On April 24th, 2018, Virgin America operated the airline’s final flights. On April 25th, a day later, the airline was fully integrated into Alaska Airlines. Operating a network consisting almost entirely of point-to-point service primarily on the west and east coasts, Virgin America’s appeal, for most travelers, was the airline’s unique brand and onboard product. The airline gained somewhat of a cult following among coastal hipsters and some aviation enthusiasts. However, the airline was never a staple in the markets it served. The airline’s size is often over-estimated with Virgin America carrying fewer passengers in 2018 than Hawaiian Airlines, Allegiant, and Volaris. Nevertheless, loyal flyers and fans of the airline came together to mourn the loss of Virgin America.
Though I’m based in St. Louis, Missouri, located in the middle of the United States, often considered to be fly-over country, I grew quite fond of Virgin America following my first flight on the airline. I grew to value Virgin America for standing out amongst the crowd. While most airlines were adding seats, basic economy fares, and removing passenger-centric amenities, Virgin America never broke down and followed in the footsteps of other carriers. I respected this as an aviation geek and a frequent traveler.
The day that the final Virgin America flights were announced, I quickly snagged a seat on both final departing and arriving flights. The final arriving flight, the flight that would ultimately, mark the end of the airline’s callsign, REDWOOD, was from San Francisco to Newark. The final departure also departed from San Francisco, arriving in Los Angeles after a short flight paralleling the California coast. With the final departure widely considered to be a more significant milestone and boasting a final flight celebration at the gate and onboard, I ended up taking Virgin America flight 1948 from San Fransisco to Los Angeles. Here is what it was like to fly on the final Virgin America flight.
The Final Flight: Virgin America Flight VX1948
Earlier in the day, I had made my way to San Francisco via Los Angeles. I arrived several hours prior to posted departure time. Arriving several hours in advance would allow me to take in the festivities without feeling rushed. Most of that layover was spent in airline clubs killing time on my phone. Finally, around two and a half hours prior to boarding, I made my way to Terminal 4, the former home of Virgin America.
The ticketing area was quiet. With the airline being integrated into Alaska Airlines at 11:59:59 PM, employees were not hours away from unemployment nor was there about to be an entire fleet of Airbus aircraft sitting in storage. The Virgin America brand wouldn’t make it to April 25th but its operations would in the form of Alaska Airlines. This meant that, while a somber day for employees and loyal Virgin America flyers, life would go on the next day. It was business as usual.
Other than an aviation geek like myself snapping photos of the ticketing counters, there weren’t visual indicators that a brand founded more than a decade ago, would cease to exist in a few hours.
After taking a few photos of the ticketing counters and Virgin America branding around the terminal, I made my way to a very light TSAPreCheck line and passed through security in a matter of minutes.
Past security, the terminal was quiet. It was a Tuesday evening which meant only a handful of flights were set to depart. Virgin America was just about to finish up its evening block of flights with a few flights just having departed for other destinations along the west coast and cities across the continent on the east coast. American Airlines, the other tenant in terminal 4, was all but done for the day with a flight to Los Angeles and a flight to New York City departing shortly. The terminal was quiet. Very quiet.
I made my way to gate 51B. While the rest of terminal 4 was quiet and uneventful, 51B, more than an hour and a half prior to boarding, was already buzzing with aviation enthusiasts, members of the media, Virgin America crew, and a few travelers who were unaware that they were on the final Virgin America flight.
One aspect of the Virgin America-Alaska Airlines merger often overlooked is that Virgin America employees and loyal flyers were not looking forward to merged operations. Alaska Airlines management was at the gate to set up an old Virgin America cut-out featuring a backdrop of one of the airline’s cabins as well as to set up a folding table with a cake. The management team didn’t seem too interested in the event and were surprised that the final flight attracted so many loyal travelers and enthusiasts.
While Alaska Airlines provided a cake, employees and contributors from a popular travel forum were invited by Alaska Airlines and Virgin America to host their own festivities. The forum provided travelers with commemorative gifts that included Virgin America branded safety cards, a poster displaying every Virgin America destination served both present and in the past, as well as a pin and plastic tumbler. Travelers were overjoyed to receive commemorative gifts celebrating the final flight and Virgin America’s legacy.
At one point, an ensemble of Virgin America employees made their way through the terminal singing the safety video.
— Max Prosperi (@unaccompflyer) April 25, 2018
As it grew closer to scheduled departure time, the gate area became quite full. Unlike with most other flights, passengers socialized amongst themselves in the gate area sharing stories about the airline and discussing other aviation-related topics. At one point, moments before boarding, the gate area at gate 51B sounded more like a party.
Just before passengers were welcomed onboard, an announcement was made regarding the flight. The announcement started off like any other announcement but quickly became a heartfelt moment. The gate agent making the announcement reminisced about the earlier days of Virgin America. She genuinely began tearing up. It was a surreal experience as a passenger. It showed that the employees at Virgin America genuinely cared about the airline embraced the brand’s mission to serve as a Breath of Fresh Airline.
