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United Boeing 787
Texas Monthly’s recent piece, “Up in the Air” by Loren Steffy, has left me scratching my head. The by-line is “The 2010 sale of Continental Airlines has left Houston in a holding pattern” so I was expecting a look into dealings with the city or the airport. I braced myself for an investigative long-read.

The first two paragraphs focus on how terrible it was to lose Continental to the merger and then United to Chicago; How cultures are a problem.

As a management consultant, Heiland knew that the biggest hurdle for the two companies wouldn’t be integrating systems, processes, or technology but reconciling their cultures. “When it was announced that the headquarters would be in Chicago, I felt the war was lost.”

Then all of the sudden the article becomes a brief history of Continental. Details about former CEOs and what they did or didn’t do for the airline. All of it reads like a Wikipedia job. Then near the end there is some more meat.

And so, in 2010, Smisek struck a deal. Though he called it a merger, he basically sold Continental to United; the name “Continental” disappeared and the Houston headquarters was essentially vacated. Continental’s management team was supposed to be in charge, but it never took root in the cold climes of Chicago. “The Continental culture was a terrible thing to risk,” Bakes says. “United’s history is one of bureaucracy and arrogance, and it ended up culturally being more dominant.”

I get it, there are definite service issues with United. I’m not convinced it had anything to do with “culture” at either airline but more to do with the management not fostering a relationship with the front line staff and building trust. It has lead to distrust and unhappiness for the people who travelers see first and deal with most in their travels: flight attendants, agents, and other ground staff. Morale has been in the mud and it shows. The new CEO, Oscar Munoz, who is on medical leave due to a recent heart attack, mentioned the morale problems and customer service issues immediately after taking the job.

On another note, the part about the Houston offices being vacated is at best an oversight or at worst, poor research. There are a large number of employees who still work in downtown Houston. Just fly a Chicago-Houston morning flight or an evening Houston-Chicago flight, there are a lot of United employees commuting to or from the Houston office.

The whole article reads like a whine and never addresses the by-line. How is Houston in a holding pattern? If anything, United has helped the city before the merger and after. United has committed to paying for at least part of the renovations taking place at Terminal B and C at IAH. The airline also plays a crucial role in attracting other carriers to the city. Their membership in the Star Alliance means that other airlines can codeshare with them, drawing those carriers to offer service to airports where United is located to connect to surrounding cities. EVA, ANA, Singapore Airlines, Air China, Lufthansa and Avianca all offer service to IAH, building on the connections that United offers. And soon there will be a Houston-Auckland flight on Air New Zealand, another Star Alliance partner.

If United had truly left Houston in a holding pattern, it would have happened in a similar fashion to what they did to Cleveland or what Delta did to Cincinnati. Nostalgia is always fun to discuss and reminisce about, but the Texas Monthly article was far from that. I would have been much more of a fan had Texas Monthly found and licensed a bunch of old IAH and Continental photos and just told the history of the airline and the airport. Instead it was a let down.

Brandenburg Gate
Last week a number of airlines had a sale on business class tickets from the U.S. to Europe. Prices were about the same as coach and the destinations varied by airline alliance but most of the overlap seemed to be Dublin, Vienna, Prague, Amsterdam, London, and Paris. The key was, the tickets had to be purchased by Friday, October 16. We had been looking for options for the spring break holiday and considered some of these destinations as well as a reward I had on hold for Japan for the cherry blossom season. Unfortunately, the timing of the flights to Japan meant we would only have four days in the country and to me, that was not long enough to really enjoy the trip. In addition, the hotels in Japan during cherry blossom season are insanely priced and that made it even less attractive. Since the fare sale did not include any German cities, we decided to fly into Prague and take the train to Berlin for a week.

I ended up purchasing Portland-Washington Dulles-Vienna-Prague for the outbound and Prague-Frankfurt-Denver-Portland for the return. We’ll get to try Austrian Airlines on the longhaul Dulles-Vienna segment, which I am a little excited about, but a little worried about the short duration of the flight. I prefer longer flights so I can rest and try to adjust to the destination’s timezone. There were not many options available by the time I booked, so I went with the new carrier.


All of this came together rather quickly, I saw the fares on Thursday and purchased Friday afternoon. A number of the available destinations have less than stellar weather in March (Dublin) so we were looking at options with better weather (it will be cold in Berlin, but not too bad) and since we know Berlin, it will be pretty easy for us to get around. The other things I was having to take into consideration were airlines. The fare was available on Delta and they have a non-stop Portland-Amsterdam flight. Unfortunately, the outbound was not available but the return was. I strongly considered Delta though, as I would really like to fly them on a longhaul flight.

Overall, I think it will be a great trip. The flight from Dulles to Vienna might be short, but I can sleep on the train. It will be our first long vacation since moving to Portland and we are really looking forward to it. Making quick decisions is tough, but when a good fare comes up, you have to be quick.

Any new places in Berlin we should know about?

I recently listened to an account given by a business traveler about a cancelled flight on her way to a client engagement. The airline essentially told all of the passengers, “if you want to fly with us, the next flight is tomorrow morning”, sending most of them home for the rest of the day. The business traveler then told me about her company’s business travel policies, she books via a booking portal (Concur, Egencia, etc. are all examples) and that she must book the cheapest flights for the earliest arrival, regardless of airline. Such policies sound harsh, but they are quite normal. For this particular traveler, luck was on her side, as the airline that she was flying that day, was actually the airline she has status with. She called their elite line and was quickly booked on the next available flight to get her to her destination.

This begs the question, should employers encourage employees to have status with an airline? Status perks go beyond bonus miles and upgrades, there are usually dedicated phone lines for customers, most airline customer service agents are encouraged to go above and beyond for elites, and for a number of programs, there is the waving of some fees.

I get why companies want their employees to use a booking portal, they get a small amount of the transaction dollars paid back to them and since they are billing the travel, those small increments can add up. But by telling your employees to book whoever is cheapest, regardless of status, I think they may be doing them, and their clients, a disservice. Sure, there is a minority of travelers who abuse their travel privileges to fly certain carriers but I doubt it is anywhere close to being the norm and I don’t think it should discourage allegiance to an airline.

The bottom line is always money, but it seems companies are looking only at a small portion of the bottom line. What if an employee had been able to get on an earlier flight for free because of their status, getting a few extra billable hours in on-site at the client. Shouldn’t those dollars be accounted for when making travel policy decisions? What about being able to take a later flight to stay on-site a little longer to help a client with something? Now you’ve made some extra cash and you have impressed the client.

What I think happens is that the travel agent companies and their booking portal buddies get together and build a real fancy PowerPoint, wowing their potential clients. Employers see potential profit and some travel agent “benefits” without understanding that what those travel agents are doing is acting on behalf of the employee, when the employee may be sitting at the airport staring at their gate, stranded.

There are three major airlines in the U.S., Delta, United, and American. There is also Southwest, which a lot of corporate booking portals now include in their results, but they open up a whole new can of worms when it comes to irregular operations and not being able to put you on another carrier. Companies could have their employees choose an airline to be loyal to and maybe a back up for when schedules/prices are a little better and the employee then flies that airline when possible. The employee benefits, and in the long run, so does the employer.