Story by Zvonimir Tolj • Trip Report by Brandon Aronoff • Photos by Brandon Farris
MIAMI — Last night, Virgin America (VX) made its final service (Flight 1948), which was scheduled from its headquarters in San Francisco to Los Angeles.
Starting today, April 25, 2018, Alaska Airlines takes over VX’s check-in counters and boarding gates in airports across the U.S. to replace the red and purple color scheme with the blue and green motif.
The Virgin With A Story
Back in 2016, Alaska Airlines acquired VX for $2.6 billion in cash, against a current public valuation for Virgin of $1.5 billion.
The merger instantly created a third player in the booming Bay Area air travel market behind United Airlines (with its hub and Transpacific gateway at San Francisco converging rapidly on 300 daily departures), and Southwest (which operates 239 daily departures across the Bay Area’s airports – including 116 at Oakland).
Thereby, for that year, the new Alaska was serving nearly 80 daily departures at San Francisco International (SFO – the region’s dominant airport) with pre-merger Virgin America contributing 60 of the 80. The combined carrier was operating out of by far SFO’s nicest Terminal (2) and added on nearly 30 daily departures at its San Jose focus city and 10 more at Oakland.
READ MORE: Alaska Airlines Buys Virgin America
Alaska Airlines began the merging process of VA’s passenger service system (PSS) in an event named The Cutover.
Sandy Stelling, Alaska Airlines’ managing director of process engineering, told Business Insider that “at cutover, the two airlines have come together and we have a single set of flight numbers with one schedule we are operating.” Thus all of the former carrier passenger reservations and tickets are in a single system for both companies.
For Alaska Airlines CIO Charu Jain, who has experience in two other airline mergers, including United and Continental 2010 fusion, it was vital to avoid PSS cutover mistakes other companies have made in the past.
Instead of migrating VX reservations over to Alaska’s system, customers flying on ex-Virgin America aircraft will have to use Alaska’s website, call center and mobile app.
“Early last year when we decided on the April 25th date, we started selling (Virgin America) Airbus tickets as Alaska tickets. So everyone flying on the 25th will have a ticket on Alaska and check in on Alaska’s website or app,” Jain added later.
READ MORE: Alaska Airlines and Virgin America Reach a Tentative Merger Agreement with Flight Attendants
However, the merging process doesn’t end with the PSS cutover but with the integration of people, fleet and aircraft interiors.
First, VX’s gate and airport staff were located along with Alaska’s in order to get used to working with each other, having both airlines’ employees at the gates and counters.
Virgin America managed an all-Airbus fleet, consisting of 10 A319-100, 53 A320-200, and four A321neo, which will be operated alongside Alaska Airlines’ all-Boeing Next Generation aircraft.
Likewise, the repainting process of Virgin America entire fleet will be complete by the end of next year, despite some Airbus planes have already the Alaska livery, as well as aircraft interiors; though VX’s Red in-flight entertainment system will remain in operation until the inside is updated.
The Last Flight: The Final Party 35,000 Feet in The Sky
April 24th, 2018, a day full of emotion in San Francisco. This is the day that the small California based airline with a club-like party atmosphere on board would cease to operate.
— AirwaysLive (@airwayslive) April 25, 2018
Virgin America is and forever will be the game changer in the airline world. It was the airline that showed the American public how fun flying could be.
At 9:32 pm on Tuesday, Virgin took to the skies one last time. It was a flight that none of the 185 passengers filled onboard the A321neo would ever forget.
Flight #1948 was flying the last flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It was the first route the airline had begun serving back in 2007.
Originally there wasn’t supposed to be big party or celebration for this flight, but the fun outgoing Virgin America employees and fans weren’t going to let that happen. So, with the support of FlyerTalk, an online web discussion site that is involved with everything aviation, and the new owners Alaska Airlines, a huge party was not only an option now for the flight; it was a must-have celebration for the airline’s 11-year history.
