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The NY Times reported today that Delta is going to acquire a 49% stake in Virgin Atlantic, acquiring Singapore Airlines’ stake that they’ve long been trying to sell due to dismal returns. Apparently, Delta and Sinagpore found a price that works for both of them – $360 million, which is a huge loss for Singapore since they purchased the stake for $966 million in 2000.
This deal will give Delta more access to London Heathrow, where it currently flies to from Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, Minneapolis and New York. Even though Delta’s SkyTeam partners have hubs in Paris, Amsterdam and Rome, Delta has aggressively targeted London passengers, outfitting all of their London flights with their lie-flat BusinessElite seats and even trying to launch new routes like Miami-London, which did not last very long.
Virgin Atlantic has hinted in the past about joining an alliance and since their arch-enemy British Airways is in oneworld, the logical choices were Star Alliance or SkyTeam. When I blogged about it in September 2011 and included a poll, most of you thought Star Alliance was the obvious choice (and I was right along with you). This deal certainly makes it all but certain for them to join SkyTeam if they do indeed join an alliance. Even if they don’t, or they take a while to do so, I imagine reciprocal benefits between Virgin Atlantic and Delta frequent flyers are soon to come. I just hope that Delta does not include huge fuel surcharges on Virgin Atlantic flights. On a New York-London roundtrip in business class, Virgin Atlantic charges 80,000 miles and a whopping $1,112 in taxes/fees. Delta, on the other hand, charges 100,000 miles and only $284, though finding low level awards can be tricky on Delta.
So which business class is better? Virgin Atlantic certainly wins on ground experience. Their Clubhouse lounges are swanky and chock-full of amenities vs. Delta’s dumpy and overcrowded lounges (I’m looking at you JFK!) that basically offer mixed nuts and cheap booze; and in-flight ambiance – Virgin Atlantic 747’s have in-flight bars that create a party atmosphere, which can be a good or a bad thing depending on what you want. I haven’t actually flown Virgin Atlantic, but from all of the reports I’ve read, the in-flight experience isn’t all it is cracked up to be, with average food and service.
Delta 767-400 BusinessElite seats are 20.5″ wide and up to 81″ long. Some feel that they are too narrow and feel like a “coffin”, but I’ve always had excellent sleep on them and I find BusinessElite meals and amenity kits to be above average for business class. Delta BusinessElite goes above and beyond on bedding as well, with large down pillows and thick comforters, beating out every carrier I’ve flown in both business and first class.
Virgin Atlantic has a separate Premium Economy cabin, whereas Delta’s Economy Comfort are coach seats that have more legroom, recline and perks like free cocktails. The Delta SkyMiles program does not currently allow Premium Economy redemption on partners like Air France, so I wouldn’t hold my breath for Virgin Atlantic Premium Economy redemptions either, though it would be a nice enhancement.
Both carriers offer in-flight video on demand at every seat in economy and complimentary beer/wine and meals. I would probably prefer to fly Virgin Atlantic, because the service is a little more upbeat- starting with complimentary cocktails upon boarding and a more refined dining experience, including a separate dessert service after dinner.
Overall, I think this partnership could be great for frequent flyers of both airlines as it will allow for more redemption opportunities. While airline partnerships can be detrimental to consumers by decreasing competition and increasing prices, I think this will allow Virgin and Delta to compete better with British Airways, which is a behemoth in the UK market after acquiring bmi airlines earlier this year.
There are a lot of different variables at play here- whether Virgin Atlantic will join SkyTeam (I think so) and whether Delta will completely revamp the SkyMiles program and thus partner redemptions (I think so), so stay tuned!