Flying What’s Left of Virgin America on Alaska Airlines to Seattle (Trip Report)

Alaska Airlines, Trip Reports

Last year, I turned 40. This year, it was my wife’s turn. And for her 40th, she wanted to go on an Alaska cruise with me and the kids. After looking at all the options, she picked a trip on the new Norwegian Bliss, and that meant we’d go roundtrip from Seattle. Though we thought about flying on JetBlue out of Long Beach, Alaska had a better fare by far (could use my annual companion ticket that comes with the Visa card) and better times out of LAX. We were originally booked on an Alaska 737 one way and a Virgin Airbus the other, but after a schedule change, we found ourselves on the remains of Virgin America both ways. I can’t say I enjoyed the flights as much as I usually do when flying Alaska. I’m just writing up the flight north today, but I’ll have the return soon.

Unfortunately, when you buy the companion fare, you can’t put any other person on that reservation, so I had to book two separate itineraries. That was frustrating, because I realized at check-in that my free bag allowance only applies to people on the same reservation, so we were only allowed two free bags for the four of us. We did get to print those bag tags at home, which was a first for me, and we found a way to optimize carry-ons so we didn’t need a third bag.

Our Lyft driver dropped us off at Terminal 6 just a little over an hour before departure. We walked right up to the bag drop and asked for a self-printed bag tag holder so we could insert the tags. Then we walked past the below ever-so-pleasant affirmation and headed to security. There was no line.

We were at one of the old Continental gates that passed on to United through the merger and then went to American before going to Alaska. The last time I flew from this gate was on a United flight to Maui. At least the terminal is much nicer now.

Boarding began far too early, as Alaska likes to do for some strange reason (40 minutes before departure for an A319). The announcements weren’t very clear, and the screen didn’t accurately show which rows were boarding. So it was somewhat confusing. But we got on and found our seats.

June 21, 2018
Alaska 1763 Lv Los Angeles 750a Arr Seattle 1037a
Los Angeles (LAX): Gate 62, Runway 24L, Depart 28m Late
Seattle/Tacoma (SEA): Gate D3, Runway 16R, Arrive 35m Late
N525VA, Airbus A319-112, Virgin America colors, ~95% Full
Seat 5B, Coach
Flight Time 2h9m

It sure felt like a Virgin America flight when we were onboard, but as has often been the case, the airplane looked dirty and worse for wear on the inside. You can see some grime here.

The seatback pocket was hanging off. It looked like it would snap back on, but it didn’t.

There was no Alaska branding to speak of, including the safety video, safety card, etc. They really need to expedite the refit of these interiors, because they clearly haven’t received the attention they need.

One of the pilots came on a little before scheduled departure time and started speaking in airline jargon. I have no idea how many people understood what he was saying, but it couldn’t have been that many. He mentioned a ground delay program, wheels up times, and vectors, among other things. Ultimately, the story was that the clouds were low in Seattle, and we should expect a long taxi before we could get in the air, but he never said anything about pushing back late. Then, we sat. There were a lot of chimes going off, but there wasn’t a peep from the cockpit or the flight attendants for the next half hour as we crept past departure time. The flight attendants flipped on the safety video at the gate, but that was pretty much it.

The Red entertainment system is still intact on this airplane, sort of. The Live TV is long gone, and I think there was music before that’s pulled off as well. The movie selection is good, but the TV shows are pretty limited. All that Virgin made/sponsored content is gone. I turned on a movie (CHiPs, and I know, I regret it as well) long before departure, and it was half over before we even took off.

When we did push back we taxied all the way over to the north runways before finally getting airborne. The flight itself was quick. Once we were up above the low marine layer, it was a beautiful day and it was smooth sailing as we stayed fairly far east (passed over Reno).

I had gone back into Red and ordered a hot tea for me and an orange juice for my son. The flight attendants mentioned ordering through Red in an announcement, so that should have still worked, but it apparently wasn’t being used on this flight. When they got to our row, they asked what we wanted. I mentioned what I had ordered on the system and she starting working on it as if it were a new request.

