Air Transport World

Team player.(PROFILE)(company overview)(Company overview)

IT WAS A SMALL THING. THE CABIN crew that was to take Continental Airlines Flight 7658 from Houston to Washington was late arriving inbound to George Bush Intercontinental Airport. As passengers in the gate area prepared themselves for official word of the inevitable delay, the agent made an unexpected announcement: Boarding would begin in a few minutes, thanks to a team of cabin attendants whose flight was not yet scheduled to depart. The fill-in crew got everyone onboard and seated in a friendly, professional manner, served the first class passengers a pre-departure cocktail, then handed the cabin off to the arriving staff and went on to work their own flight. The result was that CO 7658 rolled back from the gate nearly ontime. A tiny victory perhaps, but success in the airline industry is built upon such outcomes.

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Last year, Continental operated 101 of 365 days without a mainline flight cancellation and its annual completion factor was 99.5%. During the weather-impacted 2007 first quarter, it managed 23 days without canceling one of its approximately 1,200 daily mainline flights and completed 98.8% of them over the full 90-day period. In spite of the challenge that comes with operating a major hub at Newark Liberty International Airport in the midst of the nation's most saturated airspace and East Coast winter weather, it finished among the top three network airlines in ontime performance in January and February. It ranks fourth overall since DOT began keeping track in 1987.

Much of the credit for these achievements is attributable to CO's team-oriented corporate culture, which rests on the foundation of the Go Forward Plan created in 1995 by former Chairman and CEO Gordon Bethune and President and COO Greg Brenneman. The culture carried it through the dark days following 9/11 when it came very near to a third bankruptcy filing, and in 2005-06 when its work groups agreed to $500 million in annual wage and benefit reductions to help it return to profitability After three rounds of cost cuts and revenue initiatives totaling $1.1 billion had failed to do the trick. It still hands out cash bonuses for ontime performance and twice a year gives employees with perfect attendance a chance at winning a new automobile. Since 1996 it has given away 138 vehicles, and it pays the title, license and gift taxes as well.

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That culture goes up as well as down. The senior leadership team surrendered $23 million in performance-based payouts to which they were entitled in 2006 because they accepted union arguments that they had no business taking the money while others were agreeing to reductions in compensation.

"Most companies give some comment about how important their people are and then you watch what they do," Chairman and CEO Larry Kellner tells ATW at the company's headquarters here. …

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