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Continental Open Skies Expansion

21 Feb 2008 by Mark Caswell

On March 30, Continental Airlines will launch twice-daily flights non-stop from London Heathrow to both New York and Houston. (See online news November 16, 2007.)

Of course, this rush for Heathrow is a result of Open Skies, which begins at the end of March. Indeed American Airlines, despite moving to a twice-daily service out of Stansted, is increasing Heathrow services (see online news July 13, 2007), while Delta is launching an Atlanta service from Heathrow, as well as a double-daily service to New York JFK.

What is remarkable is that for Continental, this brings its UK and Ireland departure points up to ten including Gatwick – it has services from Manchester (twice daily with a Boeing 757), Edinburgh (daily and twice daily in summer with a 757), and Glasgow, Birmingham, Bristol and Belfast (all daily with 757s). The airline also flies double daily from Dublin and daily from Shannon.

The turnaround in the airline – one of only two American international carriers to avoid Chapter 11 since 2001 – has been remarkable, with its revenues moving from a 95:5 international to domestic split, to more like 50:50. It now operates over 300 departures weekly across the Atlantic, from 30 cities in 16 countries, also serving Amsterdam (twice daily, and 11-times weekly to Houston), Athens, Barcelona, Berlin, Brussels, Cologne, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Geneva, Hamburg, Lisbon, Madrid, Milan, Oslo (all daily to New York), Paris (three times daily to New York and daily to Houston, with a summer-season daily flight to Cleveland), Rome, Stockholm, Zurich, Tel Aviv, Delhi and Mumbai (all daily to New York).

This overseas expansion has been the result of investing in a more modern fleet than most of its US competitors, most notably with Boeing 757 planes in a two-class configuration, economy and businessfirst. The 757 and 777 planes have been fitted with audio and visual on demand (AVOD) in the business cabins, which offer a choice of films, TV shows and audio channels (the choice is greater on the 777 planes), and seat power for laptops. This is now being rolled out through the economy sections as the seats are replaced and seat-back screens are being introduced.

In contrast to many carriers, Continental has not made any announcement about this, intending to wait until the majority of the fleet has been fitted. It’s a policy Bob Schumacher, senior director UK and Ireland, describes as “Under promising and over delivering”.

The attraction for travellers is two-fold. From the UK regions, Continental offers a direct way of reaching New York and then onward through the Newark hub to cities throughout the USA, Canada, Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean. For those already using fellow Skyteam member KLM for its 14 UK departure points to Schiphol* (see below) and then onwards, it also offers a way of earning, and burning, frequent flyer points with a fellow Skyteam member.

Schumacher says that the Continental One Pass programme alone has some 80,000 active members in the UK. He is certain that being excluded from Heathrow in the years prior to 2008, forced the airline to be innovative and look at regional airports as a way of serving the UK market.

Schumacher says: “Manchester was our first foray, then Birmingham, and these are now healthy and profitable operations for us. In that sense we are regarding the new Heathrow flights as just another departure point, and we certainly won’t be neglecting either Gatwick, or these regional airports as a result of this new move.”

In business class the airline offers limousine transfers at both ends, up to a radius of 40 miles for J or D ticket holders, and looking forward to its move into Terminal 4 at the end of the year, is promising to build facilities which will consolidate the Skyteam offering in the terminal. The investment in the fleet will continue with the airline’s firm order for 25 Boeing 787s and will continue a process which has seen the fleet increase its fuel efficiency by 35 per cent in the last ten years.

With everything looking so wonderful, what could go wrong? Well two obvious matters are proposed flight capping in the New York airspace to relieve congestion, and the possibility that Continental might merge with either American Airlines or United.

On flight capping, Continental’s response is that “the congestion is a complicated issue which needs to be resolved on several levels”, suggesting the federal government needs to fund an overhaul of how the airspace is structured and managed in the long run, while in the short term it is already limiting flight activity to fit within the practical capacity limits which exist. (For more on this, see the April issue of Business Traveller, out  March 19.) As for the latter, the official response is that the airline wishes to remain independent, but if consolidation occurs among competitors putting it at a disadvantage, it will move to find partners.

For more information visit continental.com.

Report by Tom Otley

*KLM’s regional departures to Schiphol:

(Aberdeen: 21, Birmingham: 40, Bristol: 27, Cardiff: 27, Durham Tees Valley: 20, Edinburgh: 35, Glasgow: 28 Humberside: 21, Leeds: 21, London Heathrow: 62, London City: 44, Manchester: 48, Norwich: 27, Newcastle: 34-455 weekly departures in total.)

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