Why I’ll go out of my way to fly on Continental and Southwest

by Peter M. Zollman on January 30, 2009

It’s easy to complain, especially when things truly go wrong. But I believe the “price” for complaining, if you will, is also making sure you dish out at least as many compliments when things go right. Thus, I will frequently ask to see the manager at a restaurant, only to astonish her by saying “my waitress was terrific” or “that was an awesome dinner.” (They’re always surprised. I know why. They’re used to complaints, not compliments.)

So it’s time to talk about two airlines that treat me well. Consistently. Sure, your experiences may vary. Everyone has a favorite airline and a worst airline, and the two I cite here may be on your “most hated” list. But these two are worth a bouquet, for what they do.

Continental has converted me from a loyal, almost-two-million-miles Delta flyer to someone who says, “I’ll go out of my way, and even spend a bit more money, to fly Continental when I can.” It comes down to nine simple words:

They treat me like a valued customer. Every time.

It started long before I was a “gold” elite. When I’d use their Web site, it worked. When I’d call reservations, they’d do everything they could to take care of me. If I’d ask for something specific, they’d say yes (or occasionally no) without hesitation.

And for the last three years, at least, when I’ve arrived at the airport or stepped onto the plane, every CO employee I’ve dealt with has made me feel appreciated as a customer — taken care of as the person who’s paying his or her salary. I like that. It’s a huge turnaround for CO from five or six years ago, and it’s one they can be proud of.

Southwest Airlines, too, fulfills its brand promise very well. For many years, I hated Southwest because of the interminable lines to accomplish anything and because the “bus with wings” analogy fit. But a funny thing happened. Southwest got better. And perhaps the shabby treatment we’ve become accustomed to from other airlines has made Southwest look better, too, compared to its competitors.

Southwest found a better way of seating passengers — not quite assigned seats, but close enough to eliminate the hour-long exercise of standing in line to board. It added legroom, so the plane feels a lot less like a cattle car. And it refused to add all those junk fees — wow, impressive! — that the other airlines just won’t give up, even though oil prices are one-quarter of what they were when they started imposing all the stupid fees.

One of my sons says “Tripso writers are always whining.” (They’re not, but that’s beside the point.) So allow me to offset that, just a little, by sending compliments to CO and Southwest. In my book, at least, they’ve earned them.

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  • http://www.luxurylatinamerica.com/ luxe traveler

    Peter, I’m with you all the way. My default U.S. airline is Southwest and whenever I fly to Latin America I try to go on Continental. The only time I have a really bad experience on the latter is when the international connection is less than 1.5 hours in Houston—that often turns out badly because of the airport itself.

    Try Copa Airlines too if you head somewhere on their routes to Central and South America. Continental used to be a major investor and it still feels like an international version of them, but with staffers that aren’t stretched so thin.

  • Hapgood

    I don’t know about Continental because I’ve never flown them. But I do know that Southwest has found great success with a simple strategy of truth in advertising. They have never claimed to be anything more than an efficiently-run flying version of Greyhound, and they’ve never promised anything they aren’t able to consistently deliver. So when you fly Southwest you know exactly what you’re getting: basic, no-frills transportation that’s as reliable as the dodgy air transport infrastructure permits. Your expectations aren’t high, and they’re able to meet them (and sometimes exceed them).

    The “legacy carriers” apparently haven’t figured that out, even after all these years. They still advertise themselves as offering “full service” that’s somehow superior to Southwest, even as they continually reduce that “service” to the point where it’s distinctly inferior to Southwest. The passenger pays more for this “full service” (not to mention the fees… and fees… and fees), but they don’t even deliver basic no-frills transportation with any consistency. While it’s true that the “legacies” do offer First and Business class that Southwest doesn’t, the majority of us who don’t have our employer’s deep pockets to pay for that luxury are stuck with steerage that’s by most measures worse than Southwest. And did I mention the fees?

