Chris Barnett on Business Travel
The Battle of the Merged Airline Brands
Thursday, August 9, 2018 -- Landing a reasonably priced ticket during a federal holiday week in the summer is no picnic. And blowing 50,000 miles on a four-hour flight wasn't enticing.

So I orchestrated my own battle of the airline brands. I booked a one-way San Francisco to Chicago/O'Hare flight on Alaska Airlines and a one-way return on American Airlines. Both were economy, cost about $240 each way, traveling on Saturday mornings. Both are merged entities and I wanted to see how those marriages were playing out.

The consolidation of American and USAirways is five years old. Alaska Airlines and Virgin America's nuptials are still in their first year. Two one-way flights are hardly a state-of-the-union deep dive, but I found it an enlightening snapshot.

The outbound Alaska Air flight from San Francisco was on a former Virgin America Airbus A319, the faintly perfumed cabins decked out in soothing reds, purples and grays, with black leather seating. A Virgin crew, no surprise, was aboard.

After a couple dozen Virgin America roundtrips over the years, I immediately sensed a mood change. Boarding was smooth despite a full load, but the flight attendants seemed on edge.

"How's the merger going?" I asked several flight attendants nonchalantly. Okay, was the half-hearted answer. "It's a little early but it will be awhile, probably years, before we're combined," one elaborated. "I'm worried about my seniority."

I pressed her. What will the passengers notice first? "The entertainment systems will be ripped out and two more rows of [seats] are being added," she responded. "Legroom is shrinking. "They're dismantling what made us popular."

The reconfiguration is just a bit misleading, however. Alaska's remake of the Virgin aircraft will leave planes with 41 inches of legroom in first class, more than any of its mainline competitors. The new coach layout of around 31 inches is more than what United, American and Delta are now offering on many of their flights.

Alaska Airlines says it'll jettison Virgin's seatback entertainment scheme because travelers are bringing--and prefer--their own devices. There's some truth to that, of course, but it still sounds like a cost-cutting cop-out. I'm sorry to see Virgin's entertainment system go. While it was never as functional as JetBlue's seatback monitors with free, live TV, the Virgin setup was embedded with time-saving shortcuts like in-flight food service. Meals, snacks and beverages can be ordered, paid for and delivered without waiting for the trolley.

The Alaska/Virgin flight was otherwise uneventful except for anyone in a hurry. Takeoff was exactly an hour late. I never really got a cogent explanation for the delay, only an apology. Particularly aggravating was the fact it took almost one hour to offload the baggage. Worse, there were no Alaska or Virgin agents at the carousel or the baggage office. None responded to pages by O'Hare security personnel for assistance. It was hot and humid in Chicago--and passengers were steamed.

One week later, the American Airlines ORD-to-SFO nonstop was nearly flawless. I checked a bag curbside and the agent, noticing that I was limping from a recent leg injury, summoned a wheelchair despite my protest that I could make it through the maze unassisted.

I hadn't flown American much in the last 18 months and was curious how the US Airways and American cultures were meshing. The gate agents were all former US Airways staffers while the flight crew was of mixed corporate origin.

The flight was a sellout, but there were enough gate staff to answer questions, mostly with a smile. One agent, who noticed that I'd arrived in a wheelchair, proactively took my boarding pass and said I'd be pre-boarded.

For some extra comfort, I shelled out $90 for an aisle seat in an exit row. I said no thanks to the $560 upgrade to first class.

The flight departed on-time, to the minute, but, right after the climb out, an otherwise healthy looking man in his mid-30s was laying in the aisle and a "medical professional" was being paged. His eyes were open but he was losing color.

A passenger working with three flight attendants administered oxygen. Cameras were whipped out. I heard a crew member mention "police" and another "emergency landing." Within 20 minutes, however, the man was back in his seat and everyone was calm. There was an update from the cockpit that there'd be no delay--and possibly an early arrival.

Like Alaska, American is also removing its seatback entertainment system which, on the relatively new Boeing 737 fleet, was only recently installed.

(Why the mania for removing IFE systems? One airline executive I recently queried said "it's a logical progression. The expense of wiring aircraft for individual seat entertainment, maintaining the system and the added weight is offset by the technology advances where airlines can provide enough onboard bandwidth to power the [passengers'] devices.")

The American in-flight crew was engaged, helpful and responsive. I did not detect an attitude or impatience with requests. But they don't have much with which to work. In economy, there was a skimpy assortment of sandwiches and snacks for $5 to $10.

Gate arrival was, in fact, 30 minutes early. Baggage hit the carousel within a reasonable amount of time. American also had baggage staff on hand to sort things out.

On the basis of door–to-door performance on these two flights, American Airlines clearly outshone newlywed Alaska. But a deeper probe may reveal who really views travelers as a customer, not just a commodity.

Once an airline famous for ripping seats out of coach to create a roomier environment, American these days is testing the limit of what is acceptable for a supposedly full-service airline. It tried last year to implement a seat reconfiguration that would have reduced legroom in economy to a torturous 29 inches, but a passenger and media backlash forced American executives to scotch the plan.

But American is still aggressively reducing its legroom. Like Alaska Airlines, American is shoehorning two more rows on many of its existing Boeing 737s. That reduces coach seat pitch to 30 inches, matching the cramped confines of the carrier's much-derided new Boeing 737Max aircraft. Worse, those new "max" aircraft have just 33 inches of legroom in Main Cabin Extra and just 37 inches in first class.

This column is Copyright © 2018 by Chris Barnett. is Copyright © 2018 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Chris Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.