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Has United ruined Continental?

I have for many years used Continental Airlines for most of my travel as I have found them reasonable and relatively easy to deal with. They always worked with me to solve problems and I never had any complaints about their service. I was a bit worried when United merged but at first it did not seem to cause any problems.

Now, the penny has dropped. I have been extending my travel here in the US and have changed the return date 6 times. Suddenly they have decided my ticket is ‘not changeable’ and the 6 people who have done so in the past ‘were in error’. I actually do not believe this is the case. What I believe has happened is that the unfriendly skies have now taken hold and these people are totally bureaucratic and have no concept of working with their customers.

This does not bode well for the merged company. If they can leave a long time, loyal customer stranded, I suspect they are going to make many, many enemies amongst their potential customer base.

If I had their stock right now, I’d sell.

32 comments to Has United ruined Continental?

  • zevatron

    I have heard anecdotal evidence that the culture of United is much more regimented and hidebound than that of Continental. Perhaps this is being reflected in dealings with customers. Glad that for the most part I am able to deal with just Swiss and Lufthansa.

  • andrewdb

    United is largely owned by its employees (after a former bankruptcy). They run it for their convenience, not for the customer.

  • For domestic US travel, Southwest, Southwest, Southwest.

  • AndyJ

    I have ridden more airplanes than most flight attendants. several years ago I walked away from United and almost 200,000 actual-buns-in-seat miles… United Airlines is impersonal, one-size fits most and -your- problems are not theirs. That culture comes from 1) beancounters running the airline 2) anti-union/union backlash and 3) size… They are too big to care. They have wandered in and out of bankruptcy several times… I expect them to return within five years. WHY-? Because they simply DO NOT CARE. United was the first to collapse the seat spacing aft of the emergency exit and to charge extra for the emergency exit and bulkhead rows

    All airlines have the same issues. Al have airplanes, pilots, schedules, fortress hubs and a tough competitive market.

    United merged with Capital Airways many decades ago. Their flight crews screwed with their new family members. Hid memos, told the crew bus to leave for the hotel/airport without waiting for the former Capital people. I expect the same crap as this merger proceeds.

    Continental has also visited the bankruptcy courts several times. They had culture issues with each of their owners. Lorenzo was their worst nightmare as he used bankruptcy to wipe out the unions. Their merger with eastern was a disaster -BUT- Eastern was murdered by their unions.

    I wish the dominant culture had been Continental. They recognize that the main difference between airlines is the cabin service and reservations/check-in people. IOW- the retail face of their business. Customers do not care about the backshop union and service issues.

    Delta is also too big. Their merger with Northwest is also facing culture issues.

    Fly Virgin Atlantic/America… Good service. People who actually care… their crews are not paid as highly as the others-but- seem happy to be working…

    I buy my own tickets. I travel almost exclusively for business. Luckily, I am getting older and travel less. I remember the old time airlines who treated people right… TWA, Pan Am, Original Continental… Proud bird with brass … Bob Six created Continental… He said “It’s a simple business. Just get the right airplane, at the right price, in the right markets with the right schedule.”… Nothing has changed…

    The Pan Am/Lockerbie aircraft was one I had flown several dozen times twixt SFO and LHR… That murder was too close…. and yes, I was on American when they lost the engine over Chicago on take-off… I was on an extra section sitting on the runway…Those were my only adventures…the rest of the time-it’s boring…

  • AndyJ

    All airlines are run by and for the convenience of the airline employees. We are cattle passing thru. We are not unique, special or in anyway memorable.

    Ask them- Their insular world and schedules take them outside of our daily cares and frustrations.

    I try to dress nicely, be polite and patient. I don’t demand or express my frustrations to them. So far, politeness works -most of the time. Shined shoes, creased slacks, ironed shirt, blazer… It does make -me- feel better… Most travelers are demanding and project an air of entitlement… yet, they cannot be bothered with bathing, shaving or even dressing… yes, I know I speak mainly of Americans… Not all, just a preponderance of the herd… There are others… But Americans can/should do better… I’ll take issue with my countrymen…

    It’s no fun. and we should -all- try harder to be patient and pleasant. I have seen people get upset annoying and irritating because the flight was an hour late. The morning flight from the East Coast usually arrives in time for a luncheon meeting…Nobody is cognizant that we have flown over 3,000 mile in safety and comfort without concerns… That is a miracle… Once you could watch the aircraft take off…and see their wings bend as they rotated… That is a miracle… Yes, I am easily impressed…

  • J.M. Heinrichs

    I suggest blaming DHS. They do not wish to let you go.


