Culture

Some Suggestions for Alaska Air CEO Worried About Keeping Virgin America Customers

Extremely loyal fans of Virgin America Airlines have been in a state of “Oh-oh!” ever since it was announced that Alaska Air would be taking it over. Now, Alaska is a very good airline, but Virgin America is an exceptional one. I say this as someone who has been flying a lot for almost thirty years. My fiancée and I have been having a transcontinental (L.A.-Boston) relationship for a few years and Virgin America is far and away her favorite airline. Before I racked up a lot of miles on United while flying around the world entertaining U.S. troops, Virgin America was my preferred carrier as well. I just used the last of those United miles and had planned on switching back to Virgin America. I’ve always liked it because it is the one airline that has managed to remove some of the tediousness from the flying experience in the post-9/11 world.

Today Brad Tilden, the CEO of Alaska Air, didn’t do anything to help the Virgin America diehards off the ledge.

Alaska Air Group Inc expects it will be challenging to keep customers who are loyal to Virgin America Inc after the two companies merge, Alaska Air’s chief executive said on an analyst call on Thursday.

Alaska Air said earlier this month that it would buy Virgin America, a carrier with cult status among leisure and business travelers on the U.S. West Coast, for $2.6 billion.

Chief Executive Brad Tilden said “the biggest challenge” ahead will be appealing to its own customers as well as Virgin America’s passengers, after that airline is merged into the Alaska brand. Virgin America has a distinctive style, with in-flight mood-lighting and media-rich entertainment.

What usually happens when two airlines merge is that the acquired carrier is absorbed into the one that took it over. It’s generally not that noticeable, since most airlines in the U.S. are mind-numbingly similar. The same uninterested flight crews mumble their way through the same sleep-inducing announcements (I know it’s a non-smoking flight–I’m not a young man and that’s been the law for most of my life) inside aircraft that all look alike from the interior.

Virgin America did a couple of simple things that made flying so much nicer, especially if you do it a lot. Their crews are always in a good mood and they made the interior of the planes more pleasing to the eye, mostly by merely changing the lighting.

Alaska is already one of the best “normal” airlines to fly because of its performance, and mixing that reliability in with what makes Virgin stand out shouldn’t be difficult. Tilden and his colleagues should adopt an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” approach and blend the two carriers’ best characteristics. Mix the efficient airport reliability of one with the in-flight experience of the other and you suddenly have an airline that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

Keep it simple and you’ll add a lot of new people to the loyal base each company already has.