Newspaper article International New York Times

After Takeover, Can Virgin Keep Its Cool Factor?

Newspaper article International New York Times

After Takeover, Can Virgin Keep Its Cool Factor?

Article excerpt

Virgin America's fiercely loyal fans are asking if the service they love will remain the same under its new parent, Alaska Airlines.

For younger business travelers like Nicole Bansal, Virgin America's mood lighting, customer service and technology have filled a niche not found on legacy airlines.

Ms. Bansal, 29, flies Virgin America nearly monthly for her job as a Silicon Valley marketing manager and has become one of the airline's legion of fiercely loyal fans. But now, with a $4 billion takeover by Alaska Airlines in the works, Ms. Bansal worries she will lose the unique touches that helped her click with Virgin America.

"I like Alaska, I don't love Alaska. But I love Virgin," she said. "I think of it as a young, hip airline. Alaska is more of a friendly aunt."

Travelers like Ms. Bansal are wondering what to expect from Virgin America under its new parent company: skinny jeans and stilettos, or sweatshirts and sneakers. After all, Alaska started in 1932 with a single three-seat plane owned by an Anchorage furrier, while Virgin America was founded by a flashy British billionaire less than a decade ago with a goal of restoring glamour to flying.

With the purchase making its way through the monthslong regulatory process, Bobbie Egan, an Alaska spokeswoman, said the airline did not yet know which Virgin characteristics would be retained in the new company. But she acknowledged that Alaska realizes Virgin fans are serious about the brand. "We want to take some time over the next few months and home in on what it is their customers love," Ms. Egan said. "We want this integration to be very successful."

Although Alaska has been a perennial leader in best-airline rankings, its allure comes more from its reliability than mood lighting or funny safety videos. Like Virgin America, it inspires loyalty among customers, if not the same passion.

Alaska and Virgin have been ranked first and second in operational performance in a top industry list two consecutive years, and Virgin America is a mainstay atop Travel & Leisure's and Conde Nast Traveler's readers' choice rankings of the top domestic airlines.

Regardless of Alaska's good reputation, the prospect of losing Virgin's cool factor appears to have worried Richard Branson, the British business magnate whose Virgin Group started the airline in 2007. In a message posted on the Virgin Group website, Mr. Branson admitted sadness over the merger and said he had little control over the purchase. While he owns a substantial stake in the airline, he is not the controlling shareholder.

"The important thing now," he wrote, "is to ensure that once Alaska witnesses firsthand the power of the brand and the love of Virgin America customers for our product and guest experience, they, too, will be converts, and the U.S. traveling public will continue to benefit from all that we have started. …

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