Elevate is Dead, Don’t Fly Virgin America for Points

Virgin America RED Entertainment System (Image: Virgin America)

Virgin America RED Entertainment System (Image: Virgin America)

Founded in 2007, Virgin America’s goal was to be, “A Breath of Fresh Airline” in a rather stagnant room of legacy carriers. It was the product of Sir Richard Branson and U.S. investors. Unlike with Virgin Atlantic, Richard Branson was the minority shareholder due to U.S. regulations. Yet, from the airline’s first flight, Branson’s influence on the brand was obvious. Of course, every great airline needs a frequent flyer program. Branson and Virgin America knew this, and in 2007, Virgin America Elevate made its debut. Elevate debuted as one of the only frequent flyer programs to be revenue-based rather miles based. Along with a unique point earning system, Elevate partnered with Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia, both highly respected airlines. Later, Virgin America would partner with Singapore Airlines and Emirates.

 

Today, Virgin America Elevate is dead. It’s a bleak reality, but the program is not what it was just months ago. Recently, Virgin America announced is separation from Virgin Atlantic. This came as Virgin America is in the middle of a messy merger with Alaska Airlines. Essentially, though the merger is far from closing, we’ve seen the demise of the Virgin America brand and therefore the Elevate program.

What Made Elevate Great?

1. Consistency

Both a pro and con, consistency was a big part of what made the Elevate program work. Launching with the idea of being revenue-based spared the airline from the inevitable backlash that airlines like American and Delta would face for switching from mileage-based to revenue-based systems. Second and more importantly, the airline did not use an award redemption chart. This was, and still is unique. Elevate members could easily switch between fares quoted in dollars and award rates with a single click. It was consistent with the price of the ticket. There wasn’t any guesswork involved. Also, to follow the idea of consistency, benefits for Elevate members remained untouched from its debut. Virgin America was one of the only airlines in North America to add benefits rather than take away benefits.

-Virgin America and Virgin Atlantic end partnership effective November 13th

2. Virgin Atlantic

Yep, a separate airline, is what made Elevate a great frequent flyer program. The partnership between Virgin Atlantic and Virgin America was fantastic. Though there was an award chart, we never once saw a devaluation in the redemption rates. Not only were the rates never devalued but the redemption rates themselves were phenomenal. 25,000 Elevate points could get you across the Atlantic in business class while 10,000 would get you there in coach. This is what made Elevate points so valuable. Additionally, elite benefits were carried over from one Virgin brand to the other.

 

Virgin Atlantic is Cutting Ties with Elevate (Image: Virgin America)

 

 

3. The Brand

This might fall more along the lines of what made Virgin America great, but a frequent-flyer program is a vital part of the brand. Virgin America was (and I guess still is) a fantastic airline. The airline featured two aircraft, the Airbus a319, and a320. Each aircraft featured an identical product with a terrific eight-seater First Class cabin that was unlike any other carriers first class product. The airline also featured wi-fi across its entire fleet and award-winning in-flight entertainment. The airline was fresh; it was hip. It was a much-welcomed addition to a very bland portfolio of airlines.

What Makes it Dead?

Virgin America First Class (Image: Virgin America)

Virgin America First Class (Image: Virgin America)

Another really bleak reality is that, if the Alaska Airlines merger is finalized (and it will be finalized), the Virgin America brand is gone. Though in the short-run, the two airlines will operate independently of each other, Alaska’s execs can say whatever they want about Virgin America; they bought them for access to slots and gates across the west coast. They will kill Virgin America and let the Airbus leases go up.
We’ve seen Virgin Atlantic cut ties with Virgin America and as I mentioned, it was one of the only worthwhile and practical redemption partners. It’s only a matter of time before Virgin Australia cuts ties with Virgin America. This leaves Elevate members with very few redemption partners, all of which feature very undesirable award redemption rates.

Why You Shouldn’t Be Loyal to Virgin America

Mergers are messy.  Airlines merger are messier.  Though the Alaska/Virgin America merger is pending government approval, there’s little doubt that the merger will go through.  Mergers bring a lot of uncertainty to airlines and their frequent flyer programs.  There has been absolutely no mention of either program so far which is concerning.  This means that Virgin America elites are in the dark about what will happen with their points or their status.

During mergers, you should also expect the worse.  Alaska Airlines is no stranger to sudden devaluations.  Virgin America Silver and Gold status could very well be devalued upon the closing of the merger.  There’s no telling what will happen to points either.

Essentially, now is not the best time to be loyal with Virgin America.  Wait until the uncertainties of the merger die-down.

Overall

Say what you will about my understanding of Virgin America. I know many of you will say, “the Elevate program was always dead” and “Virgin America will survive the merger.” The reality is that Virgin America really doesn’t serve a purpose to Alaska Airlines nor does it serve a purpose to its current redemption partners. What killed the Elevate program for me was that Virgin America and Virgin Atlantic cut ties. With the impending merger, earning points with such a niche airline is not a very wise thing to do. I bid the Virgin America brand adieu, and I hope that one day, Sir Richard Branson can once again, inject a “breath of fresh airline” into a very stagnant industry.