Continental

Continental 3407This past February, a Continental Connection commuter airplane (flight 3407) crashed just outside of my hometown, Buffalo, NY in Clarence.

That night I was crawling in to bed, and I thought to check CNN.com, and across the top of the page it said “Breaking News: Plane Crash in Buffalo, NY.” Much of the night was spent watching CNN coverage (which was picked up from our local affiliates, WKBW and WIVB). Much of the following week, in fact, was spent watching the inescapable coverage of the crash, like this article in the New York Times (from which, I borrowed the above image.)

Everyone on board the plane, the moms and dads, sisters and brothers, and the pilots died. One of the three people in the house hit by the plane also died, and their lives were forever changed.

The crash freaked me out a little bit, but not so much that I wouldn’t get on an airplane again… but enough to pay greater attention to what’s going on in the sky. Until that point, I was a reasonably frequent Continental passenger. I had a Continental Airlines Master Card through Chase that accumulated miles in my Continental Airlines One Pass (frequent flyer) account.

Since then, the NTSB has investigated the crash, and held public hearings on the crash. The outcome, which, to my surprise, was released relatively quickly and in reasonably plain language: the pilots were undertrained, under qualified, underpaid (something like $12,000 a year) and severely overworked. So 52 people died a horrible death, not because the plane malfunctioned, not because ice rendered the aircraft inoperable, but because the pilots lacked experience, and the company that hired them (Colgan Air, through a contract with Continental) was willing to take the risk and look the other way?

The preliminary outcome of the hearings upset me. It simply didn’t make sense that the person flying my plane—with whom I entrust my life—is making less than the teenage kid serving me tacos at the local fast food place? How could this be the case? Yet, shockingly, it IS the case.

So earlier this summer, I decided to take some action. I called Chase to cancel my Continental MasterCard. I explained my reasoning, and the call-center in the operator from the Philippines clearly had no idea what I was talking about, but was glad to close down the card. Though I had hoped to make some sort of statement in so doing, my efforts clearly fell on uninformed ears. So, I wrote a letter to the chairman and CEO of Continental Airlines. I explained my reservations, and explained why I felt it wasn’t possible for me to fly Continental in the future.

Much to my surprise, about a week later, I received a letter back. The letter acknowledged my concerns (again, a surprise) and explained Continental’s stellar (according to them) safety record, and noted that they hoped to welcome me back as a customer in the near future.

While this was going on, my sister in law from Alaska mentioned that she had been on a flight from Buffalo to Newark (the same route as the doomed 3407) and that Continental had stationed extra pilots in the cabin “to answer questions” and “address concerns” that the passengers may have had. Interesting PR strategy, especially considering it was nearly 6 months after the crash.

Despite my “stand”, I still continued to receive mailings from Continental regarding my OnePass account. Early this fall, I called Continental One Pass to cancel my account, and to donate my remaining miles to charity. The conversation went something like this (after all the menu options and initial blah blah):

Me: Hello, I’d like to cancel my Continental One Pass account.

CSR: Oh, well I’m sorry to hear that. May I have your name and One Pass account number please?

Me: Albert Bitterman, JEXX06.

CSR: Well thank you, Mr. Bitterman. I’m sorry to hear that you’d like to close your Contential Airlines One Pass account. Would you mind if I ask why you’d like to close it?

Me: Do you really want to know?

CSR: Certainly! You’re a valued customer of Continental Airlines, Mr. Bitterman, and we would love to keep you as a customer.

So I launched in to this diatribe about the crash, and how the pilots were untrained, and how I felt that it was unconscionable that Continental allowed such a terrible accident to occur.

CSR: Well, Mr. Bitterman (i.e., insert customer name here), I certainly hear your concerns. I might remind you, however, that the flight was not operated by Continental, but by Colgan Air. Moreover, (yes, she actually said, moreover) Continental has had a stellar safety record over the past 30 years. I do wish you’d give Continental Airlines another chance.

? Was this woman serious? Did she really believe what she was saying?

Me: Regardless, Jane, the flight flew under the Continental banner. If Continental could spend the money to brand the plane, they could certainly spend the time to ensure that the flight crew was trained properly.

Silence.

Me: Moreover, Jane, this isn’t an “unfortunate incident”, people are dead. 52 people are dead. Those people were my neighbors, and friends of friends, Jane. They were people that died. They’re dead and never coming back. If one of them was your sister, would you be sitting there reading me some corporate script?

More Silence.

After a long awkward pause, finally:

SRC: No, I wouldn’t. I’m sorry. I understand your decision fully, and will process the request. Again, I’m sorry.

She was really upset sounding.

So anyhow, I would like to think that over the last 9 months, Colgan, flying for Continental would have fixed this problem, retrained their pilots, or replaced some of the inexperienced pilots with more experienced ones. Today, I was driving in to work, and I drove under the flight approach for the Buffalo airport. I noticed this plane, incoming, really crooked, it’s wings were not level to the ground, but instead, at about a 30º pitch, left wing really close to the ground, right wing in the air. It didn’t look right. It wasn’t snowing, or even windy. It was a little Continental Connection plane, just like the one that crashed. I saw the plane touch down, less crooked, but still crooked, and it moved quickly out of sight. I didn’t hear any boom, but I bet it was a less than pleasant touchdown for the people on board. The message was clear to me: Continental has the money to pay for PR, and extra pilots, but the bottom line is the bottom line, and it’s likely the pilots were underpaid and overworked… and that little has changed.

I feel like my personal boycott was the right decision, and I’m gladly sticking to it.

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