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 Transportation.

• 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 rules.

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 examples:

• 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 cabin.

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 to passengers.

• 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 winner.

• 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.


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