    Southwest now seems to have set the gold standard for passenger aviation, to which their upstart competitors have added some minor variations (e.g., Virgin America’s high-tech distractions; JetBlue’s comfortable seats with ample legroom). But the executives of the “legacy carriers” are oblivious what’s going on, as they keep lowering the bar while continuing to insist that they’re somehow better than Southwest. And they wonder why their companies are in such trouble.

  • http://www.ffocus.org Bruce InCharlotte

    Living in Charlotte (a US Airways domestic hub), I’ve made the switch to Continental for all the reasons you mention and more. Even though it’s an inconvenience to go to Houston or (ick!) Newark on an ERJ for every flight, it’s worth it to avoid the shortcomings of US. If Southwest would come to CLT, or Continental would bring an Airbus or Boeing, I’d never consider anyone else.

  • Mark Lloyd

    Whenever I travel, I try hard to be positive. I especially liketo go out of my way to thank and compliment employees for doing a good job. It makes them feel good, me feel good and sometimes it pays off in real dollars-like to free gift certificates I got from one company when I complimented them (instaead of complaining)

  • Deb- a real pilot’s wife

    I couldn’t agree more!

    My husband is a retired Continental pilot. I say that to let you know that I do have a bias. But I also know how Continental trains and treats its pilots and employees, maintains its aircraft, and deals with complaints. CAL doesn’t have the highest wages for pilots, but it sure treats them (and families) well, so employee happiness matters. I have not always had a GREAT experience flying w/CAL but I have never had a horror either- and they do not know I am a retiree’s wife b/c I buy tickets for my business trips so I am not treated differently than everyone else. (Contrary to popular belief, I can not pass ride, which means ‘standby’ & no guarenteed seat, so I can’t do it for scheduled business). I love CAL-it is worth paying for!

    I also don’t mind Southwest-although the boarding procedure still drives me crazy and some of the ‘cuteness’ of the flight attendents is overdone. But both airlines have safe reliable service, well trained employees and fairly good customer service.

    I fly these two whenever I can and avoid the others like the plague-Northwest is the worst, f/b Delta and United.

  • Carrie Charney

    I am a Continental supporter, mainly because I fly out of the above-mentioned “ick” Newark. They have treated me splendidly, except for one transatlantic trip when they were consistently abominable…but just for that trip. I was sent an unexpected Harry & David’s fruit basket in the end, but it did not make up what happened to me as a result of a gross error on their part. Since I had no time to pursue the matter with complaint at the time, I can only thank myself for having had to be happy with the fruit. Other than that one trip, I have been treated by Continental airline personnel who really seem to like what they do. And they still serve in-flight meals for no charge.

  • Tim O’Brien

    Southwest has been my airline of choice for more than a decade. Living in Nashville, there are few places that Southwest can’t take me. I thank them personally every time I get to where I’m going. Last year, I flew Southwest 26 times and had no flights cancelled and was late (more than 15 minutes) arriving only three times. I flew American five times because I had no choice and was late at least 15 minutes three times and had one cancellation. For US Air, I flew 6 times and they screwed up 6 times. I won’t even go on about Delta! I love Southwest and now that they are going to start flying into Laguardia, I have little use for any of the others…….

  • Judy Cooper

    I completely agree with you about Continental! I have never flown Southwest but I used Continental for our 2007 trip to Europe. It was the first time I had flown with them and I was so pleasantly surprised. They are definitely several cuts above United and better than Northwest – the other two airlines I usually take to Europe. Continental’s planes are smaller but that’s all to the better. Much more attention and the attendants were courteous and kind. I have recommended Continental to all my friends and will continue to fly with them.

  • Sandy Sheldon

    I agrre with your comments about Southwest. Back when the airlines were asking for $$ from the government, SWA didn’t, and kept flying. I used to fly SWA every week and there website was easy to use and their cancellation and credit policy was wonderful. No extra charges or fees.