  • A Liberal in Lakeview

    The problem has a simple solution:

    Cancel all airport subsidies. Eliminate military spending on aircraft and engine development. Let the airlines pull their own weight or die, as a heavily subsidized business is likely to do once the subsidies are eliminated.

    Problem solved.

  • Laird

    I can see that this thread is going to turn into a bitch session about the airlines. We all have our complaints and horror stories. But rather than indulge, I’d just like to say that the biggest problem I have with airlines is the lack of honest communication. They simply refuse to tell you the truth. I can understand delays, but is it too much to ask that they give you an honest assessment of when they expect the flight to arrive/board/depart? And that they update it with regularity? I am firmly convinced that being a pathological liar is a job requirement for employment at US Airways (my particular bete noire, if only because it’s the one I’m usually forced to fly). It doesn’t have to be that way.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    For transatlantic flights, I would recommend Virgin. Efficient, friendly, and they seem to take note of the customer.

    On a recent internal flight from JFK to San Francisco, my wife and I flew American Airlines. The staff were okay, but you could tell that it was run by the sort of folk who operate the mail.

  • Laird:

    I think I’ve posted it before, but if you think your experiences are bad, you should read Michael Totten’s experience with Alitalia.

  • Anonymous

    Several years ago, I was working in research for the European equities department of a large international bank. Alitalia was at that point on the verge of bankruptcy – it has since gone bankrupt and been reorganised and replaced by a new company with the same name, as airlines do. Our airline analyst had put a “Sell” rating on Alitalia, on the basis that it was a dreadful company that was about to go bankrupt, and that to want to hold its stock you would have to be barking mad. However, this was not acceptable to the Italian government, who had of course been (illegally) protecting Alitalia from competition and bailing the airline out with government money in various direct and indirect ways for years. Our head of research was summoned to Milan by the Italian financial services regulator (ie the body whose job it supposedly is to ensure fairness and honesty in Italian financial markets) and given a dressing down for employing someone who had the audacity to say negative things about this fine Italian company.

    This didn’t exactly make anyone who heard about this want to invest money in Italy anytime soon.

    Another thing  worth observing is how astoundingly successful Ryanair have been in Italy. Whatever may be said for them, they don’t generally lose your luggage (however much they charge you to carry it) and they generally do fly when and where they say they will. Which is a big improvement on Alitalia.

  • llamas

    AndyJ wrote:

    ‘The Pan Am/Lockerbie aircraft was one I had flown several dozen times twixt SFO and LHR… ‘

    I rode that one DTW-LHR about a week before it went down. Brrr.

    Always remember that airline personnel refer to passengers as SLF. Self Loading Freight.



  • Always remember that airline personnel refer to passengers as SLF. Self Loading Freight.

    On the other hand, pilots often say things like “We have 158 souls on board today…”. Sometimes it is the freight, and sometimes the soul. Seldom both together.

  • I think it is one of the basic rules of corporate mergers that the new company will manage somehow to have all the bad features of both companies and none of the good features. A company with good engineering and bad customer service will merge with a company with bad engineering but good customer service, and the resulting company will have bad engineering and bad customer service.

  • John B

    Those big old flag flying airlines had a very nasty monopoly and were probably grossly subsidised as well.
    I bought a cheap bucket shop ticket from London to Johannesburg in the mid 1970s for GBP480+/-.
    Then came Freddie Laker, who they managed to eventually get rid of, but he had opened the cartel doors for the likes of Richard Branson.
    Until around 2000 I could still get a cheap ticket, but now most airlines were offering them, for around GBP480.
    But they have been working very hard at squashing competition and I think the increasing poor service is another indication that we are sliding back to early 1970s style economics.
    Long may Ryan Air continue. With all that hate directed at them they must be doing something right!

  • Kim du Toit

    I remember sitting in Nashville Airport late one night, waiting for the last flight back to Chicago. There were just three of us in the area, all seasoned business travellers.

    With only three passengers for that flight, we KNEW the flight was going to be cancelled because of “technical problems” — so much so that two of us actually reserved rooms at local hotels. We actually teased the airline gate staff, offering them odds on said cancellation happening.

