Continental-United merger poses questions

Whose service will greet passengers
at the merged Continental and United airline: Continental’s highly rated or
United’s low-rated?

Will the new airline — to fly under
the United name — have two, three or four classes of seats? Will it fly big or
little planes?

The new airline needs to get
approved by federal regulators before it can fly. And the airlines have yet to
put together teams that will work out answers to important passenger questions.

“It’s very early in the
process,” Continental spokeswoman Christen David said. “We’ve had
lots of questions asked already, including, ‘What operating system will we use,
Vista or Windows 7?’ But we don’t have any answers yet.”

Among key issues for passengers:

Customer service. Continental
is regarded as having the better image. It ranked second among U.S. airlines in
the University of Michigan’s latest American Customer Satisfaction index,
second only to Southwest. United came in last.

Classes of seating. United
has conventional first, business and coach sections, plus an “Economy
Plus” section with economy seats that have a few extra inches of legroom.
Continental has a standard coach section, plus “Business First.” It’s
a hybrid designed to be near first-class quality but priced near business
class.

•Size of planes. More than half of United’s departures are flown under contract by
United Express carriers, which fly smaller planes. Continental farms out a
smaller share to regional affiliates.

Millions of dollars in revenue hang
on how the issues are decided. For example, Continental can pack a maximum of
285 passengers on its Boeing 777s used on international routes. United can get
only 253 passengers on its 777s. But 138 of those passengers on United’s 777s
pay premium prices to sit in first, business or Economy Plus sections.

“There are two key areas of
concern: product delivery and service delivery,” says marketing consultant
Shashank Nigam, CEO of SimpliFlying.com. “They are two different things:
One has to do with the seats and cabins and how all the amenities are packaged.
The other has to do with how the airline’s people greet and handle and serve
passengers. Continental and United do those things very differently from one
another today.”

Industry consultant and analyst
Michael Boyd at the Boyd Group International says success may hinge as much on
whether the new airline flies its big, mainline jets or the smaller,
less-comfortable planes of its regional affiliates.

“More customers will fly on
small jets than will ever sit in first class,” Boyd says. “So that
decision will affect far more people than anything else United and Continental
can decide.”

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