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Continental's CEO Talks About the Rochester Overnight at NBTA

On Friday, I talked about bag fees and the travel outlook as discussed during the airline CEO panel, but one of the really interesting discussions was around Continental 2816, the plane that got stuck overnight in Rochester, Minnesota. Moderator Peter Greenberg dove right in and got Continental CEO Larry Kellner talking. Southwest CEO Gary Kelly had plenty to say as well.

Larry: Our performance, we're responsible for our regional partners and our performance in Rochester was unacceptable. You may have a policy that says at two hours you call an individual but we need more automation. We've got work to do. I'm not opposed to a passenger bill of rights but I'm not in favor of one you can't follow. If we can't get a plane to a gate and do it safely, we'll take the PR hit. If we had legislation, it wouldn't have changed anything for the people in Rochester. We don't want legislation that will put rules over safety. Every decision was made for safety. I commend the captain for her actions. [applause]

Gary: As do I. It happens so infrequently that when it does happen it gets sensationalized. If there is lightning in a 3 to 5 mile radius, the ramp closes and you cannot get people off an airplane. How do you legislate that? The bottom line is that the industry does a spectacular job with safety and customer service.

Larry: All our training is designed around always double-checking. The worry I have is that the legislation has the right balance of safety and customer service. [We surveyed passengers about this.] It was close to 90 percent of passengers who said "I don't like the delay but it's better than canceling the flight." In Newark, we have a procedure to get people off after 3 hours. Very few people get off.

This is a good explanation of why I'm personally against a bill of rights. I tend to think the legislation is likely to cause more problems than it actually solves. As Larry noted here, and as I wrote on Cranky more than a week ago, legislation wouldn't have changed anything.

After this discussion, they moved into the Q&A session. Though I was hoping for some fireworks, there weren't any to be found. Here are just a couple of the more interesting questions.

On Wireless Internet Access Onboard Larry: We'll continue to study wifi. It's clear the trend is going to wifi but it's unclear if usage will support it. We want to go after portable devices. We're going to do a test of [LiveTV's narrowband product] Kiteline early next year. It will give us the flexibility to add broadband next year if we need to. We'd like to do that with LiveTV.

Gary: We felt that wifi was the cleanest next step for us. The take rates right now are pretty modest but the question is what's the future? We control the product and the offering.

On Merging Gary: I think we got into that late in the game [with our bid for Frontier]. Republic was very advanced and they had a very clean bid. Our bid, which would help accelerate our growth in the Denver market, was very different. We could have put enough money on the table to win the bid but it would have been a "win the battle but lose the war" situation.

You can watch the entire video yourself on the NBTA website.

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