RIP Continental Airlines

Say it ain’t so. The news that Continental Airlines is being absorbed by United formally ends a long campaign for Continental’s survival, a campaign in which political consultants like me played significant roles. The “merger” makes me feel like members of the Bush family would feel if George H.W. Bush and Teddy Kennedy decided to merge their families under the Kennedy name, moving the Bush family compound from Kennebunkport to Hyannis Port. Jeb Kennedy, meet your new cousin Patrick. Yuck.

Here’s the tale. Once upon a time, in the early 1980s, Continental was a great global airline, the “Proud Bird with the Golden Tail.” But deregulation occurred and the wheels came off. Frank Lorenzo, the dark lord of airline deregulation, put Continental at the center of an airline empire that pulled in brands like Eastern, New York Air and People’s Express. Employees and unions became restive in the new order of things, though, so Lorenzo hired a New York-based political consulting firm, Sawyer-Miller, to develop strategy for the anticipated public-affairs campaigns looming. Scott Miller took the lead applying political strategies.

In 1987, a colleague and I were called to Continental’s headquarters in downtown Houston. We were told that the New York Times Magazine was writing a union-biased cover story on Lorenzo and that it would be bad. The Continental executives felt that unions were determined to destroy Lorenzo and this article was their first big salvo in the war to come. We were asked to do a poll as a benchmark, measuring public opinion before the war started.

My polls thereafter documented a campaign for Continental that lasted more than a decade, a campaign that had many battles, but none more bloody than ones that took place in Denver at the old Stapleton Airport, as we vied with United to win over flyers. Early on, Continental hired Denver-based consultant Jim Monaghan, a Dick Lamm guy, to lead the fight against United. My polls helped keep score and test strategies. Really, only a political guy could have stood the heat that United brought. The fight got so ugly The Wall Street Journal reported details. Every United employee wore small green lapel pins that said TORQUE, allegedly meaning “Try Our Real Quality United Experience.” But the Journal reporters revealed that on the back of every pin was a Continental plane with a giant screw rammed through the “golden tail.” Some brazen United employees organized a “Torque Force,” running a vicious ground game to “tighten the screws on Continental,” hustling Continental passengers standing in lines, taking rental car shuttles and even in parking lots. Continental countered with bonus miles in its OnePass program for United flyers who switched. The competition and dirty tricks made it too much “like the OK Corral,” wrote the Houston Chronicle.

In November of 1987, a Continental plane crashed in a Denver snowstorm, tragically killing 26 and injuring 56. The competition was never the same. By March 1988, United surpassed Continental in Denver passengers, and by August started furloughing employees there.

There was another crash in September 1988, without fatalities. But bad got worse. We tried a marketing program that gave certificates to fine stores and restaurants in the Denver area. Results were pitiful. Continental filed for bankruptcy in 1990 owing my firm more than $50,000. If I hadn’t had such a good year in political campaigns, I would have gone under. Lorenzo left in 1991, and by 1994 Continental withdrew its hub from Denver. In Cleveland, however, Continental was rising while United faded, so we shifted gears and focused there, becoming the “airline that saved Cleveland.”

Now it’s all for naught. United is our daddy. What seemed like a permanent campaign is now just a memory. Proud Bird, rest in peace.

David Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.