    Sure enough, the flight was cancelled — but before we left, we all made sure that we got a free-flight coupon out of the airline.

    That particular one was American, but it had happened to all of us before on different airlines (we compared notes).


    Best thing that happened to me was leaving Chicago, and I no longer had to fly United. (At one point, I was taking 50-odd flights a year out of O’Hare.) Not only do they treat passengers badly; they even treat their frequent-flier customers badly — worse than any other airline. Were it not for the fact that they have Chicago as their fortress hub, they’d have gone out of business a long time ago.

    Continental isn’t much better. I flew with them often out of Newark (when I lived in Joizee) and at best, their service was mediocre. I’ve flown Virgin twice, and each time was impressed (not) by the impersonal, indifferent service.

    As for Alitalia: we flew out of Rome two days after Mike Totten had his little experience with them — and ours was almost as bad.

    They all suck. There is no “good” or “nice” airline to fly. They start off lousy, and it goes down from there. The best you can expect is unpleasantness, and it ends with Aeroflot (whom I’ve never flown, but I know plenty of people who have — good grief).

  • llamas

    Ah, the dear, dead days . . .

    Best all-around (for me) used to be Sabena. For some unknown reason, they used to fly from DTW to Brussels, and so across Europe. Upgrades, freebies, and terrific in-flight service. It helped if one could suss out whether the check-in lady was Dutch- or French-speaking.

    Late 70s-early 80s BA long-haul was pretty excellent also. As expressed by the late, lamented Giles in a Daily Express cartoon – I wonder how long the taxpayers are going to carry on letting us fly empty Jumbos back and forth across the pond? The happy days, when a 747-200 would leave DTW with a grand total of 23 px, and the flight attendants would herd us all into the first-class lounge, up the stairs, so that 8 out of 10 of them could get a good kip 5-across in the back and the other two could easily take care of all the px – out of the first-class galley, naturally. The cockpit doors were unsecured and you could spend all the time you wanted to on the flight deck. And it was not unknown to leave the a/c with a clinking briefcase, thus ensuring a certain amount of liquid cheer was always available during a long business trip.

    For cushion-clenching terror – THY.

    For aviation fun – Provincetown-Boston Airways, now defunct. I used to have a lot of business in that part of the world, and they would fly one around in the most amazing assortment of flying oddities, including a DC3 which they claimed had the highest flying hours of any DC3 airframe ever, so set a new record every time it took off.

    For business-like service, Air Alaska, which understood that you had places to go and would sometimes forgo the niceties to get the job done.

    Best all-around, right now, in the US – SouthWest.



  • David Crawford

    Jeez, I guess I’m wierd as I always liked Northwest Airlines. With one VERY BIG caveat. I had to fly through their Minneapolis hub, not their Detroit one. I think it was the difference between just regular midwestern helpfulness compared to a population that learned its work habits from UAW types.

    I’m still sitting on around 460,000 NWA miles. I just don’t want to fly anymore. Anywhere. Period. By the time I left the job requiring all the travelling – in 2006 – flying had become the absolutely worst part of the job. When I started with them in 1989, man, I loved the travelling part of the job, especially the flying. Guess what, United sucked back 1990, too.

  • llamas

    God, but the Internet is just so great for this sort of thing. Sit in an office in Detroit, talk about an English newspaper cartoon from 40 years ago, and bingo! – there it is.




  • Laird

    I don’t understand the economics of the airline industry, but then I don’t believe that anyone understands the economics of the airline industry (not even the people running them, and most certainly not buy-side securities analysts). I suspect that it is fundamentally unworkable. The standard business model seems to be: (1) operate for as long as you can until you run out of money; (2) declare bankruptcy; (3) “reorganize” the company by wiping out the existing shareholders and demoting the current bondholders into a new crop of shareholders; (4) convince someone (often a government, but also some idiot bond fund managers*) to contribute a bunch of new money; and (5) repeat.

    The only companies which seem to make money are the small regionals, focused on a limited number of routes. Once they reach the size where they have to adopt the “hub and spoke” approach they seem to fall into the standard business model (see above). Southwest Airlines isn’t content with focusing on its historical routes, and has been expanding its market area in the last few years (just this month they came into my local airport). I fear that it’s only a matter of time before they fall into the same morass as the big boys.

    * Yes, I know that “idiot bond fund managers” is redundant.