The cups and napkins had Virgin America branding. Presumably they’re just using up what’s left in the warehouse.

Once my movie was over, I didn’t have enough time to watch another. My wife and daughter were separated from us by a few rows (thanks to being on different reservations during the schedule change), so this was the perfect opportunity to use the seat chat function. It worked, sort of, but the keyboards are all in bad shape. It was easier to just not try to communicate.

I flipped on the moving map and pulled out my phone. Thank you, T-Mobile, for the free hour of wifi. It was moving surprisingly fast on this flight, so I just had my tea and read the newspaper on my phone. How civilized.

Once over Oregon, a low cloud layer set in as well as a higher one. It was strategically placed to prevent any good mountain viewing on this flight. We started descending over Washington, and the high clouds were gone. All that remained was a low layer under 4,000 feet. We were on the left side, but I held out hope that we’d make the turn and get to see Rainier. (My wife had never been to Seattle, so this would have been a first.) Sadly, that didn’t happen. We made the turn earlier than I thought, and just as we were about to come around, we plunged into the low cloud layer and lost visibility. Drat.

We popped out underneath and had a nice view of Lake Washington and Boeing Field below us. Then we put down before having a somewhat long taxi to find our D gate. That concourse was jammed, and I was just happy to get out of there. My wife commented on how the airport seemed pretty bad from a first impression. D gates will do that to you.

We headed into Seattle for a whirlwind 2-day visit. Then it was time to cruise.

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45 comments on “Flying What’s Left of Virgin America on Alaska Airlines to Seattle (Trip Report)

  1. If the pilot mentioned a ground delay program and wheels up time, that would have let you know that you were either going to sit at the gate or taxi out and sit in the “penalty box”. A ground delay program gives select aircraft going into certain airports or airspace a wheels up time to limit holding en-route or at the destination based on arrival rate or center saturation. The time is put out by FAA Traffic Management. The aircraft will usually sit at the gate unless an inbound aircraft needs the gate. Wheels up is between five minutes before and ten minutes after the time. If the plane misses it, they get a new time. There is also an Enroute Spacing Program, that is a different type of delay for some airports. With that one, the controller has to fit you in a hole to satisfy any miles-in-trail restrictions. For that one, you will always taxi out and wait, as when the hole is there, you have to hit it.

    1. I don’t think Brett’s point was that it was confusing to him; it was that most people don’t know enough about these terms for it to be meaningful. That being said, good summary for those who don’t understand.

    2. Zdatc12 – It wasn’t confusing to me, but he did say that because of the ground delay program we would just taxi slowly. So my assumption was that meant we’d push on time and they probably needed the gate. He didn’t tell us the wheels up time so it’s not like anyone in the cabin that understood could even know when we’d expect to be airborne anyway.

    3. Waiting at the gate during a GDP can be risky though. It’s not all that uncommon for a flight to get an earlier wheels-up time at the last minute, which they might not be able to make if they’re sitting at the gate. At SAN, planes will commonly turn onto taxiway D and either wait there or on B1. Sometimes with engines shut down.

  2. For being worse for wear at least the plane had the PTV’s and you could start your movie on the ground. Once AS refits those birds won’t those all be gone? They’ll be fresher cabins but more amenities, not so much. Waiting for 10,000 feet to start your entertainment is a drag.

    1. Agreed. I flew a transcon on a brand new A321 recently and while the branding was haphazard, I hope they delay the cabin refits as long as possible. Not looking forward to the IFE going away. I’m not going to watch a movie on my phone and I don’t always travel with my laptop.

    2. A – Yes, that will be gone in favor of the streaming wifi stuff. I’m not sure that it won’t be allowed on the ground, however. Those systems do work on the ground, at least in some cases.

      1. I haven’t used Alaska’s system, but I could watch movies from gate to gate when I used it on United and American. I honestly don’t see what all the fuss is about. As long as they have power in each row, there’s nothing wrong with BYOD.

