Three Major Questions for the United-Continental Merger

From the perspective of a frequent flyer, I’ve had (3) main questions about a United-Continental merger.

  1. Starnet blocking. United is the only airline in the Star Alliance that will not allow its mileage members to book any award seat taht its partners offer to them. United often doesn’t want to pay for the seats, to they program their computers to respond that award seats other Star Alliance carriers are offering “aren’t available.” Continental has explicitly rejected such a strategy. This month blocking has been at a minimum, though that’s part of the normal cycle (I usually see blocking at its lightest in February/May/August/November). So I’m not ready to take this as a clue that blocking is done for a merged entity. Whether or not blocking exists in the combined entity is – to me – the difference between whether Continental miles are just made less valuable as a result of the merger, or whether United miles become more valuable.

  3. Two-cabin or three-cabin aircraft? United offers international business class and first class. Granted their first class cabin soft product is weak — no pajamas, amenity kits aren’t high-end branded, meals don’t feature rare and expensive offerings like caviar or truffles, and there’s no Dom or Krug. But it’s a smaller cabin with better seats and more space. It’s better than business! Continental on the other hand offers business class only. They call it ‘BusinessFirst’ and once marketed it as a hybrid between business class and first class, but they don’t even have industry-standard flat bed seats fleet wide, it’s a subpar business product not a notch above. And they even fly narrowbodies transatlantic. Will the combined entity continue to play in the international first class market? My guess is not, though those long-haul transpacific routes really call for it. Here’s hoping that the Continental leadership gets bitten by the bug of needing to be a world-class airline once they’re the largest…

  5. Economy plus? United offers coach seats with extra legroom for free to elites, and for purchase to everyone else. Continental does not. It’s a huge elite benefit for those times you’re stuck in coach. What would a merged entity do here? American used to offer ‘more room throughout coach’, extra pitch for everybody, and reconfigured the cabin to take htat away. It’s possible to remove the better seat configuration just as it’s possible to add it. And you’d think they’d have to strive for consistency fleet-wide, at least eventually.On this last piece, Wandering Aramean thinks he’s caught a clue as to Continental’s intentions in their announcement of planned Boeing 787 service from Houston to Auckland. If the airline’s press release is right on number of planned seats in the aircraft, the cabin dimensions suggest an economy plus offering.

Now, of course there are other questions, and we don’t know the answers yet. Will United Red Carpet clubs offer complimentary alcoholic beverages? Will there be a 75,000-mile elite tier added to the 25/50/100k mix? What will happen to capacity at Washington-Dulles (with Continental’s strength at Newark) and Cleveland (with United’s strength at O’Hare)? And many many more.

But the above three questions are the ‘biggies’ from my own value-proposition perspective.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. just as important as ridiculous startnet blocking. Will they allow stopovers plus open jaw on United now?

  2. Just as important as E+ remaining will be whether or not E+ remains as we know it…free for UA Elites. I would be less excited about some type of E+ that is along the lines of Air NZ, BA, AF, etc. premium economy…sure it is better than UA+ but $$$. At one time, CO expressed “Curiosity” (whatever that means) at one of the Flyertalk CO DOs about a Premium Economy on their INTERNATIONAL fleet that would cost somewhere between Economy and Business. It was not a product designed to be a free upgrade for CO elites or available at a price similar to UA E+ .

    I hope we see E+ as we currently know it on UA to remain.

  3. Gordon Bethune back in the ’90s rejected the more legroom/less seats in coach stating passengers would rather have an open seat next to them than more legroom. As a person that is fortunate enough to be short, I agree with this philosophy. Shoulder room trumps leg room.

  4. I’d argue that the general trend in airline mergers is to seek the least common denominator. So, Starnet Blocking for Continental and no United First. But as a bone, toss in E+ for the merged fleet.

  5. Gary, if many people’s worst fears about the merger, the loss of E+ and the continuation of Starnet blocking were to be part of the merged carrier, would this cause you to rethink your allegiance to either, or the Star alliance? Also, for those looking to defect from their carriers (Delta in my case) and status match to UA/CO would you recommend jumping ship now or waiting to see what this merger brings?

  6. My primary question is whether this merger is going to be allowed to be consummated; if it is, my primary desire is one-way Star Alliance awards, which neither carrier currently offers.

  7. Shoulder room trumps leg room.

    This sounds great in theory. (And I say that even as a slender person; God knows I’ve been stuck next to middle-seat linebackers often enough.) Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee you’ll actually get the shoulder room, as the airline can always sell it. They can’t sell your extra legroom.

  8. I’ve been thinking about these same three things myself.

    In my dream world, the new UA+CO drops Starnet blocking, adopts UA’s F and C class seats, and adds Economy Plus.

    In my nightmare world, Starnet blocking continues, we get crappy non-lie-flat beds in C, no F overseas, and no Economy Plus.

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