  • Ivan

    Normally I fly one of the major carriers like AA. I decided to give Continental a shot this January mainly because their price to my destination was too good to pass up when compared to what the others were offering. Even though I had to use Newark instead of New York it wasn’t much of a hassle. They charged the $15.00 baggage fee but I was able to fly non-stop at very convenient hours and a meal was even served. Also, free ear-buds with a movie now that’s unheard of. In summation, AA, Delta, United, JetBlue and all the other US airlines compare yourselfs to Continental or Southwest because if you continue to treat passengers in the manner that you do now, the only place that you’ll wind up is where the dinosaurs roam.

  • http://www.inspireddiversions.com Michelle

    For two recent trips, I was thankful for Southwest’s cancellation/change policy, which allowed me to change my reservations without penalty. I actually received a credit after making one of the flight changes. This simple policy helps to take some of the stress out of flying.

  • http://earthlink sid weiner

    I JUST RETURNED FROM A ROUND TRIP TO LAS VEGAS AND WAS PLEASANTLY SURPRISED NOT HAVING FLOWN THEM FOR QUITE SOMETIME-THEIR TREATMENT FROM CHECKIN TO THE FLIGHT COULDN’T HAVE BEEN IMPROVED–PEOPLE-PEOPLE–BY THE WAY I FLY THE EAST COAST SEVERAL TIMES A YEAR AND GO OUT OF MY WAY TO USE JETBLUE–MAKES ME THINK OF THE 60′S AND 70′S CONTINENTAL THIS TIME WAS AS GOOD

  • Joe S

    To Ivan above. I don’t know what flight you were on, but Continental sells those headsets for $1 in the coach cabin. You can use your own headset for free though.

  • Randy Bracewell

    I don’t understand why CAL doesn’t get more good press about the complimentary meals and beverages. Sure it’s not sirloin in coach, but it’s hot if the flight is long enough (I think over 2 1/2 hours).

  • Adrienne

    To me, there only is one airline–Continental. I have been devoutly loyal to them for nearly 20 years, and they have loved me back.

  • Linda K

    I flew Continental only once in 88/89? and vowed to never fly them again. We were lied to repeatedly and weren’t treated very well. I had to really blow up to get them to listen to me and get us home. I swore never to use them again and haven’t.

    I just this last week flew SW for the first time since 99 and will fly with them whenever I can in the future. I was really impressed with their smooth loading procedures, their very nice employees, etc.

    I was a faithful UA flyer but don’t like what has happened to them.

  • Lisa

    I think Continental is a wonderful airline. Last April we were in Fort Lauterdale awaiting a cruise when we had a death in the family. The cruise line charged us fees to cancel, the hotel was not happy we were checking out so when we got to the airport we expected more of the same. But no. The Continental agent did everything he could to get us back to Seattle in the least amount of time AND waived the fees!! Now that is customer service!!

  • http://lettcoastsportsbabe.com Janice Hough

    Southwest yes, Continental no. A client of ours called a few years back and asked me to change her reservation to first class, as she had some paperupgrades she would use at the airport. I changed her to the upgraded class. (which was limited availability.). At the airport, it turns out her upgrades had expired. They put her back in coach, put someone else in the seat, and billed our agency over $4000 – the first class fare – for making the booking and costing them revenue. We had to settle two years later for about $3,000 – even though the airline admitted they filled the seat both ways.. (Otherwise they would have forbidden us from booking their airline ever again.) I have tried to avoid them since.

    Recently I had a client with a continental ticket roundtrip from Sacramento to DC that he had purchased elsewhere. My corporate account was paying for him to go somewhere else first and he wanted to rebook his ticket. Continental would have been more expensive than United for the trip and I couldnt change his ticket anyway. I suggested he call them direct. Not only could they not change his ticket for a reasonable price, when he said, fine, I’ll book a new one way with a stop with the other agent, they told him it would be over $600 just to cancel his outbound flight and use his originally ticketed return. And he was an elite member. (Who just threw the ticket away as it turns out.)

  • Amy

    Most of my travel has been between mainland Hawaii and the US. With that in mind, I’d like to add Hawaiian airlines as an airline who treats me like I matter. I have consistently received good and timely service, and look to them first when travelling across the pacific.

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