October 27, 2011

United is not how Continental stands

Posted in Between Us column, Business, Health, Women at 6:04 am by dinaheng

Airline mergers are no fun. The employees grumble as practices change, and the customers complain as confusion reigns over shifting policies. Perhaps the only people who are happy are the executives who get the biggest salaries and retirement perks.

No wonder Occupy Wall Street is hitting such a sympathetic chord across the country.

Take the current merger of Continental and United Airlines, which announced that it would join hands to become the world’s largest airline last May in a deal worth $3.2 billion.

From a consumer standpoint, all I see is a bumpy ride that’s going to get worse for the paying customers. I fly both United and Continental, and am a silver elite flyer with Continental. Because of my frequent flyer status, I’m usually able to get “premium” reserved seating on flights and checked luggage without paying extra fees.

A few weeks ago, on a flight from Los Angeles to Houston, I was seated on a Continental plane in an emergency row exit aisle seat. Because the plane wasn’t full, the fellow in the window seat in my row got upgraded to first class, leaving me with two empty seats next to me.

A fellow sitting a few rows ahead immediately jumped into the newly vacated seat in my row. I didn’t mind because there was plenty of room. However, a United pilot who was seated in the exit row seat across from me did.

She gestured to a flight attendant who was a colleague from United and pointed to the seat jumper. When the flight attendant asked the man to return to his assigned seat, the passenger complained, saying that he was a Continental frequent flyer and should have the right to sit there since the seat was vacant.

The flight attendant said no, United’s policy is that premium row seats are reserved for flyers who pay extra for the extra legroom, and the grumbling passenger returned to his original seat. The United pilot nodded approvingly, saying, “That lost revenue comes out of my paycheck.”

I didn’t want to get into an argument with her, but it should be pointed out that she didn’t pay anything extra to sit in the premium exit row seat, and as an elite Continental frequent flyer, neither did I. Clearly, the United pilot saw sitting in a premium seat as a privilege reserved for airline personnel, and as a revenue generator that was more important than customer service and common sense.

Whenever I fly, I make it a point to get up often to stretch and walk around to keep the blood circulating in the body. Whenever I end up standing in the galley waiting for the restroom, I take the opportunity to chat to the flight attendants about how the merger’s going.

Invariably, I hear grumbling from both United and Continental personnel. It’s like listening to siblings in a blended family who know they will eventually have to fly together, but while things are shaking out, all they can do is see the worst in each other.

The Continental folks complain about United personnel who resist learning how to use technology in place at Continental that’s more updated than what United had, and union rules that would not be cost-effective for any company.

Interestingly enough, the United folks complain about lack of Continental leadership at the top, wondering why CEO Jeff Smisek hasn’t cleaned house and gotten rid of the United executives who helped to get the airline into a financial mess in the first place. They seem well aware that their own union has enacted rules that protect jobs, but place passengers at risk.

For example, one rule everyone points to (United and Continental personnel alike), is a union rule that doesn’t specify a retirement age for flight attendants.

“We have attendants in their 80s who don’t fly anymore, but they keep getting benefits as long as they can get someone else to fly for them,” said one United flight attendant. “So in essence, they’re not working anymore, and still drawing benefits. Who wouldn’t want a job like that?”

Oh, and since flight attendants don’t have to meet weight specifications, there are some who can barely fit, walking down the aisle, or are unable to bend down to reach the bottom of the beverage cart to get a can of soda.

Since both Continental and United charge overweight customers who can’t lower both armrests and fasten seat belts with one extender for a second seat, why don’t they enact some kind of penalty for flight attendants in the same condition, who are supposed to be on board for the safety of passengers?

Clearly, air travel today generates a lot of complaints — on all sides. As a passenger, I just wish it wasn’t the customer who always ends up paying another fee for management’s greed and mistakes.

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