SAN FRANCISCO – Alaska Airlines formally unveiled its new onboard product and experience at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) on February 27.
An effort years in the making – this is the culmination of the merger between Alaska and Virgin America consummated back in December 2016. The merger gave the combined airline an opportunity – a blank canvas if you will – to design a whole new onboard product.
After conducting months of exhaustive research and interviews, the airline created what we see here today. A West Coast vibe, a West Coast menu, and a West Coast style.
The most important element is the new cabin. Ben Minicucci, Alaska Airlines President and Chief Operating Officer described it simply as “stylish and modern”.
The interior has been completely reimagined from the lighting to the carpeting to the seats. Distinctive Virgin America elements such as onboard music and ambient mood lighting have been retained.
Except now the lighting is a calming blue hue, rather than excitable red. Colour palettes are now more neutral, with pops of blue, representative of Alaska’s signature colours.
Recaro designed seats for all classes in collaboration with Alaska. Thoughtful features are found throughout.
Two power outlets are found at every seat – the USB port next to the unique smartphone/tablet holder and AC power on the seat leg for the laptop.
While passengers are on their smartphone/tablet/laptop – they can utilize GoGo’s 2KU satellite wifi, now fast enough to stream movies and video!
With literature pocket located up top, the bottom seat pocket is made with flexible mesh so passengers can see what is inside.
Cup holders in First and Premium seats – a simple car based design previous unseen on planes – allow the use of the full tray table.
Recaro calls the First Class seat “performance car comfort”. To provide passengers with high-end experience, it is made with memory foam with design and comfort similar to what one would find in a luxury automobile.
Speaking of cars, BMW Designworks created the esthetics, trim, and finish for the seats and the cabin. A thoughtful touch is fabric found behind the headrest. The fabric provides warmth and texture on an otherwise cold leather seat.
A small but important element in the First Class seat design is a clear line of demarcation in the armrest. It was requested by Alaska’s 75K customers!
Gone from the First Class seats are legrests formerly found on Virgin America. Instead, one would find a footrest instead. According to Alaska, footrest accommodates people with varying heights better, though the reality is the airline can fit more First Class seats without the legrest.
Executive Chef Joshua Rappaport at LSG SkyChefs was tasked to realign Virgin America and Alaska Airlines’ menus back in 2016. His goal was to “make it fresh, make it local, make it West Coast”.
But how does one quantify “West Coast” on a menu? After a number of workshops, the Chef concluded West Coast meant, “fresh, local, seasonal, healthy, and sustainable”.
As a result, menus now rotate quarterly with the seasons instead of monthly. This allows for a seasonal match to
Alaska’s Fall Harvest Salad is a perfect embodiment of Chef Rappaport’s approach. The baby spinach quinoa chicken salad was perfectly crunchy – not soggy like what one would expect in a packaged salad-in-a-box.
Roasted sweet potatoes and orange slices gave that special seasonal feel. The salad was garnished with feta cheese and dried berries with a unique “I don’t think I had this on an aeroplane” avocado coconut curry dressing.
The chicken strips were tasty strips of rotisserie chicken, not some bland generic protein. This fresh tasty salad can be found on transcontinental and Hawaii flights for $9.50.
And let’s not pass on the dessert! In First Class, Alaska recently introduced Salt & Straw ice cream. A Portland-based company with 19 West Coast stores, Salt & Straw proudly makes ice cream flavours that reflect the local region. Their ice cream is handmade in small five gallon batches.
The company had to develop
Alaska commissioned Seattle based fashion designer Luly Yang to redesign the employee uniforms in 2016. Unveiled last year, Luly’s uniforms will roll onto the runway later this year.
For this project, Luly interviewed uniformed employees to understand their needs. For example, flight attendants wanted flexible fabric for bending movements in the galleys or reaching for the overhead bin. More style came after the Virgin America merger.
For lady pilots, a design that does not look like they are wearing a man’s suit. Luly is especially proud of the small elements that give the uniform an unstated flare, such as blue thread on the sleeves, or hints of blue and green that becomes visible when the collar is flipped up, or coat liner that shine like the northern lights.
More West Coast
Since the Virgin America merger, Alaska has been aggressively building its brand awareness in the San Francisco Bay Area. The airline admits that the Bay Area does not know the airline well, so they have been active in community partnerships.
Sports partnerships are especially visible as Alaska is a major sponsor of the San Francisco Giants baseball team, San Jose Sharks hockey team, as well as the title sponsor of San Francisco’s infamous Bay to Breakers costumed (or not) footrace.
SFO was Virgin America’s home and that airline’s largest hub. Many flyers at SFO still lament the loss of “Redwood”. The fact that Alaska Airlines chose to unveil their new product at SFO on a former Virgin America Airbus was deliberate. “SFO is critical to our success,” said Annabel Chang, Alaska’s Bay Area Vice President.
Not just because of the customer base, but also the 10 partner airlines that offer the airline connectivity worldwide at SFO.
Still to come: a new Alaska Lounge at SFO is scheduled to open next year. The 8500 square feet facility will be located on the roof of Terminal 2 with stunning views of the runway. Enthusiasts take note!
California and the West Coast are hyper-competitive markets. Old guards such as United has a lock on corporate fliers while Southwest has a fiercely loyal following. Things got interesting when Delta decided to enter the market for a piece of the action.
Alaska is local and West Coast and it wants flyers to know that. The hope is by offering an appealing product that caters specifically to the West Coast palate, style, and way of life – with all else being equal – they can be enough of a differentiator to drive consumers onto planes with the Eskimo on the tail.
Andrew Harrison, Alaska Airlines Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer said, “Virgin America started something great here (at SFO)…and we want to take that legacy forward” by marrying Alaska Airlines’ rich 85 year history.
“The road ahead is ‘show me’. We need to make good on our promises”. President and COO Ben Minicucci added, “our focus for the next 3 to 5 years is to get this integration to work. (Virgin America was) a big acquisition for us…we need to fire on all cylinders.”
Things are looking up. Mr. Minicucci proudly described he now sees “one team” at SFO: everyone working together, unifying the culture. Because in the end, “our people bring the product to life”.
Alaska Airlines’ ex-Virgin America Airbus fleet currently stands at 71 aircraft (soon to be 73 aircraft). They are all leased and will stay with the airline for the next five to six years.
A decision on single versus dual fleet type will be made by the end of this year. Alaska will send four aircraft per month for cabin conversion starting in March and expects 85% of the Airbus fleet to be completed by the end of 2019. By 1st quarter 2020, all Airbus will be converted to the new cabin.
Good news for Mileage Plan flyers looking for upgrades. In the new cabin, First Class and Premium seat capacity increased on all Airbus types. There are now 12 First Class seats on the A319 and A320; 16 First Class seats on the A321. All Airbus types now have 24 Premium seats.