Can “different” really work? Alaska Airlines + Virgin America

Artwork credit: Alaska Airlines

It was recently announced that Alaska Airlines was scheduled to “kill” the Virgin America brand effective 2019. There has been much speculation about this since the merger of the two companies was announced. Use of the term “kill” in the headline really got me to thinking. If the brand of a company are its people, what message does using the term “kill” send to the employees of Virgin America?

So many times in airline mergers the focus is on the operation. How will the schedules be meshed? How will the frequent flyer programs and loyalty levels be integrated? What type of aircraft will be utilized? What hub cities will remain, be expanded or downsized? And somewhere in all of this, employees are often stranded at the gate as the plane backs away for departure.

Sir Richard Branson penned an eloquently stated post about this very thing. He touched on the Virgin America brand and how its people make the difference.

Cultural integration can be a tricky thing wrought with challenges. It takes commitment from senior leadership to embrace and communicate the belief: we’re all in this together, and because of this we will be better. Without this commitment, and actions to back it up, the merger is destined to be less than ideal. The employees lose, the customers lose, the airline loses. There are plenty of examples of this playing out in the airline industry.

The integration of Song Airlines into Delta Air Lines will parallel the aforementioned merger in many ways, I believe. Song was a scrappy start up (subsidiary) that made a name for itself in a short period of time. In 3 years many processes, marketing initiatives and concepts were tried and tested. Some worked. Some didn’t. When the integration of Song into Delta occurred there was lots of resistance amongst employees. There were those who, after experiencing Song, decided not to return to Delta. They could not return to the way things were. There were those who had remained at Delta that considered Song a four-letter word and made it difficult for those returning. And then there were those Delta employees who welcomed the Song Stars back with open arms and a “you guys were a part of a cool thing”-attitude. No matter which “side” you were on, change came at lightning speed. Those who embraced the changes went on to help others embrace the changes and take the “new” Delta in different direction. And the outcome has been good.

Words of advice to Virgin America employees: don’t be discouraged, “your airline” will still be visible, keep eyes open and you will see.

Words of advice to Alaska Airlines employees: be empathetic, what if it were “your airline” brand that went away, embrace the changes coming.

Alaska Airlines and Virgin America, good luck and all the best with the merger.

In this photo released by Alaska Airlines, A specially painted, co-branded Alaska Airlines and Virgin America 737-900ER aircraft, painted in shimmering red, purple and blue and featuring the slogan “More to love,” lands at San Francisco International Airport on December 14, 2016 in San Francisco, CA. The newly painted aircraft is part of the merger celebration of Alaska Airlines and Virgin America. (Photo by Alaska Airlines, Bob Riha, Jr.)

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