Alaska Airlines today officially closed its acquisition of Virgin America and announced plans to combine some aspects of operations and loyalty programs, but said that the two airline brands will remain separate for now. The company also announced some new routes out of San Francisco in 2017.
(Scroll down for a slideshow of the celebration at SFO)
“No decisions regarding the Virgin America brand have been made. Alaska plans to continue to operate the Virgin America fleet with its current name and product for a period of time while it conducts extensive customer research to understand what fliers value the most,” Alaska said. “Virgin America will continue to fly under its brand with no immediate changes to the onboard product or experience.” The company said it expects to reach a decision about the Virgin brand “in early 2017,” but noted that customers won’t see any big changes to the Virgin product “within the next 12 months.”
The effects of the merger begin on December 19, when customers will be able to buy Virgin America tickets through the alaskaair.com website, although Virgin America’s website will continue to sell them “for the immediate future” as well.
Also starting December 19, members of Virgin’s Elevate loyalty program will be able to earn points on Alaska Airlines flights, and Alaska’s Mileage Plan members can earn miles on Virgin’s flights. Elite members of both programs will get priority check-in and boarding on either airline. And Virgin America elite members will soon enjoy perks like last minute upgrades to Alaska Airlines new premium economy seats.
The two loyalty programs will not be combined for now, Alaska said, but on January 9, Elevate members will be invited to activate new Mileage Plan accounts, so they can earn miles not only on Alaska but also on its international partner airlines, which fly to more than 800 global destinations. Elevate elite members who start a Mileage Plan account will get equivalent elite status in that program. Also starting January 9, members of both programs will be able to claim award travel on either carrier.
What’s yet to be determined is what the exchange rate between the two programs will be...Virgin’s operates on points per dollar spent, and Alaska’s still works on miles flown, so it could get messy. But I’m hoping that Alaska makes the ratio something that will surprise and delight Elevate members… so stay tuned for more on that..
What’s best for Virgin America flyers is all the new opportunities for earning and burning miles with Alaska’s robust collection of airline partners (15+ top shelf airlines)– this is one of the strongest elements of the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan program.
Alaska also announced plans to begin new service out of San Francisco next summer, including a daily flight to Orlando, two a day to Minneapolis-St. Paul and four a day to Orange County, California – although it did not specify which of the two airline brands would operate them. It said details of those routes will be announced December 21.
The company is using the slogan “different works” in the campaign promoting its merger. What’s that mean? “While Alaska Airlines and Virgin America may seem different on the surface, fundamentally we are similar,” it said. “Both airlines have always been about doing things a bit differently to offer something better for travelers. Alaska and Virgin America have built outstanding reputations for low fares, on-time performance, innovative products and experiences and award-winning customer service.”
Alaska has created a special website at www.differentworks.com where customers can find more information about the merger plans. Together, Alaska and Virgin will be the nation’s fifth-largest airline and the one with the largest West Coast presence, and a combined network of 1,200 flights a day to 118 destinations.
Despite the hoopla about the merger, there’s an underlying angst among Virgin America employees. Asked how he felt to see the merger finally consummated, one Virgin America executive told TravelSkills: “Conflicted. We feel like parents who have been given a pile of money to give up their kids.”
Remember the photo that leaked last month of an aircraft with a combined Alaska/Virgin livery? Alaska said today that is not a preview of the look of the combined airline, but simply “a special commemorative plane designed to mark the occasion.” Speaking of aircraft, Alaska said it hasn’t yet decided about the future direction of its fleet – Alaska has an all-Boeing mainline fleet while Virgin is all-Airbus – but that planes from both manufacturers will remain in the combined fleet “for many years.”
It’s estimated that Virgin Group founder Richard Branson will snag a windfall of about $600 million now that the $4 billion deal has closed.
Here are some more details that affect passengers:
- Customers who have a Gogo Wi-Fi monthly pass can now use it on either airline where Gogo service is offered.
- Those who have a Virgin America Travel Bank or flight credit cannot yet use it to buy flights on Alaska.
- Although some aspects of the loyalty programs are being combined or made reciprocal, for now the same is not true of the Mileage Plan Visa Card or the Virgin America Visa Card. “For now, each credit card will be limited to the specific terms and benefits of the associated airline,” Alaska said.
- Alaska’s 20-minute guarantee for checked baggage delivery will not apply to Virgin America for now.
- Members of the two airlines’ respective airport lounges will not have reciprocal access privileges – except at LAX where both airlines operate lounges. However, “Soon the Virgin America Loft will be part of Alaska’s network of 60+ lounges,” Alaska said, promising to offer more details soon.
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