The departed out of gate 51B—one of Virgin America’s gates in terminal 2.
— AirwaysLive (@airwayslive) April 25, 2018
At about 7:00 FlyerTalk directors Nate Vallier and Brenden Hooley started to bring out different items to set up for the final flight.
Within minutes multiple Virgin, Alaska, and FlyerTalk representatives were all helping to set up for the historic flight. Tables were brought out to be used for all the items the passengers on board flight 1948 would receive.
Those items included a souvenir cup filled with luggage tags, stickers, pins, name tags, and more. Plus every passenger got a unique poster that was made showing every Virgin America destination ever served and the time frame in which they did serve those places, and there was even more!
Every passenger received a brand new safety card from each of the three aircraft types Virgin has (Airbus A319, A320, A321neo)
The airline also had red velvet cupcakes made for each passenger to enjoy while in the boarding area on top of a fun-filled backdrop of the aircraft for everyone to take photos in front of.
The boarding area itself was hectic with all the Airline employees and aviation enthusiast joining the flight, but it was a fun hectic, filled with a pure joy, being aviation and Virgin America.
The very last surprise came right before boarding where many Virgin employees gathered together to put on a flash mob of the safety announcement! It was lead by the YouTube great dancing Virgin flight attendant Mikey Tongko.
At around 9:00 pm boarding began. It started with a special flight announcement from one of the Virgin America gate agents.
She was in tears while making her pre-flight announcements and in terms made almost everyone cry knowing this would be the last time she and her colleagues would work for a Virgin flight.
All the Virgin America employees in San Francisco came to the gate for this unforgettable flight.
Once on board the brand new and stylish A321neo (N922VA), passengers began to find their seats.
This was my first experience with the Virgin A321 and, let me tell you, it’s stunning.
It has a slightly more sleek look than the A319s and A320s do.
I was in seat 22A, and everyone around me even the people in the middle seats was super excited to be on this history-making flight.
It was a feeling that could never be forgotten or created again.
As many know Virgin America is famous for their fun-filled safety demonstration video, and for this flight, all the guests on board got to help partake in the safety briefing. A video was sent out before the flight by FlyerTalk explaining what to do.
After pushing back from the gate, you could see all the Virgin America employees on the ramp waiving the plane goodbye for one last time.
We then made a short taxi to the runway and soared out of SFO. We banked left as we began to make our way down to LAX.
To my surprise, the cabin was somewhat calm during the flight, yet stories of past VX flights and experiences flooded the cabin and the PTV chat screen.
The popular on-demand ordering option was disabled for the flight, however.
Only special cookies and liquor were served, which was still awesome!
— AirwaysLive (@airwayslive) April 25, 2018
I had asked one of the flight attendants what she had thought about working for the last flight, and to my surprise, she answered: “we didn’t even know it was the last flight.”
Well, she may not have known, but we do know one thing for sure, Sir Richard Branson knew about the last flight and came onboard as a 1-foot tall cardboard cut out!
He was passed along throughout the plane for everyone to take pictures with, that was a highlight of the flight.
So after the short 55-minute hop, we touched down in LAX, and everyone on the flight broke out in cheers and excitement for the last-ever landing.
Then as we made our way to the gate at terminal 6, the crew played that unforgettable safety video again, and everyone began to sing along one last time.
The night wasn’t over quite yet though.
All of the VX 1948 passengers were invited into the Alaska lounge for a few minutes to have a celebratory toast at midnight.
During that hour or so I took a second to look around, and I realized just how an airline could bring so many different people from so many different places together for one spectacular joyful event.
Then as the clock struck 12, the emotional toasts were made, and Virgin America was officially no more.
Unlike any other airline Virgin America brought joy and fun to their passengers, they proved that being Virgin can change the industry forever.
We’ll all miss you Virgin America. Thank you for being Virgin, for elevating the people, and for creating wow in the US airline industry.