Thursday, September 10, 2009

Continental: Good Reviews on New Awards Program; Mixed Reviews on 2 Recent Trips

I see that Continental is already getting rave reviews for its new OnePass elite-status benefits, which start with the entrance of Continental into Star Alliance on Oct. 27. [See previous post.]

Continental has always been my preferred domestic airline. That’s partly because I most often fly out of the two big Continental hubs, the ridiculously named Newark Liberty International Airport (seriously, what local genius slapped that “Liberty” in there?) and the hilariously named George Bush Houston Intercontinental Airport, which many pilots call “Houston Intergalectic.”

But another reason is that even in the worst of times, Continental has been easy to deal with, and its flight attendants, in my opinion, are the most cheerful and courteous of any of the major airlines.

Now to two reviews from recent trips.

First, the bad: In July, I flew Continental roundtrip Newark-Liberia, Costa Rica, in business/first — on a full-fare ticket, not an upgrade. Usually, Continental’s business/first gets pretty good reviews for international travel, and I agree it deserves them. But folks, that Costa Rica route was simply not up to Continental standards.

On the outbound trip, the 737 was dirty. There was no in-flight entertainment. The flight attendants were indifferent.

On the homebound trip, also on a dingy 737, the flight attendants were quite different. This time they were overtly rude.

First the plane out of Liberia had to make an unscheduled stop — in nearby Nicaragua — for fuel. The Continental agent at the open-air Liberia airport said it was because the country was out of fuel temporarily, and even as I listened to this explanation I watched a fuel truck loading up a big fat Delta 767 on the apron.

On board, my seat had been changed to 5-B, a non-reclining seat in the last row in the front cabin. Just before departure, I noticed an empty row two spots forward and said to the flight attendant that I would like to take 3-B.

“That seat is going to be occupied by one of our pilots,” she said in a huff. Sure enough, a man and a woman, non-revenue passengers, got on and settled into the row.

A dinner menu was handed out. After our Nicaragua stop, the flight attendant came by to take orders. The choices for the main courses were mixed grill, seafood risotto and tortellini. I ordered the risotto.

When the food started coming, it transpired that no one to the starboard side of Row 3 and aft got what they had ordered.

A woman in front of me — that would be Row 4 port side, complained about this.

“That’s because there isn’t enough space in the galley,” the flight attendant told her.

Across the aisle, a man told the flight attendant not to bother, he had a package of Cup O Soup in his carry-on and only needed hot water. He had to fetch that himself.

When she got to me, she said the risotto wasn’t available.

“I’ll have the mixed grill, then,” I said.

“We don’t have that,” she said.

“How about the tortellini?”

“We’re out of that.”

I said, “So the menu you gave me is fictional?”

“The menu is correct. We just don’t have your choice.”

“What about that non-rev pilot sitting up a couple of rows. Did he get dinner?”

She glowered. “The pilots are in the cockpit,” she said with a hint of menace. “Why would you say the pilots are anywhere else?”

My sometimes-reliable self-protection alarm told me to shut up now. I did not wish to generate a headline, “Passenger Arrested For Claiming Pilots Not in Cockpit.”

The flight attendant next turned to the people in the row across from me and said, “The only food option is what they have in the back,” meaning in coach.

The very nice passenger in row 4 starboard raised his steaming Cup O Soup and said to those of us behind him, “You want some? I got four of these left.”

So I think Continental has some work to do on that route, especially as more people are traveling to Costa Rica.


On the other hand, I flew back yesterday from the sensibly named Tucson International Airport to the ridiculously named Newark Liberty International Airport, with a connection through the hilariously named George Bush Houston Intercontinental Airport — you know, the airport where that lady on the loudspeaker keeps repeating the announcement that you’ll be arrested for making “inappropriate jokes or comments about security” and that you better not “allow strangers to persuade you” to take something onto a plane.

Grandiose airport names and crazed announcements aside, the flight could not have gone better. I was in an aisle seat near the front and, thanks to lowly silver-elite status, had priority boarding on both legs, meaning I had no problem stowing my carry-on in an overhead bin.

