On April 24th, 2018, Virgin America operated its last flight before merging with Alaska Airlines. The all-Airbus carrier’s addition to the Alaska network helped shore up the carrier’s presence on the West Coast of the United States. Simple Flying takes a look back at Virgin America.
The start of Virgin America
Richard Branson’s Virgin Group founded Virgin America as an upstart low-cost carrier in San Francisco. From here, it operated some lucrative transcontinental routes to New York, according to a report from SFGate in 2004. The airline faced some controversy and debate over its ties to the foreign investors.
However, finally, in 2007, the airline made its inaugural flight on August 8th from New York’s JFK Airport to San Francisco. A separate flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco launched the airline’s West Coast services.
Virgin America was a well-loved carrier in the United States. It offered passengers comfortable seating with inflight entertainment and was one of the first airlines in the US to provide wifi on a majority of its fleet.
Following the repeal of the Wright Amendment, which limited traffic at Dallas Love Field to only a few states, Virgin America was one of the airlines that capitalized on this and built up some of its operations there– although not as large as its West Coast hubs.
Virgin America operated an all-Airbus fleet consisting of A319s, A320s, and A321neos at the time of its merger with Alaska Airlines. In addition to these, the airline had A320neos on order. Alaska absorbed these orders post-merger. Although, some of the leased A320s did make their way to scrapyards.
Merger with Alaska Airlines
On April 4th, 2016, Alaska Airlines announced that it would acquire Virgin America. The combined airline would become a West Coast giant with over 1,200 daily departures. The deal was equivalent to about $4 billion, including the acquisition of Virgin America’s debt, leases, and shares for takeover.
For Alaska Airlines, this move was a big one to shore up its West Coast presence. From around 2014, Delta started a major expansion in Seattle, threatening Alaska’s dominance. The prospect of Anchorage as a major hub, was not geographically suitable for Alaska, which primarily relies on domestic and leisure traffic to North American destinations.
So, looking elsewhere to shore up support and revenue, a merger with Virgin America came to be. For $4 billion, of which $2.6 billion was a direct investment in shares, Alaska was also taking over about 60 of Virgin America’s existing aircraft and aircraft orders alongside lucrative slots in heavily slot-controlled airports such as San Francisco and New York-JFK. This appeared to be a fantastic deal- one that officially closed in December of 2016.
The end of Virgin America
Now under the control of Alaska Airlines, the Virgin America brand was on its way out as part of a brand refresh for Alaska. Mergers commonly see the end of one brand in favor of a refreshed brand. With the merger of Northwest and Delta, the Delta brand survived and received a refresh. American Airlines refreshed its brand after merging with US Airways. Meanwhile, United refreshed after merging with Continental. However, United did maintain Continental’s livery.
On April 24th, 2018, VX1948 flew the last passenger service from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
As part of Alaska’s refresh, the active Virgin fleet was repainted in the new livery and underwent an interior retrofit. One of the consequences of the merger, however, was some fleet inefficiency as the combined airline now flew both Airbus and Boeing narrowbody aircraft. Yet, with fleet refresh on the horizon, Alaska has a couple of options to go either the way of the A320neo or 737 MAX. The carrier has both aircraft types on order.
The one thing missing from Alaska’s fleet are widebodies. While many would like to see more competition in the international long-haul market, it may no longer be a viable option given the current state of the industry.
Were you a fan of Virgin America? Do you have memories of the airline? Let us know in the comments!