid if luggage is significantly delayed.

“The travel community is grateful that the administration continues to shine a light on many of the more frustrating issues that ail the air travel experience in the U.S.,” said Roger Dow, CEO of the U.S. Travel Association.

But trade group Airlines for America warned that some parts of the new regulations could end up hurting consumers by driving up the cost of air travel.

Here are some of the other proposed rules:

  • Travelers with disabilities: The largest U.S. airlines would have to report how often they mishandle wheelchairs.
  • Sales bias: Online travel-booking sites would have to disclose any bias toward certain airlines in how they offer flights to consumers based on financial arrangements with those airlines.
  • Airline data: The DOT would require U.S. carriers to report information on their on-time performance, mishandled baggage and complaint rates not only for themselves but for their smaller, regional carriers.
  • Baggage: In addition to reporting the total number of mishandled bags, airlines will have to report the total number of checked bags instead of the overall number of travelers. This is a more apples-to-apples measure of the odds that a bag will be mistreated.

The DOT said it’s investigating “potentially unfair business practices” by some airlines that prevent online travel sites from listing all of their fare and flight options.

The regulations are part of efforts by the Obama administration over the last eight years to provide better consumer protections for air travelers. President Barack Obama posted some comments today about the new rules on his Facebook page (see below).

The DOT expects over 700 million American passengers to board 9 million U.S. airline flights this year.