Here’s how to decide…
Now that the merger is complete, elites on both Virgin and Alaska should be receiving their perks on both airlines, and points can now be transferred from Virgin over to Alaska. Everyone who was a member of the two programs as of December 5, 2016 should also have gotten 10,000 bonus miles (though on Flyertalk it sounds like some people missed the miles and got 4 upgrades and 4 Board Room passes instead…bummer). Regardless of program membership, West coast flyers now have a choice when booking routes served by both airlines. The question is, all else being equal, should you book your flight on a Virgin plane or an Alaska plane? With ~180k butt-in-seat miles on Alaska and ~80k on Virgin, we’ve got some answers…
First things first: see if it’s an option
When booking your flight on alaskaair.com, you’ll now see Virgin America flights pop up in the results. This doesn’t yet work on virginamerica.com as of this post date, but my guess is it will in the relatively near future (the did just finish their mobile app last fall, some 4 years after everyone else…).
As you can see, the 9:50 am flight can be flown on both Virgin and Alaska for the same price in economy, and $11 difference in first class. Tough decision? Maybe not…
Here’s our take on who comes out on top for the following criteria:
Price: TIE – these airlines have always been pretty well aligned given the competition on the West coast, and as expected they’re pricing out at the fares same post-merger.
Boarding: Alaska – while it can be frustrating that Alaska always seems to try and close boarding earlier than us lazy lounge-bound folk would like, it seems to be a more orderly boarding process when seated in economy, at least at the beginning.
Legroom: Virgin America – Virgin has a claimed 32″ of seat pitch in regular economy, while Alaska is at 31-32″. An inch doesn’t sound like a lot, but trust us when we say you’ll notice it if you’re tall.
Recline: TIE – we’ve not measured recline on either airline, but we’d be willing to bet 1,000 miles that they’re pretty close — they are, after all, both sporting Recaro slimline seats in economy.
Drink: Virgin America – Virgin has a larger selection of the basics as well as mixed drinks and such. See the above links for details on beverage selections for both airlines.
Seat: Virgin America – similar slimline seats, but VX just feels like it has ever so slightly more cushion, and the black leather tends to look less worn even if that particular aircraft is showing some age.
Premium Economy seating: Alaska – tough call, but Alaska has to win here simply because there’s more premium economy seating available than on Virgin jets, which means you’re more likely to be sitting in one of these seats for free as an elite. Virgin’s only premium seats are the exit row and front bulkhead, whearas Alaska has several rows of it. Both airline’s premium seat passengers get free drinks, with Virgin also giving you free food as well (you still have to pay for that on Alaska).
IFE: Virgin America – only because it’s available at all seats on every flight for free (with some paid programming in Main Cabin economy). On Alaska’s side is the ability to stream to a device of your choice, and when you do get a tablet (only on flights over 3.5 hours), it’s actually pretty good. View the details of Alaska’s programming here, and Virgin’s here.
FA friendliness: TIE – both are great for different reasons, Virgin being young and fun and casual, Alaska experienced, friendly, and professional.
Food & Beverage Service: Virgin America – with the exception of sitting in the first few rows of economy on Alaska, I feel like I get served more more quickly on Virgin. You can also order more snacks and beverages from your video screen and they’ll deliver it to your seat at any point in flight, which feels luxurious; on Alaska you’ve got to wait for them to come around or walk to the back to put in an order.
Upgrades: Alaska – with the launch of Premium Class, there are many more premium econ seats available for upgrade, and the first class cabin always has more seats on Alaska 737s than Virgin A320s (minimum 12 on Alaska, vs 8 on Virgin).
Cabin: ??? – We saved this one for last, as this is 100% preference/mood dependent. In short, think “cocktail lounge” on Virgin America, and “conference room” on Alaska Airlines.
- Virgin America: consistent, funky mood lighting — in a good way if you’re
- headed to vacation in Mexico
- are on a late evening flight to D.C. sipping cocktails while catching up on email
- don’t want the party to stop just because you’re on your way home from Vegas
If this isn’t your vibe, then flying on Virgin may make you go crazy, but it’s nowhere near as bad as Delta’s MD 88/90 mood lighting.
- Alaska Airlines : Most of Alaska’s jets now feature the updated Boeing Sky interior, which means there is mood lighting, only it is waaaayyy toned down compared to Virgin; Virgin’s volume goes to 11, and Alaska’s is stuck on 3… This can be a really good thing if you really want to be able to focus on work, or just feel like you’re not stuck in a W hotel lobby bar for 4.5 hours.
So what now?
Like so many first class suites and business class lie-flat moments, it’s the little details that make the difference. Virgin has assembled a solid collection of little details that make all of their flyers feel like they’re having fun — even if they don’t want to — whether they’re legacy airline refugees with gold status or first-time flyers. In that sense, Virgin offers a great product. What AS may lack in the tiny details department, however, they make up for with consistent, friendly service from booking through arrival, and the launch of their new Premium Class is starting to tip the scales in favor of booking on Alaska over Virgin.
From this post you should have a good idea of the type of experience to expect on each airline, so it will ultimately come down to personal preference as the two products are pretty different. For us it’s totally mood dependent — morning business trip to SFO? Alaska. Evening flight home from LAX on a Friday night? Virgin. For you super elites, or those lucky enough to have a first class travel policy at work, stay tuned for our review of Virgin America first class.
Which airline do you prefer?
Let us know in the comments below! I’m always curious to know what other people think about different airline experiences, especially when airlines merge and inevitably one product ends up dying a (really) slow death…