Virgin America, a U.S. airline that was as colorful as its founder, Sir Richard Branson, and ranked consistently among the best in America since it launched, has passed on. It was only ten years old.
Following a merger with Alaska Airlines, its legacy lives on in the initiatives and upgrades that the entire industry later adopted, and which travelers now take for granted.
“We simply want to make air travel better,” Virgin Group design director Adam Wells said at the founding of the San Francisco-based airline in 2007. “If we are successful, passengers can expect Virgin America to deliver future innovation that ensures the flying experience keeps getting better and better.” This became the mission of Virgin America, and every year since its birth, it has been chosen the best domestic airline in our Readers’ Choice Awards.
VA was feisty from the start. When the Department of Transportation (DOT) tentatively rejected its application to form an airline in late 2006, it launched a grassroots campaign with the tagline “Let VA fly.” Travelers wrote to Congress, signed a petition, and shared their support for the venture via a hot new social network called Twitter. The movement worked, and a revised application was approved by the DOT in 2007, with tickets first going on sale in July and an inaugural flight, from New York to San Francisco, taking off on August 8, 2007.
Virgin America arrived at a time when domestic travel was only getting worse and worse. It was a race to the bottom as airlines cut amenities, legroom, and service. Virgin’s goal to flip the trend was viewed as a pipe dream.
“I vividly remember the almost scathing contempt that virtually every industry analyst and competitor had not just for our business model, but in particular this 'absurd' idea that an airline could be a brand—or that experience or brand even mattered,” Abby Lunardini, Virgin America’s vice president of brand marketing and communications, says. “Let's not even get into the response on things like creating an actually watchable or engaging safety video, or attention to good design.”
Good design was a major tenet of Virgin America’s philosophy. Passengers checked in at slick tablet kiosks at the airport, sat waiting for their flight in Eames and Arne Jacobsen chairs at SFO, sank into white leather massaging recliner chairs in First Class, and drank absinthe cocktails or sparkling wine (when no other U.S. airline offered either on domestic flights) from faceted clear plastic cups with Was it as refreshing for you as it was for me? imprinted into the bottom. Every detail had been considered, updated, or re-imagined, and everything was Instagrammable at a time when that term was just beginning to creep into our lexicon.
It wasn't just the physical details that made the airline special to its most loyal flyers. Molly Choma, an in-flight team leader and professional photographer known for her “Secret Life of Virgins” photo series, immortalized the culture of her company. “I remember the voice of my friend, Toni, calming down a older woman, traveling by herself, when she started to hyperventilate. I remember a huge, muscle-y British man who was sobbing on the flight, and I sat with him and we worked through the emotions of his long distance move. I remember spending time with guests, listening to their stories about their new loves, new divorces, new grandchildren, new medical issues, new lives; people travel for so much more than business and vacation. And, because we were based in San Francisco, a lot of us were pitched start-up plans and helped review the decks the person would be just about to show to potential investors.”
That kindness and interest in passengers didn't go unnoticed. Los Angeles–based Traveler contributor Juliana Shallcross, who had “Elevate Gold” status—the highest frequent flier level—left the bigger airlines she used to fly because, as she says, “I just felt like Virgin America truly got me. They embraced your pets, your children, and your need for in-flight Wi-Fi.”
From San Francisco, and additional later bases at Los Angeles and Dallas, the airline eventually expanded its route map to more than 30 destinations, including Palm Springs, Nashville, Los Cabos, Toronto, and Washington, D.C. When VA launched flights to Hawaii in 2015, it wedged its way into the highly competitive domestic market, bringing low airfares and new planes to routes plagued with high prices and old aircraft. The airline saw an opportunity to win business just by showing up.
I just felt like Virgin America truly got me. They embraced your pets, your children, and your need for in-flight Wi-Fi.
"I learned at Virgin America how to challenge the status quo—that was Virgin America at the core,” says Kai Groves, schedule planning senior analyst at Virgin America, now at Alaska Airlines. “‘That's how it's always been done' was never accepted as a valid answer.”
For Sean Harris, the airline's corporate communications manager, Virgin America lives on through “its many firsts,” like the introduction of mood lighting, fleet-wide Wi-Fi, on-demand food ordering, surround sound in-flight entertainment, and seat-to-seat messaging “pushed a stale industry to improve the consumer experience.”
So what actually happened—why is Virgin America no more? The straightforward explanation is that the airline’s shareholders offered it for sale, and Alaska Airlines bought it for $2.6 billion. Since the airline was registered in the U.S., regulations limited Branson, the head of the foreign-based Virgin empire, to a minority stake and no control over the vote to sell. In fact, Branson loudly protested at every step of sale.
If it feels like that acquisition is taking a long time, that’s because it is. The sale of Virgin America to Alaska Airlines was announced in mid-2016, the deal closed in early 2017, and here we are in January 2018, with the two airlines formally securing all the paperwork to operate as one. Alaska made the decision to wholly kill off the Virgin America brand and, although you’ll still see its red-and-white planes taxiing around on tarmacs, eventually all will be repainted to Alaska’s blues and greens this year.
VA may have had only ten years on American Airlines’ ninety, and 60 airplanes to Delta's 600-plus, but it was precisely that youth and the flexibility of a boutique-size fleet that allowed it to experiment and innovate. Next time you log on to in-flight Wi-Fi, score an affordable airfare to Hawaii, sip a surprisingly sophisticated cocktail at altitude, or notice new tech or accessibility enhancements to the in-flight entertainment, spare a thought for Virgin America and its people, who succeeded in their impossible goal to better air travel.
Virgin America is survived by cousins Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Australia, Virgin Holidays, Virgin Hotels, Virgin Rail, Virgin Vacations, and Virgin Voyages, and father Sir Richard Branson.