Alaska announced late Wednesday that it will retire the Virgin brand, probably in 2019, adding that name to a list including Continental and US Airways that disappeared in the past decade.
Launching a new airline takes lots of money and patience — one reason that Virgin America’s debut in 2007 was so eye-catching. The other was its hip vibe including mood lighting and young, attractive flight attendants.
So when Alaska announced last year that it was buying Virgin for $2.6 billion, it was like asking Virgin customers to trade in their sports car for a minivan — a solid, reliable ride, but not exciting.
Alaska Airlines knew it, too.
Last June, CEO Brad Tilden held out hope to Virgin fans that he might keep the Virgin America brand, and run it as a separate airline under the same corporate umbrella. Tilden said he believed in “the power of the Virgin America brand, and we don’t want to lose all that loyalty.”
But running an airline within an airline adds complexity and costs. Alaska flies only Boeing jets; Virgin uses Airbus planes. Sometimes a split personality works in the airline business, sometimes it doesn’t — remember Ted, by United Airlines? And so Alaska’s announcement came as no surprise to people in the business.
Richard Branson, the British billionaire whose backing and minority ownership stake made the airline possible, posted a letter on Virgin’s website bemoaning that Alaska couldn’t find a place for Virgin.
“With a lot of things in life, there is a point where we have to let go and appreciate the fact that we had this ride at all,” he wrote.
Virgin America played a role in expanding competition in North Texas by engaging Southwest Airlines in a price war at Dallas Love Field, where it shifted service in 2014 after the Wright Amendment flight restrictions expired.
Now it’s unclear whether Alaska will keep its two gates at Love since it also flies out of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. When the merger was announced, Alaska’s chief commercial officer, Andrew Harrison, said Alaska would evaluate all Virgin America assets.
Alaska operates daily service to Portland, Ore., and Seattle from DFW and Virgin America flies to five other destinations from Love.
Branson added that it remains to be seen how travelers will be affected by the dwindling number of U.S. airlines. Mergers in recent years grounded US Airways, Continental, Northwest, AirTran, and America West. Airfares rose faster than inflation after those mergers, but then they fell in 2015 and 2016 as fuel became cheaper.
Seattle-based Alaska won a bidding war with JetBlue Airways to buy Virgin. The deal will greatly expand Alaska’s strength in California. Alaska recently announced it will greatly expand routes from the San Francisco Bay Area.
Staff writer Andrea Ahles contributed to this report.