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Focus: Continental Airlines

17 Nov 2009 by BusinessTraveller

It’s been a busy few months for the US carrier, with the long-awaited launch of its new fully flat business class seat, integration into Star Alliance, and the planned joint venture with Lufthansa, United and Air Canada.

Continental finally unveiled its new Business First seat to the European market at last week’s World Travel Market in London, while the first Boeing 777 aircraft fitted with the fully-flat product debuted on the New York-Hong Kong route on November 1.

The carrier had originally planned to launch the new seat on its Boeing 787 aircraft, but with the seemingly endless delays to the Dreamliner, Continental eventually made the decision last summer to go ahead and retrofit its 777-200, 757-200 and 767-400 aircraft.

The seat features a 6ft 6” fully flat bed (although it will be slightly shorter on the 757 aircraft), with a maximum width of 25 inches (with the arm rest down) and a 15.4-inch TV screen with audiovisual on demand. There is also iPod connectivity, and several storage spaces including a laptop-size slot under the TV screen, and an area nicknamed the “Tower of Power” to the side of the headrest, which includes sockets for in-seat power, and space to leave drinks, etc.

The new seat is configured in a herringbone-like layout, but differs from the oferings of the likes of Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand in that the footrest goes into a space next to the seat in front (above which is the Tower of Power). Crucially this layout has allowed Continental to offer a fully-flat layout, while retaining the same number of business class seats in the cabin.

The new seat has in fact already appeared on a route out of London Heathrow earlier this month due to operational aircraft rotations, but it will be a while yet before there are enough retro-fitted aircraft for UK passengers to reasonably expect to see the flat-bed on transatlantic routes with any degree of regularity. For this reason the carrier is not yet actively promoting the seat to the UK market, although more details on it can be seen at continental.com/flatbed.

“It’s very important we don’t overpromise and underdeliver,” said Bob Schumacher, Continental’s senior director UK and Ireland. “Once we have one of the fleets fitted, then we’ll marry it to a route like London, and we can start promoting it more.”

The launch of the new seat came just days after the carrier completed its switch from Skyteam to Star Alliance, a process that started in June 2008. The move makes sense for Continental given the dominance of the merged US carriers Delta and Northwest within Skyteam, along with Continental’s joint-venture ambitions with several fellow Star carriers.

“We were fairly late to the alliance party, being as a large a carrier as we are,” said Schumacher. “We joined Skyteam in 2004, and when we made our appraisal it was quite clear that with Northwest Airlines, which was an independent airline and which held a golden share in Continental at that time, there really was only one choice we could make. Skyteam was and is a good alliance, and it served its purpose in terms of getting us into an integrated airline offering.

“Over the last few years we’ve watched the development and further integration of partners in all of the alliances, and with the size of the merged Delta and Northwest, both of which are strong competitors [of Continental], we started to question whether Skyteam was the right place for us with such a large presence in the room.”

The move still leaves Continental with two US alliance partners (US Airways and United), but as Schumacher says there is limited overlap, particularly with United where “they are strong where we are weak, and we are strong where they are weak”. He adds that Continental fills several important gaps in the Star network.

“It’s extraordinary to think that until a few weeks ago there was no New York-London route with Star Alliance [United having sold its slots on the route to Delta in 2006], and that’s something that we brought with us, along with our presence in Latin America.”

The completion of the alliance switch also frees up Continental to further the dialogue on joint-venture plans with Lufthansa, United and Air Canada. Anti-trust immunity was granted for the tie-up in July this year, and it’s likely the venture will come to fruition early next year. The move will allow the carriers to compete with the similar joint venture between Air France, KLM, and the merged Delta group, which came into effect in May this year.

For more information visit continental.com, staralliance.com.

Report by Mark Caswell

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