A couple downgrades from Continental

It is always a shame when the airlines make cuts to their loyalty programs. Certainly the value of the points in your accounts is likely to never be better than it is right now, but when the cuts happen they still sting a bit. Continental Airlines has been on a bit of a tear lately with cutting benefits from their offerings. These cuts are affecting both their most frequent customers – those with elite status – and the every day random customers as well. They really all pretty much suck.

So, what are the cuts in question? Some are relatively old news, like charging non-elites for the seats with more legroom. Of course, when they made that announcement they also made it clear that:

Extra legroom really means extra legroom. The seats that we’ll be selling have at least 7 inches of extra legroom. Specifically, our mainline aircraft will offer 10-12 extra inches on average.

So what happened in reality? They realized that they could also sell seats that have nowhere near that much extra legroom for more money, too. They’re charging for access to the bulkhead seats now on mainline aircraft, seats which have nowhere close to 10-12 extra inches. On top of this, those seats are now blocked from assignment prior to the day of travel. So even elites who can get them for no up-charge cannot actually book them in advance. This offers a small benefit to folks booking at the last minute as they have a chance for a decent seat, but it is a pretty raw deal for everyone else. I am looking at potentially flying to Los Angeles for a meeting on Wednesday and I see the bulkhead seats available but I cannot choose them. Not knowing that I can get a better seat has me seriously considering just skipping the flying and calling in instead.

Next up on the chopping block? Complimentary upgrades on flights to and from Lima, Peru. For the past several years (at least 5) flights between Lima and both Houston and Newark were eligible for complimentary upgrades. That benefit disappeared last week with the announcement that upgrades would now incur a mileage charge and likely a cash payment as well, depending on the fare paid for the ticket. What do customers get in exchange for this increase in cost? An ice cream sundae, assuming you’re going to Newark. There will be a minor upgrade in catering on the Newark flights. Folks going to and from Houston actually get nothing different than they do today, other than a guarantee that they’ll be riding in the back of the plane. The airline did actually upgrade everyone with a previously purchased ticket, essentially honoring the complimentary upgrades for folks who bought when that policy was in effect. This was a nice touch to be certain, but new purchases must pay the higher costs going forward. Sure, it is just one route, but that ice cream sundae is pretty damn expensive now.

Finally, there is the issue of their call centers. It was a few months ago that they announced their intention to shutter one of their three facilities, removing about 500 agents from their role. And now trying to get through to actually talk with someone is a tremendous challenge. Yes, the volcano is affecting a number of flights causing more calls than usual. But for a customer to be greeted with a recording stating that too many people are already on hold and that they should call back later, followed by the call disconnecting, is bad for business and bad for the customers. Sure, they’re saving a few bucks on the expense side of the ledger but the costs on the revenue side may eat up those savings and more.

Maybe it is no wonder I haven’t flown on Continental all that much this year. Sure, I’m still collecting points in their OnePass program, but I’m not particularly inclined to pay their asking prices for flights these days; the value simply isn’t there.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. I sure hope the combined UA/CO doesn’t adopt the “can’t book seats with extra leg room until checkin” approach.

    What was the reason for offering complimentary upgrades on the Lima routes in the first place? A trial balloon to test how this would work on (fairly long) international routes?

  2. Past few years have been Platinum, but with all these new cost-cutting measures put in place by Jeff, and so many other issues that have come up lately, from the merger and other situations, makes me wonder why I should bother to renew this year?

    Sounds like I might want to start looking at US Airways as they are always cheap, not as great of planes or service as Continental, but great prices and easily upgraded as an elite…

  3. My understanding on the Lima thing is that it used to be a BusinessFirst route (it is longer than EWR-UK/Ireland!) but they didn’t have sufficient demand so they downgraded the service and stopped charging for it. But they have to use the 757-200s because of the distance of the flight so you got the seat – the most important part of the upgrade for most folks – without having to pay the up-charge. Now they believe the market has shifted and they’re hoping to draw the higher rates for the service. I don’t blame them for trying but it sucks for the customers.

    As for whether to renew or not, that’s a tough call. I’m already over 50K EQMs and I’ll likely get platinum again. The lack of change fees on rewards is an enormous benefit that I take from my status, moreso than the upgrades. And now that includes no close-in redemption fees. It is a nice benefit to be sure. Going to US isn’t terrible from a redemption perspective – still no StarNet blocking and similar pricing and routing rules (CO’s are still a touch better) – but the day-to-day travel with them is a chore. Depending on where you live and where you are flying you can end up in some really crummy aircraft and with some downright terrible service options. Then again, if you are able to consistently save real money (IFE there is no airline that is always cheaper than the others) that should drive your decision.

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