  • John B

    Yes, well . . .

  • Once they reach the size where they have to adopt the “hub and spoke” approach they seem to fall into the standard business model (see above).

    Is that approach a law of nature, like gravitation?

  • United lied to me on my first use. A single hop became a 3 hop (and I am coming long haul from Asia…) and the last was an airborne bus you had to queue up for. A disgrace. It was my last.

    Northwest – flew once. They looked after me very well on the outbound leg – attentive steward who did not know how to mix a Manhattan handled the situation very well (and his first attempt was spot on!). Return was operated by a bunch of the most sour, entitled battle-axes* who would get fired from a volunteer soup kitchen short on staff. Maybe they were…**

    Cathay – almost always excellent. Cabin crew take no prisoners*** but are efficient and polite/respectful if, as is said, one takes care to wash, shave and dress properly. After a gap of a year or so, I few with them again and they offered my normal pre-flight drink of a Manhattan. Either the individual remembered OR that is a small, trivial even, detail the company logs, but one I will not forget.

    * what is the obsession in the US with big hair?
    ** People who cannot be fired are no longer employees, they are extortioners. Consent and freedom of association has departed.
    *** you want this if you are unlucky enough to be on a flight with a PRC tour group who run riot.

  • Laird

    Alisa, it certainly seems so. Or, if not a “law of nature”, they all use the same linear programming algorithm for their scheduling.

  • Laird, I meant the actual existence of the “hub” system itself: why does an airline have to have a hub?

  • John B

    llamas, et al.
    Just in case you hadn’t noticed which I guess is unlikely, the things that you are celebrating about airlines are aspects that are a result of unrealistic subsidies and the type of thing that elitism and theft have bred in state systems. Elitist ‘public’ purse socialism incarnate.
    You would seem to be celebrating the very things you lament as libertarians.

  • Michael Kent

    Alisa asked:

    I meant the actual existence of the “hub” system itself: why does an airline have to have a hub?

    It greatly reduces the capital cost of serving a set number of cities. Each additional city an airline serves only requires one plane to fly back and forth to the hub instead of one for each of the other cities the airline serves.


  • Thanks Mike, that makes sense. Now please try to control your laughter everyone, but how much government regulation is involved in shaping and maintaining the hub system?

  • llamas

    John B – well I would have thought that my jocular tone, together with a link to a contemporaneous cartoon that specifically pointed out the sheer inanity of the situation as it then existed (for all the reasons you state) would have made it abundantly clear that I understand exactly what was going on. I was fondly-remembering the service and the advantages that that system produced. Just because I took advantage (I didn’t have much choice, really), doesn’t mean that I agree with the system that brought it to me. But I’m not such a great libertarian that I’ll starve rather than eat food of insufficient ideological purity.

    BA had to fly empty 747’s back and forth across the pond to fulfil obligations made to their political masters, to preserve their precious ‘slots’, and to keep out the competition, specifically (at the time) Laker. All done on the taxpayer’s tab and virtually-all having SFA to do with effective, efficient air transportation. They could have burned £20 notes for fuel, it would probably have been cheaper. I knew that then – hell, everybody knew that then, that’s why the Daily Express had a cartoon about it!. But what did you want me to do? Walk?

    Bear in mind also that subsidized airlines can also produce service of awesome, unremitting badness. One fine example, which I named, was THY. Alitalia is another. By contrast, there are plenty of unsubsidized , capitalist airlines that provide a great service – SouthWest has been named here multiple times, and there are plenty of budget airlines in Europe that do a bang-up job for the price.



  • All airlines in America now are de facto arms of the government bureaucracy. They have been for decades.

    I fly a lot. What I wouldn’t give for an airline actually aware of its market and legally permitted to pay attention to it, I can’t tell you.

  • John B

    Yes. Okay. Sorry llamas.
    I get the feeling they are trying to restore those “good old days”!
    Get rid of upstarts like O’Leary and clear the plebs out of the skies.

  • PeterT

    Asiana airlines – great airline

    American Airlines. I only remember being served a pizza as a snack. It was deep pan and I thought it was a lasagna at first.

    Internal flight on Zimbabwe Airlines (or ways or whatever). Chair was not attached properly to floor and was wobbly.

    Tanzania Airlines internal flight. Was told that I couldn’t listen to my cd walkman for safety reasons. Morons.