A nice snack — cheese and salami with some crackers and a candy bar — was served in coach on the Tucson-Houston leg. On the Houston-Newark leg, they served a chicken and cheese burrito with a salad and a candy bar and some fruit snacks. They had enough for everybody in the fully packed 737, too.

And that chicken burrito is a keeper, by the way. Continental, alone among the major airlines, continues to serve free meals in coach.

What a relief, too, to find myself facing the usual courteous Continental flight attendants.

In Newark, my bag — marked “priority handling” because of my lowly silver-elite status — was trundling onto the conveyor the minute I got to baggage claim. Record time!

That’s the Continental I know and admire — and have made a real effort every year to maintain at least some level of elite-status on.



ChefNick said...

Uhh . . . I sense a rant a-coming! And Joe, knowing you, I know you'll do me the favor of posting it. The people who read my blog wouldn't understand it.

First: Ridiculous airport names. They renamed a perfectly good airport here in Montreal, Dorval International Airport (Dorval for short) after a former prime minister.

They now grandly call it "Pierre Elliot Trudeau International Airport." The poor beleaguered press have to now shorten it to "Trudeau." What the hell was wrong with "Dorval?"

Second: As far as flight crews go, I usually ignore food if the flight is under ten hours. The dreck that I got on Japan Airlines -- that's JAPAN AIRLINES -- wasn't worth opening my tired eyes for, this last time to Tokyo and back.

But I find that the domestic crews are generally much less happy than international.

Though in general, I've found that crews don't tend to get snippy with me.

Maybe I'm too submissive.

But I've also learned that arguing with a flight attendant (something I've never done) is akin to arguing with a policeman. I just can't see why anyone in their right mind would do it unless it involved their personal safety. You will always be at the losing end, one way or another.

Charlene Ann Baumbich said...

I will never forget the kindnesses the folks at Continental Airlines rendered during a difficult and emotinally stressful time. I'm glad to see that for the most part, they are still "having at it." I'm getting ready to plan a trip. Glad you reminded me about Continental. BTW, your whole post was great. Love your details and you made me LOL. I needed that!

flybaby said...

I arrived at Austin airport one day very early, knowing my Star Alliance flight was delayed so I'd miss my connection and that ORD was already showing major delays for the day. Knowing I didn't want to connect through ORD, United moved me to Continental for Newark, leaving in just 25 minutes. A dash through security (with secondary because of the last minute change!) and to the airplane followed. No time to refill water bottles or buy some food to eat.

Imagine my surprise when I was served water all through the flight (every 30 minutes or so they came through) and the meal was an extremely edible pizza and a chocolate bar. And it was all complimentary!

The flight from Newark to YOW ended up going mechanical an hour into the flight and we returned to Newark since Continental doesn't have mechanics in YOW. But the whole incident was handled efficiently and with great grace by the flight attendant.

And, when we did straggle to baggage claim in YOW, our luggage was there, despite all the disruptions.

I just hope Continental can maintain their standards once they join Star Alliance.

ChefNick said...

Well, in general, I've found that one makes one's own fortunes on the road. If you're a jerk to the checkin agent, you should expect to be in the middle row and your bag on the way to Baghdad.

I've personally witnessed shocking displays of rudeness -- one in which a passenger from SFO to KIX was berating a harried gate agent because they were overbooked. Guess what happened? He called all the passengers and asked who would be willing to give up their seat. I went up to him and told him -- can't remember exactly -- that if he could get me on a plane back to SFO on xx day, I would do it.

Upshot: He couldn't do it, but instead he put me in first class to Osaka on United, which I have no real affiliation with.

It really, really pays to be polite and considerate. If the pasta on flight xxx is terrible, it's not the crew's fault. If they don't come round often enough to give you your bottle of white wine, order two, and with the correct change.

I once intervened in a weird passenger disruption on a flight to Paris, basically wanting to preserve my life, but after, the flight crew gave me a double scotch on the rocks for free.

They're just people.

Treat them like it!