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 Barnett on Business Travel

chris SOME FRILLS AND STYLE
SURVIVE AT CONTINENTAL


BY CHRIS BARNETT

March 25, 2004 -- Somewhere between the gilded age of the Pan Am Clippers with their dress-for-supper style and the discount era of Southwest Airlines and its herd-them-and-haul-them mind-set was Continental Airlines. The old Continental: smart, sophisticated and slightly sassy.

The original Continental had plenty of attitude--the good kind. Passengers often felt like privileged guests at a private party and flight attendants were hired for their quick wit, personality and their other charms.

Bob Six, who piloted Continental for over 40 years, was a powerhouse chief executive who loved a good time and had plenty of them. He put piano bars on long-haul flights and encouraged sing-alongs and in-flight schmoozing around the baby grand. He was a savvy, free-spending Democrat with clout in Washington. That won him entrée with the Kennedys, long-haul routes to Australia and other preferences that infuriated rival airline bosses.

Married to actress Audrey Meadows, the long-suffering television wife of Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners, Six rattled cages by touting Continental as the "Proud Bird With the Golden Tail." He tagged the airline's ads with, "We move our tails for you." He even owned a restaurant, the Proud Bird, located off the runway at Los Angeles International. It was a great hangout for airline crews and groupies.

But when the airline industry was deregulated in 1978, Continental went into a tailspin. Wheeler-dealer Frank Lorenzo and his tiny Texas International Airlines grabbed control of Continental and plunged it into two bankruptcies and almost 20 years of chaos. Lorenzo so demoralized Continental employees during his reign that I remember flight attendants looking shell-shocked and wearing uniforms with cigarette burns.

In 1995, however, Gordon Bethune took the controls as Continental's chief executive. Despite a disastrous foray into a discount service called Continental Lite, Bethune, a folksy Texan, rescued the airline from its second bankruptcy and set new profit records right up until the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He restored morale with "on-time" cash bonuses for all employees and raffles for sports-utility vehicles for all staffers with perfect attendance. Last month, Fortune named Continental one the 100 best American companies to work for--for the sixth straight year. It's the latest of a long list of recent awards and accolades.

Glowing praise indeed, but how is Continental treating passengers today? To find out, I recently flew four flights between San Francisco and South Florida, connecting through Continental's Houston hub.

Clearly, Continental's glory days are long gone. But among the Big Six airlines I've flown in the last year, Continental's flights were the friendliest, the airfares were shockingly low ($233 roundtrip, booked over the phone nine days before takeoff) and the airline has hung on to some frills and style. But on the comfort scale, Continental's economy class scores low. With a 31-inch pitch, seating is tight and laptopping is uncomfortable--and impossible if the passenger in front leans back.

My 6 a.m. check-in at SFO went smoothly using Continental's self-serve kiosks. I switched to a roomier emergency row aisle seat on both outbound flights just by touching the screen. The ticket-counter clerks and gate agents were helpful and smiling. The waiting area at the gate, at SFO at least, was stacked with national magazines--for reading, not taking, but it's a thoughtful touch.

The 737-300 was spotlessly clean and had 12 leather seats in first class. Bethune himself gave a folksy, televised welcome before the safety message. The CEO told us that "you're flying with the most professional men and women in the airline industry" and, by the way, "we'll serve you a meal at mealtime." That's great, no-brainer public relations and passengers feel a bit special. Bethune delivered on the meal: a banana muffin, Rice Krispies, a banana and milk for breakfast. Nothing fancy, but it was tasty and healthy. (These days, special-order meals are only available on transcontinental and international flights.)

Naturally, there was no piano bar, but the in-flight entertainment is a cut above the competition. For $5 "and you keep the headsets," we saw lots of action flicks: Master and Commander and wrestler-turned-actor The Rock starring in some gory jungle thriller. All drinks, beer and wine were $5 flat. The cabin crew, decked out in smart, pin-striped uniforms, seemed to be enjoying their job. Several had the ease and grace reminiscent of the old Continental's flight attendants, who were extremely worldly and took seriously the art of serving passengers.

Purred Patty, a 13-year Continental veteran: "We had a good layover [in San Francisco], great meals, lots of fun." She claimed that Continental is no longer squeezing blood out of its flight crews. "We really have a good relationship with our CEO and the top dogs. I can leave Gordon a voice mail and know that he'll hear it." She sounded sincere.

Some fellow passengers gave Continental generally good grades. "I've been really impressed so far with the easy, friendly check-in and it's kinda nice to have high-energy, enthusiastic service," said Pindy Dhesi, an account executive with Argent Mortgage Company. "One gripe: Seat pitch is too tight."

San Francisco lawyer Jason Bergman booked Continental because "I am paying with my own dime and I got a $250-to-$300 fare, but I'd rather fly United for the miles. An airplane is an airplane. They're all the same."

J.D. Hawkins, general manager of the St. Petersburg Clay Company in Florida, was an American Airlines loyalist for years. "But I kept getting attitude at the gate and at the check-in counters. Continental people go out of their way to be nice, to smile at me."

My three other Continental flights were pretty much like the first. On one leg, two flight attendants were chilly and snippy, but the others seemed to take pride in their work. One exception: Continental's counter crew at Ft. Lauderdale Airport. They were robotic, frazzled by continuously dealing with long lines of tired cruise ship passengers wanting to go home. They were also suspicious of the 14 self-service check-in kiosks, machines they feel will someday replace them.

I came away with two tips and one worry. First, book late-afternoon or evening flights out of Florida airports and avoid the numbingly long lines in the morning when flotillas of cruise ships disgorge vacationers at around 10 a.m. Second, Continental's connections are tight and its hub at George Bush Intercontinental is sprawling. Stay in shape for a long-distance dash if you connect at IAH.

The worry? Bethune, lionized as a "savior" and a "saint" by Continental staffers I spoke with, is bailing out at year-end, retiring after a protracted squabble with three directors, who are also exiting. His longtime protégé and right-hand man, Continental president Larry Kellner, is taking the chief executive's reins. Insiders describe him as a financial guy with a good personality. He's got big shoes to fill.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright © 2001-2004 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.