United-Continental: we're just the passengers

After on-again, off-again talks, United Airlines and Continental Airlines are finally going to merge. But what about us?
Written by Deborah Gage, Contributor

United Airlines today agreed to pay $3.15 billion for Continental to create what would be the world's biggest airline – a mega-carrier with 10 hubs that would fly to 59 countries and 370 cities.

I don't know whether to be relieved or not. Service on Continental has been OK during the few times I've flown it, but some of my worst memories of flying – ever -- are on United Airlines.

There was the time I was going home to California from New York, changed planes in Chicago and watched my fellow passengers board a plane for San Jose (my town) while I got routed through Las Vegas, where I changed planes again and arrived home late that night.

Then there was the time I had to spend an extra four hours in the Denver airport because my connecting flight was a little late and United had already sold my seat to somebody else by the time I arrived at the gate (even though my plane for California was still boarding).

I got so mad that time that I wrote a complaining letter to United's CEO, Glenn Tilton. He never answered. But I did interview Tilton in San Francisco seven years ago, a few months after he'd come from Chevron Texaco to take charge of United and steer it through Chapter 11 bankruptcy and presumably into the arms of a merger partner.

Like all the big airlines, United had been hammered by the dot-com crash and 9-11. I was working on a story on Delta Airlines' new low-cost carrier Song, which Delta was rolling out to battle Jet Blue and especially Southwest, whose founders had the genius to see that airplanes were no different from buses – the idea was to get people where they were going, on time, with a minimum of fuss.

United was also starting a low-cost carrier (remember TED?), and Tilton wanted to talk to me about a new technology that Delta was using – large flat-screen monitors at each gate that would automatically update to show the plane’s latest boarding time, departure time, how many seats were available, etc.

Not only could Delta eliminate workers with these monitors – fewer airline employees would be needed to answer passengers’ questions – but they might also sooth restless passengers who were cooling their heels in the gate’s waiting areas by giving them up-to-date information on when their flights might (or might not) take off.

United too has those flat-screen monitors at its gates now, I notice, flashing information at stranded passengers, but TED and Song are both dead, the victims of bureaucracy and the seemingly endless financial problems of the airline industry. After killing Song, Delta two years ago bought Northwest Airlines, and now United and Continental are trying to combine into an even bigger airline. (Their deal is subject to approval by the Justice Department).

Even back in 2003, Glenn Tilton seemed to understand United's problems pretty well.

"Airlines have underperformed every single business, including steel, which is a commodity, by more than 50%," he said. "This has been a difficult and troubled industry for a long time. People are romantically attracted to this business, but we need to think of it as a business. It’s all around customer satisfaction…We need to put that in place."

But let's face it, none of these big airline mergers are about customer service. The airlines are so financially strapped, they don’t have that luxury anymore. Free food and free checked bags have become a thing of the past – even pillows and blankets are threatened. (US Airways, which was also a candidate to merge with United, charges $7).

As a passenger without Elite status on United, all I can do is hope their service doesn’t get worse. Tilton, meanwhile, gets to move on – he is handing over his CEO title to Continental CEO Jeff Smisek and will be a non-executive board chairman of United until two years after the deal closes.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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