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How to Fly Right

Continental’s turnaround pilot Bonnie Reitz explains how the airline survived the worst year in recent history and emerged victorious with better customer service, a reinvigorated brand, and big plans for the future.

Continental Airlines knows turbulence. Eight years ago, fractured customer relationships and general inefficiencies had the airline en route to bankruptcy court. Just in time, Bonnie Reitz, head crowd pleaser and senior vice president of sales and distribution, jumped in to pilot Continental through a major turnaround — winning back travelers, corporate customers, and travel agents one by one. By the first half of 2001, Continental was one of only two major U.S. airlines to turn a profit.

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Then came September 11 and unprecedented difficulties for the airline industry. Three months after the terrorist attacks, Continental was able to boast the smallest decline in traffic among the nation’s six biggest airlines. Here, Reitz explains the strategies she employed to help Continental take off once again.

Consult the Past

While no airline could have imagined, much less prepared for, business after September 11, the leadership at Continental knew how it felt to hit rock bottom. They also had the advantage of a rescue plan — strategies for salvaging the business and starting again. “We knew the core basics needed to get the business up and running,” Reitz says. “We’d done it before.”

Adopted in 1995, Continental’s Go Forward plan defined and communicated the company’s top goals and helped it bounce back from near bankruptcy. The plan outlined a four-point strategy and highlighted the importance of reliability and company culture, among other things. The plan laid the groundwork for recovery, providing a blueprint that Continental could follow after September 11, Reitz says. “Go Forward allowed us to take the blocks strewn all over the place and quickly rebuild.”

Change As Needed

Continental had long been infusing New York attitude into ads promoting its Newark, New Jersey hub. A series of 1999 ads, for example, featured Bobby Valentine and Joe Torre poking fun at the Mets-Yankees rivalry. On September 11, that edginess changed from risqué to risky. Passengers needed comfort and reassurance more than they needed another clever tag line. Continental pulled print ads and posters and began to reach customers on a much more personal level with breakfast meetings, conference calls, emails, and faxes.

Continental knew that in order to return to more traditional forms of advertising, it had to change its irreverent tone. No longer do billboards spotlight the product for sale with catch phrases like “Don’t Set Your Watch by Our Planes. Sometimes We’re Early” or “Little Italy to Big Italy. Nonstop.” Now ads focus on what Continental can offer the customer: “110%, 100% of the Time.”

“Customers need to know that we’re thinking of them — more so now than ever,” Reitz says. “We’re touching on the core essence, the values of what we do.”

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Wear Your Inside Out

Immediately following September 11, flight cancellations forced Continental, a four-year placeholder on Fortune‘s list of the “100 Best Companies to Work for in America,” to furlough 20% of its employees. Before the company could reassure customers, Continental’s leadership needed to rebuild the internal culture that had previously helped propel it to success.

“We implemented the kindest and most honest communication because that’s what our employees expect from us,” Reitz says of the way Continental announced last year’s layoffs. “We have always used creative communication vehicles: a daily news update, a weekly voice mail from the chairman, a monthly newsletter, and a quarterly magazine. Even though our world was turned upside down, there was the comfort of doing the same things we’d always done. It was all the more important to communicate constantly.”

Put People First

Last November, President George W. Bush signed into law the Aviation Security Act, establishing the Transportation Security Administration to control safety efforts in all modes of transportation. Continental welcomed the government not as a replacement for its security operation, but as a collaborator in the process of rethinking airport security.

While the airline would no longer regulate security lines, it could see to it that passengers moved through the process as quickly and as easily as possible. New entrances and automated check-in kiosks were added to all Continental terminals, with the most focus put on the airline’s hub cities of Newark, Houston, and Cleveland.

Continental’s OnePass members — frequent fliers who would constantly come in contact with new security measures — were made a priority. The airline did so by adding elite lines for OnePass members and by keeping its Presidents Clubs up and running — an amenity that many other airlines did away with after September 11.

“We hope the Transportation Security Administration will tap into the expertise that we have,” Reitz says. “Taking care of customers is a mutual desire.”

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Get Comfortable

While most airlines readjusted after September 11 by cutting features that travelers took for granted — in-flight meals, blankets, pillows — Continental CEO Gordon Bethune declared in the Wall Street Journal that “now is not the time to take the cheese off the pizza.” The leadership at the company recognized the need to conserve money, but it also recognized the need to conserve some sense of stability for customers.

“It was important to keep things as close to normal as possible,” Reitz says. “We wanted to let customers know that not everything had changed.”

Continental also continued to move forward on projects that would improve the flying experience for all customers. It recently completed the Newark Global Gateway, with a $1.4 billion expansion to its New Jersey terminal. In mid-March, the airline unveiled plans to install enhanced seats in its BusinessFirst cabins.

“It is a big deal when customers get on the airplane,” Reitz says. “We want to give them the message, ‘We’re going to take care of you.’ “

Rachel Meltzer (rmeltzer@fastcompany.com) is the Fast Company research assistant. Contact Bonnie Reitz by email (breitz@coair.com).

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