More Alaska Airlines changes are on the horizon

Alaska Airlines today will end its year-old daily flight between Los Angeles and Cuba due to low demand and changes in the Trump administration’s policy toward Cuba.

It’s just one of many changes occurring since Alaska merged with Virgin America in December 2016 and have been gradually integrating their operations, staff and policies. Earlier this month, Alaska received a single operating certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration for it and Virgin America to fly as one airline, which will enable some of the biggest changes.

Here are some examples of what Alaska has in store this year and beyond:

  • Paint the first Airbus plane in Alaska’s colors this month.
  • Add high-speed, satellite Wi-Fi to its entire fleet of Boeing and Airbus aircraft starting in March.
  • Upgrade its in-flight menus by adding fresh meal options in the First Class and Main cabins, and West Coast-inspired beer and wine choices.
  • Install blue mood lighting on more Boeing planes. Virgin America is famous for its cabin “mood lighting,” which changes color and brightness throughout a flight depending on the time of day and conditions outside the plane. The largely pink and purple hues were supposed to create a calm environment.
Alaska Airlines' blue mood lighting
Alaska Airlines said it plans to add blue lighting to more planes vs. the primarily pink and purple mood lighting that was popular on Virgin American planes. (Courtesy of Alaska Airlines)
  • Install new modern interiors in all Airbus planes, such as new seats, carpeting and lighting.  Alaska will increase the number of First Class seats and introduce Premium Class seats.
  • Locate an Airbus operations control center with one for Boeing aircraft at its Seattle-based flight operations center in March.
  • Offer travelers one mobile app, website and airport check-in counter when Alaska moves to a single reservations system in late April. For now, customers will continue to use separate Alaska and Virgin America platforms.
  • Update and expand airport lounges, including a new New York JFK lounge in April and a flagship lounge at Seattle next year.
  • See new uniforms designed by Seattle designer Luly Yang in 2019. Flight and ground crews will start testing new uniforms soon.
Since late 2016, travelers already have seen Alaska make the following changes: merge Virgin America’s loyalty program with the Alaska Mileage Plan; end Virgin America’s credit card program to focus on Alaska’s credit card; and update its no-show policy.

The featured photo at top is by Artur Bergman via Flickr under Creative Commons license.

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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.