Few brands had a more complicated, arduous and industry-rattling path to launch than Virgin America. And now, after just a decade in the air, the charismatic airline’s identity is fading away.
Alaska Airlines, which acquired Virgin America for $4 billion last year, announced this week it will retire the Virgin brand in 2019. At that point, all the carrier’s aircrafts will be branded as Alaska.
“We spent the last 10 months conducting extensive research and listening carefully to what fliers on the West Coast want most,” Alaska Airlines vp of marketing Sangita Woerner said in a press release. “While the Virgin America name is beloved to many, we concluded that to be successful on the West Coast we had to do so under one name—for consistency and efficiency, and to allow us to continue to deliver low fares.”
While mergers of this type often result in the retirement of one brand identity (US Airways ceased to exist in 2015 after merging with American Airlines, and Continental Airlines was folded into United in 2012), the impending death of the Virgin America name clearly has left some frequent passengers—and Virgin scion Richard Branson—feeling rather wistful.
“[Alaska Airlines] has a very different business model and sadly, it could not find a way to maintain its own brand and that of Virgin America,” Branson wrote in an emotional and reflective note to the airline’s customers and crew. “When a company goes public, decisions are made that benefit the shareholders. In the best of times, they also benefit consumers. It remains to be seen what will happen now—for travelers—with fewer airlines in the US than ever. Being different and on a mission to truly reinvent an experience for the customer is increasingly rare in this business.”
Alaska Airlines, of course, took a less dour tone on the brand marriage that dispenses with Virgin America’s maiden name. “Alaska will spend the next few years making major enhancements to its already award-winning guest experience and incorporating favorite elements of the Virgin America experience,” the brand said in a release.
For some customers, losing the Virgin America name is concerning because it could also mean losing the brand’s focus on a quality experience and amenities.
That’s a reputation the airline built its name on from Day 1, with its first flights featuring an in-flight, seat-back entertainment system that CEO Fred Reid described in 2007 as “arguably two or more generations ahead of anything in the U.S. market today.” And sure enough, that video-on-demand model has since been embraced by competitors like Delta, as has Virgin America’s pioneering commitment to offering in-flight wifi.
Branson celebrated such innovations in his send-off note to the brand, with much of his message aimed directly at the employees who brought it all to life:
“You invented concepts like ‘moodlighting’ and ‘on-demand food,’ you reinvented cabin amenities from seat-to-seat chat to Netflix in the sky. You chose warm and soothing pink to purple moodlighting that transitions based on outside light,” Branson wrote in his farewell post. “You proved it is possible to run a business with a strategy that does not rely on low fares and a dominant position alone: you attracted premium flyers with a fun and beautiful guest experience. You created the world’s most loved safety video. You proved that it is possible to create a business with a terrific culture and a brand that people love.”
Branson also highlighted Virgin America’s many obstacles not only to success but also to simply getting off the ground.
Because of strict U.S. restrictions on overseas ownership of domestic airlines, federal regulators intensely scrutinized every step of Virgin America’s creation to ensure it wasn’t simply part of Branson’s global portfolio. After three years of logistical wrangling, Branson’s entities agreed to finance only 23 percent of Virgin America, with the lion’s share coming from U.S. investment partners.
Virgin America’s growth was “hard-won” every step of the way, wrote Branson, who thanked customers “for believing in the little airline that could.”
Luckily for consumers, Alaska Airlines is no slouch when it comes to customer experience and reputation. The brand has earned top honors in the J.D. Power North America Airline Satisfaction Study for nine consecutive years, and a U.S. News & World Report reader survey ranked the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan as the industry’s best frequent flier program for both 2016 and 2017.