    3. I HATE the Virgin back-of-seat screens and turn them off as soon as I’m allowed. The Virgin “safety broadcast” video is awful. And the gogoinflight, if you had it, is new, and it’s not on all the VX metal yet. I am Alaska MVP Gold and much, MUCH prefer the Alaska product, and can’t wait until they are all switched over.

      1. Completely agree. Before they broadcast that annoying safety video, I pop in my noise canceling headphones and blast music to avoid listening to it for the 1,000th time. Alaska’s product is MUCH better than the ancient VX stuff.

      2. I never got the chance to fly Virgin, but I have watched that safety video approx. 100 times on YouTube. It is one of my favorite videos (not just safety videos, but videos in general) of all time.

          1. The first time I watched that video was at… 7 am or something like that on the flight down to Cranky Dorkfest.

            And yeah, it stuck out badly. I don’t go to dance clubs at 7 am in the morning…

            It just seems short not very thoughtful to keep using the word “tonight”

      3. VX had fleetwide wi-fi for almost all of their existence. Some of the newer planes had the faster ViaSat.

      4. Gack. The whiny PNW fliers who prefer the prayer cards in the seatbacks and plain ‘amenities’. AS couldn’t beat VX, so they bought them. They lost the diehard VX customer base and replaced them with the folks who can’t handle anything new. AS is botching the merger by tanking the VX brand and neglecting the state of the on property Airbus.

  3. That sounds really depressing. VX was my favorite airline back in the day…

    I’m disappointed that you didn’t mention whether the most crucial VX feature was still working – the mood lighting. Or did they rip that out too?

    1. Matt – Mood lighting is still there. They haven’t done anything to those airplanes to change them physically yet.

    2. I was on an Alaska 737-900 this morning that had the new Alaska mood lighting. The effect was sorta electric blue and neon green – kind of alien!

  4. thanks for the article and pics. It is more than surprising that AS has taken so long to even convert to AS branded items? Proper napkins with the right logo? The merger was announced a year and a half ago. Your writeup highlights how expensive mergers are and that the VX planes needed cabin refurbs years ago – but they didn’t get them and AS is now going to have to spend the money to do them at a time when AS continues to pull back on some of the routes from its big network buildup that hasn’t gone near as well as they predicted.

    The bigger piece of the puzzle which you indicated wasn’t a problem is the human aspect of it… Were these all former VX employees from check-in to the aircraft – or was it a mixture – and were there any comments from any of them?

    And finally, while many people reading this blog including you understand the pilot’s technospeak, the point is to communicate effectively with passengers who don’t understand that language. It is hard to believe that someone hasn’t provided effective guidelines for communicating with passengers in language that everyone should be able to understand.

    Looking forward as much to reports on the cruise as much as the 2nd flight.

    1. Tim – To answer your questions.

      *Remember, Virgin America existed until the end of April when it officially went away, so the clock for using up the soft goods with VX branding started then. I give them a bit of a pass on that piece, even if it is confusing to travelers.

      *At check-in, I don’t think you’d know if they were Virgin or Alaska, but chances are they were Alaska people since most on the ground at LAX were.
      But I had very little interaction with people on the ground anyway. On the airplane, I don’t think they’re mixing crews yet, so I assume it was all pre-merger Virgin America.

      Not planning on writing up the cruise here. It’s a big ship with a ton of people. But I’ll have something on the baggage process to talk about in the next write-up.

  5. Thanks for the review. I’m particularly interested since I have never flown VX nor I have yet had an opportunity to fly what physically remains of it. That will change for me in November when I am slated to fly an ex-VX A320 MCO-SFO. Hoping for it to be as “Virgin” as possible…livery, mood lighting, entertainment, and most importantly, seat pitch in coach (I’m freakishly tall). If Alaska really wants to break my heart, they’ll swap the scheduled bird for a 737. I also hope my flight isn’t too far out in the future to where I get an A320 which has been reconfigured to Alaska’s interior setup.

