Friday, September 29, 2006

Continental should never merge with another airline

Recently, there have been rumors circulating about the possibility of Houston-based Continental Airlines merging with another domestic carrier. United Airlines is oftentimes the other carrier mentioned in these speculations.

As Ben Mutzabaugh notes, aside from the general problems that airline mergers create, such as incompatable airline fleets and friction between two different management and labor cultures, any merger involving Continental will be difficult as long as Northwest Airlines retains its "golden share" in Continental. Furthermore, Continental claims that they're not really interested in merging with anyone right now. "Our preference is to remain independent," the airline says.

Aside from that, however, I really don't want to see Continental merge with any other airline. I like Continental just like it is.

Continental is one of the few so-called "legacy" carriers that still serves free meals to its economy-class passengers. Sure, it's just a sandwich, but it's more than you'll get from almost any other domestic airline these days. They haven't started charging extra for things like pillows, blankets and even exit-row seats, either, even though other carriers have begun doing so. If Continental were to merge with, say, United, would those little perks still exist? I doubt it.

Moreover, I like Continental because you can travel virtually anywhere in the US or Mexico non-stop from its hub at Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport. While I doubt that the IAH hub would be completely eliminated if another airline were to merge with Continental - Houston's too big and generates too much air traffic for that to happen - there is a possibility that an airline merger would cause the hub to be downsized or otherwise altered as the new, merged airline's route network is restructured.

Finally, a merger with another airline would probably mean the relocation of Continental's corporate headquarters; if United absorbed Continental, for example, they'd likely keep their corporate headquarters in Chicago. That would mean a loss of jobs as well as a local corporate presence. Speaking as a proud Houstonian, I think that would suck.

So, I'm with Chronicle business columnist Loren Steffy on this one: Continental should stick to its senses, and resist being merged into another carrier. Continental is just fine as it is.

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