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Is Virgin America Still the Best Airline for Business Travel?

November 3rd, 2016 /

I was running late to catch a flight at SFO some years ago, exhausted from a speaking engagement that morning and desperately hungry. I remember casting a longing eye at McDonald’s as I raced toward my gate—that’s how I knew I was in rough shape.

But as I boarded my flight, things started to look up. Virgin America bumped me to first class, and I found myself seated beside an interesting gentleman with whom I struck up a conversation and exchanged business cards. And with food on demand, a new movie on my screen, and a glass of whiskey in front of me, I was able to relax and enjoy my trip.

best airline for business travelers

Image by Flickr user Matthew Clark (CC BY 2.0)

How Virgin America Earned the Loyalty of Business Travelers

It’s no coincidence that I was flying Virgin America. I’ve long gone out of my way to avoid other airlines. It’s not snobbery: If you’re a frequent business traveler, you’re not just getting from one place to another—you’re spending a sizeable chunk of your existence in the air, and you learn to value a pleasant experience. Virgin America has always catered to that need.

The mood lighting and other in-flight perks are nice, but what really sets the airline apart is a culture that business travelers can get behind. We tend to have certain grudging expectations when we enter an airport, and Virgin America turns those expectations on their head. Instead of treating passengers like faceless commuters, the entire Virgin America experience is personalized: “room” service directly to your seat, a screen with plenty of entertainment on demand for each passenger, and flight attendants who are genuinely pleasant.

This commitment to excellent customer experience allowed Virgin America to pave the way in the airline industry for many years—and develop an incredibly loyal base of business travelers. Here in San Francisco, for instance, I pretty much guarantee that a Monday morning flight to New York will be full of techies, sales execs, and business development heads flying to the city for some meeting or other. This means that flight time also doubles as a chance to make business connections. The gentleman I was seated next to on my fateful flight from SFO? He called me up a few weeks later and ended up becoming one of my best clients, a chance connection from which my company is still benefiting.

Will Virgin America continue to lead after a merger?

Image by Flickr user Moto “Club4AG” Miwa (CC BY 2.0)

Has Virgin America Maintained Its Edge?

But while Virgin America diehards might not have noticed, other airlines are beginning to catch up. Hitherto-crappy airlines like United now let passengers stream movies straight to their personal devices; American Airlines offers USB and DC power outlets for all business and first class seats; and Southwest boasts exceptionally high employee satisfaction. Crazy as it is to say, the only perks that Virgin America can uniquely claim these days are its calming mood lighting and catchy safety announcement song.

In fact, half of major US airlines have improved in recent years—and Virgin America was not in that group. According to the 2016 Airline Quality Rating Report, our favorite company actually saw a decline since 2015, partly because of an uptick in customer complaints. While the news is hardly dire (Virgin America still led the field with the highest AQR score), these shifts suggest that the company is no longer so far removed from the rest of the pack—and the rest are quickly catching up.

More and more business travelers also face the necessity of occasional international travel, as industries outsource or merge overseas. And international travel brings with it a whole new set of luxuries. If you fly Emirates, for example, returning to a regular Virgin America flight back home doesn’t seem nearly as special. As the world gets bigger, our favorite airline is only getting smaller.

The Recent Virgin America Buyout Makes Even Diehard Fans Nervous

Still, Virgin America has been good to me, and after my first flight, many years ago, I vowed I’d never go back. I didn’t care what strides other airlines made.

Then the merger with Alaska Airlines was announced.

After doing a little digging, I discovered that my favorite brand has actually been struggling for a long time. One report on the company’s early years noted that Virgin America’s “poor finances” led to a focus on “style, not profits.” And this is disheartening news for the business traveler, suggesting that an economic model based entirely on customer satisfaction can be challenging to sustain.

Gaining a new parent company doesn’t have to be a big deal and could save Virgin America from a financial mess. But loyal followers have a lot at stake: the company still ranks first in the nation for airline quality, and it will be a challenge for Alaska Air to maintain the feeling, the experience, and the culture that business travelers thrive on—while still staying ahead of the pack and turning a profit.

Will another company earn the "best airline for business travel" moniker?

Image by Flickr user Jun Seita (CC BY 2.0).

Looking to the Future with Virgin America

I am not on the board of directors for Virgin America, so, of course, I have no real power over the situation. But if I were, there are a few things that I believe would help Alaska Airlines maintain the experience that business travelers have come to love:

  • Continue to innovate in-flight amenities. Virgin America was built on an excellent in-flight experience, and this idea shouldn’t get left in the dust. Alaska Airlines should borrow from successful international airlines to improve food quality, seat comfort, and in-flight connectivity. 
  • Keep consumer costs low. Business travelers depended on Virgin America to deliver the luxury of first class for the price of business class. Alaska should follow suit. It might be possible to streamline back-end processes, eliminate inter-company red tape, or renegotiate source material contracts in order to keep costs low without compromising on quality.
  • Step up the advertising game. Alaska will have to fight hard to win over the loyalty of nervous Virgin America loyalists (like myself). A competitive rebranding scheme like the one enacted by Southwest in 2014 might do the trick. If the company can convince the general public that Alaska Airlines is a name to remember (and back that up with the points mentioned above), they stand a chance at maintaining some brand loyalty.

I genuinely hope that this isn’t the end of an era. If it is, though, you still have until January of 2017 (when the merger officially goes into effect) to hop on a Virgin America flight and experience it for yourself. And if you’re looking for a place to stay at the other end of that flight, check out JetLux. We’ve got hotels (and perks) that feel as good as Virgin America’s—just on the ground.

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