I managed to board just prior to first class though I was seated in one of the last rows of the aircraft. I simply asked to board a little early. The agents had no issue with my request and let me onboard a few minutes prior to the rush of passengers.
Though I had flown with Virgin America countless times, I had not yet flown on the airline’s Airbus A321neo, the aircraft operating the flight to Los Angeles. It was a bittersweet opportunity to get to fly aboard Virgin America’s Airbus A321neo. It was a beautiful aircraft featuring an updated first class cabin, super-fast in-flight wi-fi, and the latest in-flight entertainment system. The new A321neo was a reminder of why Virgin America had always stood out compared to other airlines. Sadly, Alaska Airlines has other plans for Virgin America’s fleet including the newer A321neo. Those plans do not include most of the amenities Virgin America became known for.
I took my seat and shortly thereafter, passengers began making their way onboard. The crew was going about their pre-flight duties as they would with any flight. It appeared as though the flight crew did not totally grasp how significant the short flight down to LA was until passenger took their seats.
As the aircraft pushed back from the gate, the iconic Virgin America safety video was played throughout the entire cabin with passengers joining in, singing and cheering. Following the safety video, the cabin broke out in applause.
After a short taxi to the runway, the final Virgin America flight was en route to LA marking the end of the Virgin America brand and callsign at San Francisco International Airport.
Once the aircraft leveled out, the cabin crew was in the aisle to serve passengers drinks and snacks. On most flights, especially in the evening following sunset, the cabin is quiet and passengers keep to themselves. This flight was different. Complete strangers held hour-long conversations. Though some passengers were unaware that it was the final Virgin America flight, the mood was conducive to fostering conversation amongst the entire cabin. It was a very unique experience.
After a short period at cruising altitude, the aircraft began its descent into Los Angeles International Airport. Upon landing, passengers broke out into applause, something that would typically result in eye-rolling amongst passengers. Once the aircraft was off the runway and taxing to the gate, the cabin crew surprised passengers with an encore of the Virgin America safety video. Singing and cheering ensued for a second time and the end of the video was met with even louder applause.
Once at the gate, passengers were slow to leave the aircraft with many passengers attempting to disembark last as to be the final revenue passenger to have been on a Virgin America flight. Late into the evening, even Los Angeles International Airport was quiet. A few gate agents greeted passengers as they made their way into the terminal. Other than a warm reception by Virgin America employees, there weren’t any festivities. It was somewhat bizarre. For the past few hours, nearly 200 strangers had come together to celebrate a unique airline. Now, just like Virgin America, it was over.
I’m back in SFO for another exciting event. Here’s the scene at Terminal 2. Don’t let the paint job confuse you, those are all Alaska Airlines birds now. #VX1948 #VXfarewell pic.twitter.com/nlDdXgZVF6
— Max Prosperi (@unaccompflyer) April 25, 2018
With my adrenaline and dopamine rush from the flight over, I was growing tired. I quickly made my way to my hotel to get some much-needed rest. I went to bed that night with Virgin America still operating as a standalone airline only to wake up a much larger Alaska Airlines. However, at the time of the final flight, I was, like many Virgin America flyers, was optimistic that the acquisition of Virgin America would change Alaska Airlines for the better. Now, a year later, it’s quite obvious that this is not the case.
The Legacy of Virgin America at Alaska Airlines
In the months following the announcement of the merger with Virgin America, Alaska Airlines launched an aggressive marketing campaign aimed at keeping Virgin America flyers loyal to a newly merged airline while also courting other west coast flyers. This campaign, Most West Coast, highlighted the merged airline’s presence throughout the west coast and attempted to market Alaska Airlines as the new Virgin America.
At the time of the final flight, it had already become obvious that Alaska Airlines was not going to be able to replace what passengers loved about Virgin America. Still, there was hope that the airline was going to embrace parts of Virgin America. A year later, Alaska Airlines has since rolled out basic economy fares, a stripped-down Airbus cabin, and cut in-flight amenities on many flights.
Alaska Airlines has borrowed a few things from Virgin America. Alaska Airlines restructured its meals to offer healthier options. Flights include newer hip brands and local craft beers. Alaska Airlines’ brand has a more hip and chic vibe. Additionally, Premium Class is a stripped down continuation of Virgin America’s Main Cabin Select. Still, even with these minor improvements, Virgin America’s legacy has been, for the most part, stripped away by Alaska Airlines.
While the merger was ultimately a success and allowed Alaska Airlines to expand throughout the west coast and transcontinentally, the absence of the Virgin America brand is quite obvious. Virgin America remained one of the only airlines to offer a consistent product while most other airlines added more seats and stripped aircraft of passenger amenities. Virgin America flyers knew that, regardless of what happens at larger legacy airlines, they could board a Virgin America flight and be greeted with the intense mood-lighting, comfortable leather seat, in-flight entertainment, wi-fi, tasty snacks and meals, and professional crew.