nd now we enter the punishment phase
of the trial. Continental Airlines has found the traveling public
guilty of the following crimes:
• Failure to yield. Or rather, to increase yield. Airline
passengers denied Continental's right to raise its fares on four
separate occasions this year alone.
• Contempt. Though Gordon Bethune, Continental's chairman, has
repeatedly -- not just repeatedly, but again and again and over and
over -- told the traveling public how smart he is and how stupid
his competitors are, passengers continue to succumb to the
temptations of American's additional legroom in coach, JetBlue's
lower fares, US Airways' ability to handle luggage better, America
West's less-frequent incidents of "denied boarding" and the fact
that fewer Southwest passengers complain to the Department of
• Conspiracy. Its best and highest-volume customers, in
collusion with travel agents, have deliberately convinced
Continental's own employees to provide across-the-board discounts
for corporations and the occasional granting of waivers of its
Justice is being meted out piecemeal. The punishment for the
third of these charges has been pronounced: Continental is
eliminating corporate discounts on some low-fare categories and is
forbidding the bending or waiving of its rules.
Travel agents will pay punitive damages in the forms of fees and
penalties if they continue to do what Continental has allowed them
to do in the past and, further, will pay dearly for breaking a new
set of rules Continental has just issued. Should any dispute arise
regarding these rules, travel agents will be considered guilty
until proven innocent.
On the first two charges above, Bethune has not yet pronounced
sentence. He has, however, made clear his intentions. He has
decreed that low-fare customers will start paying for some services
they used to get for free. He said they would be revealed and
implemented "over the next several weeks."
In an unprecedented act of penance, the convicted are offering
guidance to Bethune as he weighs what form punishment will take. On
TravelWeekly.com's Forum, travel agents have offered dozens of
suggestions for what services Continental might charge. Some
• Emergency oxygen. Why not? After all, what is emergency oxygen
but another form of travel insurance, which no one expects to
receive for free. And there can be two levels offered: In the lower
price range, passengers could receive the kind that drops from
above, which can be useful when cabin pressure is reduced but is
ineffective in an emergency where smoke is present in the
For an additional charge, passengers would have access to
protective breathing apparatus (smoke hoods), which have been
recommended repeatedly by governmental agencies and are relatively
inexpensive. These are made available to airline personnel, but not
• Smiles. Continental's employees are the lowest paid among the
major carriers, and sometimes it's obvious that its personnel are
not happy. My guess is that if the airline splits the suggested fee
($20 per smile) 50/50 with its employees, everyone would come out a
• Lavatory access. Airline pricing always has followed this
simple philosophy: The greater your need, the more they will charge
to give you what you want. Logically, then, if your bladder is
full, they've got you where they want you.
Travel agents felt lavatory access offered many possibilities,
with additional charges for extras such as toilet paper, and
different fees depending upon what you might want to do once the
door is locked (one agent placed "mile-high club" activities at the
top of the fee schedule).
The idea of varied fees for levels of service was applicable to
other areas, as well. It was suggested that for $10 you could get a
pillow, but for $20 the pillowcase would be clean. Water and soft
drinks would be $5, or $7 if you want a cup, too. Needless to say,
ice would be extra.
Alas, despite these creative offerings, what Continental is most
likely to do is charge fees for services such as advance seat
selection, exit row or bulkhead seating, nonstop vs. connecting
flights, or special meals (or meals, period).
By punishing his victims, Bethune may hope to distract people
from the underlying reason he's in trouble to begin with: Fewer
people are flying his airline. I don't think eliminating certain
types of corporate discounting and taxing the airline's
distribution network is a great way to fill airplanes. And,
certainly, instituting fees for services currently offered for free
isn't the way to increase demand.
Continental has failed to address its pricing structure problem,
which is that its most frequent passengers -- business travelers --
feel like they're being shafted every time they buy a ticket.
And it won't make them feel any better if they paid $1,000 to
get a "free" meal if someone who paid $300 is asked to pay a $20
surcharge to eat.
Continental's projected savings on its newest proposals still
will leave it bleeding more than $1 million per day, which means
there is yet one other group that is being punished by Bethune's
reluctance to address the airline's core problems: Continental's
stockholders. One wonders how long these patient prisoners will
wait before they rise up in revolt.