Friday, September 5, 2008

Continental makes disappointing changes

Readers of my blog will be familiar with my high opinion of Continental Airlines, which I consider to be the best of the U.S. legacy carriers and probably the best domestic airline overall. Even a good airline can disappoint, though, and Continental disappointed me today by announcing some changes.

To be clear, Continental is lagging rather than leading on these changes. Each was adopted by one or more other airlines weeks ago. Here they are:
  1. You'll now pay a $15 fee for your first checked bag. OnePass elite members, anyone flying in First or BusinessFirst class, and military personnel are exempt, but plenty of people will get hit with this fee. The second-bag fee of $25 remains unchanged.

  2. You'll no longer get a minimum of 500 OnePass miles on a flight. Up until today, Continental awarded at least 500 miles in its OnePass frequent flyer program for every flight segment taken. The amount now drops to the actual mileage flown.

    This is a change that United Airlines made more than a month ago, and it probably doesn't affect many people. But that begs the question: why make it? A passenger who flew 380 miles every day would pocket an extra few thousand miles a month. This change may not affect you, but it feels cheap. I don't like it.

  3. Bonus miles for elites are being reduced. It used to be that OnePass elite bonus mileage rates were 125%, 100%, and 50% for Platinum, Gold, and Silver respectively. Continental is changing things so that Silver members get a 25% bonus and setting Platinum bonus mileage to match Gold at 100%.

    I loosely grasp the logic of the first change, i.e. combatting inflation. Dropping every rate might have made sense too. But matching Gold and Platinum earning rates? Platinum elite members give Continental more of their money each year; don't they deserve more bonus miles as a benefit?
Making these changes now might illustrate how bad things are for the airline industry that even service-conscious Continental felt the need to change with the times. But as every other change in the industry has demonstrated, these things only get worse and not better; benefits cut and fees imposed today in bad times will not benefits restored or fees retracted in good times.

Continental is truly unique in striving to maintain a level of service that was once universal on airplanes: meals, blankets, pillows, etc. I hope that we are not witnessing the decline of the last great U.S. domestic airline.

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