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Social networking takes off

Facebook connection brings Continental’s former CEO to Eagle’s Trace

Created date

June 21st, 2011

Eagle s Trace resident Ray Hope was just a month shy of his 80th birthday when he retired from Continental Airlines in June 2008. The airline s oldest working flight attendant at the time, he was something of a legend on the jump seat. I had a great 16 years working for Continental, says Ray. It was a second career for me. I was a photographer by trade. When I retired the first time, my daughter, who was a flight attendant, encouraged me to give the airlines a try. Working mostly in the first-class cabin on domestic routes, Ray got to know a host of other Continental employees, including the company s upper management. Today, he s a Facebook friend of the company s former CEO, Gordon Bethune. When I first started at Continental, no one realized how close we were to closing for good, says Ray. Then Gordon took over and turned the airline around. It was like thunder and lightning. You don t hear the thunder for a few seconds after lightning strikes. That s how it was at Continental. Gordon took over and then we began to see an improvement here, an improvement there. Ray knew that Bethune s story would interest other residents of Eagle s Trace, an Erickson Living community in west Houston, where he lives. I sent Gordon a message on Facebook asking if he would be interested in speaking to us, says Ray. He replied yes right away. The day of Bethune s speaking engagement, Eagle s Trace residents gathered in the Audubon Clubhouse, eager to hear what he had to say. The only reason I m here is because we had 45,000 people, like Ray, who did a wonderful job and took our airline from worst to first, said Bethune, alluding to the title of his book, From Worst to First, chronicling Continental s turnaround. Bethune went on to trace the path that landed him in Continental s top spot. The son of a crop duster, Bethune didn t care for school and joined the Navy when he was 17. I thought I was smarter than everyone else, he told the crowd, but the Navy quickly took care of that. They made me an avionics mechanic. I discovered that I could fix an airplane much faster when I wanted to fix it than when I didn t want to fix it. It doesn t matter how many stripes you have on your sleeve. If you treat a worker like he s nobody, he s going to let you know one way or another you shouldn t take him for granted. It was a good lesson for me. After his stint in the Navy, Bethune went on to work for several airlines, getting his pilot s license in the process. He was the vice president of customer services for Boeing when Continental called and offered him the job of chief operating officer. At the time, Continental was ranked last in almost every Department of Transportation performance measure, including on-time performance, lost bags, and cancelled flights, Bethune said. How stupid would I be to leave Boeing and go to a company like Continental, which had just come out of its second bankruptcy? But they persisted and eventually I came on board. Asked to work on a strategy to save the company, Bethune sat down with Greg Brenneman, an advisor to the airline from the management company Bain & Company, and crafted a plan to bring Continental back from the brink of a third bankruptcy. We worked over dinner and drank a lot of wine, said Bethune. We called those the last suppers because we knew with our cash position they might be our last suppers. The pair dubbed their plan the Go-Forward Plan, because, Bethune said, Anyone who s ever flown a Boeing aircraft knows there are no rear-view mirrors. Who cares what s behind you when you re going 500 miles an hour? Bethune s deft business acumen, coupled with his ability to relate to employees and customers alike, transformed the airline into an industry leader, winning more J.D. Power and Associates awards for customer service than any other airline in the world.

Questions about the future

At the conclusion of Bethune s remarks, he opened up the floor to questions. Many Eagle s Trace residents expressed concern about the merger between Continental and United Airlines. No airline can replicate what these two systems offer together, Bethune told them. Continental has Latin America, Europe, New York, and Houston. United has Chicago, Denver, the whole west coast, and all of the Pacific and Asia that s a worldwide combination. I do think it was a mistake to give up the Continental name, he added. Suppose you take two 18K gold bracelets, both the same size and weight. The only difference is that one is marked Cartier. Which one is worth more? Giving up the Continental name meant giving up something of value.

On his own timetable

For Ray, losing the Continental name in the merger means saying goodbye to a piece of his history. And although he still travels, it s on his own timetable. My wife and I recently celebrated our 60th anniversary, he says. We took a cruise through the Panama Canal. It was very relaxing.