When we hear about airline takeovers, mergers, and changes here at TravelingMom, hot debates usually ensue. Will the merger fix some of the problems? Or will air travelers lose? With the Alaska Airlines and Virgin America announcement there was a different kind of chatter. What happens when two decent airlines come together? Could too much of a good thing ruin both?
Alaska Airlines Buys Virgin America
Both Alaska Airlines and Virgin America rank fairly high in customer satisfaction and in TravelingMom’s own airline roundup. Rural TravelingMom Amanda Williams says that in her time living on an Alaskan island she flew Alaska Airlines frequently and was impressed with the customer service. Driving TravelingMom Scotty Reiss is looking forward to the possibilities this purchase might bring. High on her list would be for Alaska Airlines to update some things to the more modern level of Virgin America., particularly the carrier’s safety video, menu selections and music programs. As an East Coaster, Scotty also hopes this means that the combined airline will move into more East Coast airports that are currently Southwest strongholds.
Serving 92 cities with 151 planes, Alaska Airlines is known for its great customer service and a focus on connecting cities on the West Coast, particularly Alaskan cities with no access by road. Virgin America serves 21 domestic destinations and 3 destinations in Mexico with a fleet of 60 planes. This purchase will increase Alaska Airlines’ fleet by almost 40 percent. Operating costs for Virgin America could go down significantly if the headquarters offices are combined. That’s because Virgin is renting pricey real estate in the San Francisco Bay Area currently.
Whenever a takeover occurs, our concerns immediately turn to three things:
- frequent flyer benefits.
We walk you through the differences and what we think might happen. Will consumers come out the winners?
Routes: Alaska Airlines and Virgin America Overlap
Picking a winner in the routes round is a challenging. Alaska Airlines flies to more destinations, but the two airlines overlap in all Virgin America cities. That means not a single airport is being added.
The Verdict: Flyers could lose out here. Unless the new combined airline makes a commitment to finding available slots at airports not currently served, consumers could find themselves with fewer flights and no competitive advantage when it comes to fares. Here’s hoping they are actively hunting down new destinations!
Fees: How Alaska Airlines and Virgin America Stack Up
Unaccompanied Minor (UM) Fees
Alaska Airlines has traditionally serviced a region of America that doesn’t have a lot of choices in air travel. As such, it has been one of the friendliest airlines towards children traveling alone. It has some of the lowest fees in the industry and some of the most lenient policies regarding age of children alloowed to travel on connecting flights as a Unaccompanied Minor.
Virgin America is more stringent on age and its fees are higher (although still lower than Delta, the industry leader on emptying our pockets). Alaska’s fees run from $25-50 each way depending on whether the flight is direct or connecting. Children can connect as a UM as young as 8. Virgin America’s fees range from $75-$125 depending on the length of the flight. Children 11 and under can only be booked on nonstop flights as a UM. Virgin America does allow UM’s into and out of Mexico which is unusual among airlines.
The Verdict: If Alaska Airlines extends its family-friendly policies for unaccompanied minor travel to Virgin’s routes, parents everywhere could come out winners. An even bigger win would be if Alaska Airlines adopts Virgin’s policy of allowing UM’s to travel to see family in Mexico.
Currently, Alaska Airlines charges $25 for the first bag, $25 for the second bag, and $75 for the 3rd or above. There are waivers for military, travel between specific cities, first class, Elite members and holders of an Alaska Airlines credit card. Virgin America has a flat rate of $25 per bag with waivers for fully refundable Main Cabin fares, first class, Main Cabin select, and credit card holders.
The Verdict: Alaska Airlines has some interesting fee waivers on baggage — Mileage Plan members can check one properly packed case of wine when traveling from some Pacific Northwest wine destinations. If this policy extends to Virgin America’s California Wine Region hubs, wine lovers everywhere win. Likewise if military 5 bags checked free benefits are extended by Alaska Airlines to Virgin America customers, our military travelers score big as well.
Frequent Flyer Programs: Changes Ahead for Alaska Airlines and Virgin America
Concern always starts to swirl during a buyout or merger around frequent flyer programs- will those points you’ve worked so hard to earn become worthless?
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan frequent flyer program operates on a miles earned are miles flown basis. Even on flights under 500 miles you should earn the 500 mile minimum. There are bonus miles awarded based on your membership level. There is also the opportunity to earn Double Miles on Mileage Plan Deals.
Virgin America’s Elevate frequent flyer program awards points based on fare rather than distance. Therefore if you took advantage of a special fare from SFO-LAS (414 air miles) for $74 you would only earn 370 points. On Alaska Airlines you would earn the minimum of 500 miles.
The Verdict: Most consumers win if the policies veer toward purchaser Alaska Airlines current policies. Neither airlines has blackout dates, both have generous timelines for use of miles (Alaska’s is any activity every 24 months, Virgin’s is any activity every 18 months) and both have a network of travel partners that you can earn and use on.
Who loses out here? Business travelers who book last minute high fare tickets and would have earned 5 points per dollar on Virgin America.