Sunday, November 22, 2009

Across the Atlantic with Continental Airlines

NEW YORK - I crossed the Atlantic Ocean yesterday - restfully, uneventfully, right on time - on board Continental Airlines, the newest member of the Star Alliance group of carriers.

Continental's late-October shift to Star is so recent, it has yet to fully play out. When I arrived at London Heathrow airport's terminal 4 for my flight to New York, I was directed to a lounge run by SkyTeam, the alliance Continental left so it could join Star. I imagine full integration into Star Alliance is proceeding apace and that this lounge arrangement will soon cease. Indeed, airline locations at Heathrow are changing quickly as it is. After Heathrow terminal 5 went into operation in March 2008, the multitudes lightened up at terminal 4, which, like much of Heathrow, is undergoing extensive renovation for the 2012 London Summer Olympics.

We flew west with the sun, passing over the symmetrical walls of Windsor Castle. Minutes later, clouds shrouded the Irish Sea, not clearing until just before we landed at Newark Liberty International Airport. During the 7 and a half hour flight, Continental flight 111 hummed right along. The U.S.-national staff was friendly, funny and off-hand in the way that Americans typically are. When a young mother and her 2-year-old daughter sat down next to me, attentive flight attendants promptly moved me to another seat, so I could have a comfortable flight. I hoped, too, to give the mother a seat of her own, so she would not have to hold her little girl throughout the trans-oceanic flight. Late in the journey, I noticed a bleary-eyed Continental pilot on break occupying the seat I had vacated. The long-haul flight included two meals. The wines were not identified on the business class menu, but when I ordered beef, a flight attendant poured a decent French red to accompany the meal.

Like other major U.S. carriers, Continental has lost millions in recent years, buffeted by an economic storm of volatile fuel costs, deep recession, flu fears and security costs. Continental does a good job in straited circumstances; indeed, it is often cited by aviation pundits as the most highly regarded U.S. legacy carrier. It is widely regarded as the U.S. airline most competitive with global leaders - some of which have not been hit as hard as airlines in the United States during the current crisis. In this case, SkyTeam's loss is Star Alliance's gain.

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