Editorials

March 23, 2017

The Forgotten Victims of Alaska Airlines Ending the Virgin America Brand

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Written by: Phil Derner Jr.
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I’ve been reading all of the news and reaction to Alaska Airlines plans to euthanize the Virgin America brand, likely by 2019. I, too, have been struck with emotion about this news breaking. But out of the dozen pieces I’ve read, no one seems to share the same reception as mine.

It was not a feeling of surprise, and I’m in fact baffled by anyone that didn’t see this coming — did you really expect Alaska to keep Virgin around? Two totally different brands, one competitor eating another as they battled to plant a flag in the West Coast. It was not the first time in our industry, and it will not be the last time.

My feelings were not of anger because of a further decrease of competition in the United States. Though I respect what Sir Richard Branson said in his honest letter, airlines have been consolidating for several years around here. Alaska is a major airline, a legacy airline at that, yet underrated. Their continued attempts to expand as of late, while Virgin has been stagnant for years, is what I actually see as a positive sign to travelers in the United States. I expect Alaska will bring MORE competition to more parts of the country in their growth. Alaska Air is not the “big bad airline,” at least not for that reason.

No, the emotion I felt was pain. It triggers a gut punch that I get anytime I see these headlines, whether it be a bankruptcy, a merger, or being bought and parted out like a stolen bicycle. There is a true victim here, and it is not the traveler. It is the employee.

The biggest victims may be the people that have been wearing the Virgin America nametag. There have already been some layoffs, but nothing in the news is making mention of whether more will head out the door. “In an airline merger, it’s common for most non-operations management employees at the acquired airline to be laid off. Though some of the folks on Virgin America’s marketing and product teams may end up at Alaska, I expect most will not,” says Henry Harteveldt, Travel Industry Analyst at Atmosphere Research Group. When an airline brand is sent out to pasture, there are often layoffs, requests of employees to move to another city, or others simply changing their clothes while they keep on keeping on, these are game changers that truly affect people’s livelihoods.

Photo by Author.

Photo by Author.

If you’ve worked in the airline industry long enough, you’ve more than likely been through a merger or bankruptcy or two. Mine was in 2012 at North American Airlines where I had worked my way into their headquarters as a dispatcher after 6 years with the company. A military contracted company, as the wars started to die down, so did the demand for the Department of Defense to hire us to fly people and machines around the globe. Our sister airline was not doing well, and though we were profitable ourselves, the holding company made decisions collectively for the pair.

When the day came that bankruptcy and layoffs were announced, people around started asking if they were going to be the ones that would be let go. I saw that email as an “INCOMING!!!” yelled before mortar rounds start falling around you. An almost random selection of your coworkers sitting nearby, one by one, being called into an office and then escorted out. All this going on while we tried to remain focused as we dispatched live, airborne flights.

In that first round, half of the company-half of our friends- fell victim. If not for Facebook, many would never be seen again. Employees who worked their hardest, at a company that was actually profitable every single year, now needing to figure out how to put food on the table or pay their rent.

I survived the first volley of layoffs. Then came the option to move to the Atlanta area where the holding company’s office, and our financially failing sister airline, resided. Many went along, but after realizing that the future was still so uncertain at this company, I left for another opportunity. But most people didn’t have that same option. They sold their homes and moved to Georgia, re-investing their lives into this ailing airline in an unfamiliar place.

Layoffs came in a few more waves before the holding company finally closed it all down for good two years later in June of 2014, after still having been profitable annually until the very end. The survivors of the first bankruptcy that didn’t jump ship were vultured out by their own leaders. They went back to their Georgia apartments, crying faces in their hands, a thousand miles from their true home, wondering how they’ll make ends meet.

Again, this is not to say that Alaska Airlines is another big bad airline. Their efforts to grow and expand could be the best thing for the traveling public, and Virgin America employees that are able to stick around may enjoy fruitful, long lasting careers. I genuinely wish them all the best.

With that you may call me dramatic, but the above is truly what I think about and feel due to my own experience when I see an airline nearing its end. I was so fortunate, but witnessing what that bankruptcy delivered to so many kind, hard working people was one of the more heart wrenching things I’ve ever experienced.

So while many are upset about the idea of, at worst, their ticket prices going up thirty bucks or fewer flying options out of their local airport, there are Virgin America employees literally  in tears wondering about their future, how they will put food on the table, and what the heck happened to their loved brand that they worked so hard for.

Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has aviation experience as a Loadmaster, Operations Controller and Flight Dispatcher. He owns and operates NYCAviation and performs duties as an aviation expert through writing, consulting, public speaking and media appearances. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter.



About the Author

Phil Derner Jr.
Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has aviation experience as a Loadmaster, Operations Controller and Flight Dispatcher. He owns and operates NYCAviation and performs duties as an aviation expert through writing, consulting, public speaking and media appearances. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter.




 
 

 

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  • wellingtonguy

    It is so sad that Virgin American is coming to a end. I would flown them more if they served more cities. My last trip to Oshkosh I had only two choices of flights from IAH to ORD. United or Spirit I do hate United and Spirit are good if you book a big seat. There is just so little choice out there. It can only get worse rather than better

    • Margaret

      Thank You for this article Phil!
      I’m a former Virgin America Supervisor. The reason I’m ‘Former’ was because Alaska Air did not offer any of the East Coast Supervisors a job.
      They did not even take the time to Interview us..
      Being a Founder, and hired Pre-launch, I was shocked to know that AS was just not interested in any of the VX Talent..
      It’s sad to know that AS was not interested in VX Leaders at all.
      I’m fact, AS wanted to sever us ASAP..
      Best Regards,
      Margaret