  6. I find when using my Companion Ticket I can still get free bags by calling and getting assistance. You can also “Link” you to reservations together online by logging into your reservation. Seats can also be monitored and fixed online. I love Alaska but am sad about the many poor decisions they have made in this last year.
    K Thompson

  7. “It was easier to just not try to communicate.”
    That’s how I feel about flying with my family too :-)

  8. Wonderful write-up. Bet there isn’t one in a million airline passengers like you on any given day who is so calmly observant, so attuned as to what’s happening, and then can explain it and communicate what you are seeing. If airlines are really interested in customer service, and I have questions that they are, whenever they see a booking with your name on it, bells ought to go off, and they should assign at least 2 people to monitor the whole event–flight and fare choosing, buying a ticket, getting travel started, onboard experience, completeing the travel– to see, understand, and resolve things, things that drive air travel consumers, customers, and travelers crazy. Maybe some airlines are doing this already? If so, who?

  9. Call me an old fart, but I always thought that the VX mood lighting was much ado about nothing. On the other hand, this trend of ditching IFE in favor of personal devices basically sucks. Oh well, bring a magazine like back in the olde days.

    1. Amen. I like watching TV or seeing a bad movie while doing something else on my computer. I’m not a fan of just streaming since my personal device is either bit and clunky and takes up the tray table or it’s a phone with too small a screen to watch a movie.

    2. Everyone forgets that AS still has digiplayers, which are an airline provided tablet for watching video. Sure in coach you have to rent it, but that was often the same with IFE back in the 80s.

          1. Gotta admit, I’m too cheap to pay for them in Y. So, I don’t know the answer to that question. Last time I used one in F, it was stuck on my tray table, which I really don’t like all that much.

            One thing I like about DL is that they do have screens and all the entertainment is free and all the planes doing longer routes not have AVOD. Plus, I like the moving map.

        1. The Alaska players can be flipped over and hung from the seat in front of you. Works in both classes, although it can be a hair tricky in F on Alaska metal. the players can also stream from GoGo vision, which means you have access to like a gazillion more movies.

    3. Another old fart here, and not interested in IFE at all, unless it’s United’s audio channel that lets you listen in on pilot-to-ground communications (does UA still have that?). Or the little display that shows the aircraft’s speed, altitude and position — that’s a Jet Blue feature, IIRC.

      1. I’m with you Anthony, just give some tunes and a book and a window seat. I’m good. Hope you have a good cruise Brett.

      2. Can’t remember the last time they made Channel 9 available to listen to ATC on a United flight that I’ve taken…very sad.

      3. Me too, Anthony. The only IFE I’ve used since the 1970s has been United’s audio channel for pilot-to-ground communications (on the rare instances in which I’ve flown United). On the last few United flights I’ve taken (more than several years ago), the pilot/s chose not to enable than channel. Recently, I’ve gone to to get almost-in-real-time flight information about the a/c I’m flying on. Other than that, I enjoy a block-to-block vacation from screens while flying.

        1. Wow, that’s an amazing site… by the way, where in Oregon? I’m hoping to move up there (to Corvallis) soon.

  10. Well, I just returned from a weekend excursion from SFO to SEA — north on A320, south on 737-900. I didn’t see anything that wasn’t in good repair on either aircraft. Small detail, but I liked how the ex-Virgin aircraft’s seatback pocket included two mini-pockets sized to hold water bottles. Amusing too that they still played the VA safety video (which mentions “Virgin America” at the end).

  11. When Alaska switches over to satellite broadband Wi-Fi (installs have begun) they will also allow you to connect on the ground and start watching the free entertainment prior to departure. New in-flight entertainment players are on the way with a larger screen and the new first class seats will have a pop-up tablet holder. All ‘coming soon’ as they say.

  12. stop complaining about petty stuff. It is Alaska’s fault they are letting these once beautiful airplanes go down the tubes.

  13. I expect that once they get converted to the AS standard, the interiors of A320s will be maintained as well as the 737s.

    It doesn’t make much sense to heavily invest in something that you’re going to tear out.

    I also would guess that once they’ve got some more parts from the refit, the A320s might have some of the more pressing issues addressed.

    Sent from my computer that moonlights as a phone.

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