I’ve spent the last two weeks on a business trip and I continue to experience the same horrible experience on Continental/United. I’m flying through areas where this is the airline that offers the most flight options between the cities I’m flying and I often have to change my itinerary the last minute so it has been the only reason I’m flying this airline but here are some recent observations:

1. I got bumped up to biz class and while we were waiting to board the plane, I was talking with a coworker as to why I went and grabbed a burger right before we board when a lady came up and started talking with us. I told my co-worker that the last time I got upgraded, I was expecting a hot meal but got a slice of turkey and crackers – in business class! I was hungry and didn’t want to be on a 3 hr flight out of L.A. with another slice of turkey. The lady waiting in biz class to board the plane agreed and said she has been horribly disappointed with Continental/United ever since the merger.
2. Flash forward 45 minutes later and the flight attendant asks what I’d like to drink. I usually only drink white or red wine so I asked what was available. She responds with, “we only have red wine, someone messed up and we’re out of inventory everywhere of white wine.” I’m not sure if this was yet another computer glitch or some penny pinching move to cut wine inventory but once again, it illustrates the horrible level of incompetence to provide some basic services on a long flight. My own personal theory is that flying this airline has become so horrible that vast amounts of alcohol are needed to get through the experience and the “glitch” was underestimating how the customer would cope with the misery.
3. Okay so I’m stuck with red wine, no problem since at least I’m getting *some* wine and I can drown out my misery but then my choice of meal is between a shrimp salad or a chicken snack wrap. I chose the chicken snack wrap then what shows up on my table is what appears to be one of those horrible burritos you’ll find at a 7-11 gas station that you microwave and only eat after being left stranded for hours or after a late night party binge when everything else is closed. Later you end up vomiting it all out….another sign of deterioration: quality of food.
4. I finally arrive at the airport and head for the luggage bay and I wait…and wait…and wait… Curiously, a guy is announcing where the bags are for which flight as evidently every computer screen is directing people to the WRONG luggage pickup area. I’m waiting for 25 minutes until I finally give up and start walking around until I find my bag about 200 yards down another luggage bay. Out of courtesy to others, I walk back to the wrong bay where everyone from L.A. is still waiting for their luggage and yell out, “if you just arrived from L.A., your luggage is in bay 5 not bay 7!!! Or at least that’s where I found my bag!” A large mass of people leaves the bay and heads for 5 to try to find their bags.

Now someone will ask how this post pertains to anything related to personal finance and why I bother with these rants but it has everything to do with personal finance and personal living. On the first level, this airline’s value chain is disintegrating right before my eyes (food, service, experience) and that is a huge opportunity to make money by shorting this stock or buying puts. I’m still trying to find a good entry point but with the market volatility I’m waiting for a period of a bit of stability. This airline no longer cares about its customers. Elite users could once board the plane first but for $95, that opportunity is offered to everyone who’s willing to get a United Credit card. Essentially, that’s the value of being a loyal customer to the airlines, about $95 and for that fee they’ll treat you the same whether you fly 100 miles or 100,000. Yet another indicator of the deteriorating nature of the value chain!

On a second level and why I am so frustrated is that this airline is costing me money in the form of lost time that I will never get back. Air travel is already a horrid experience with wasted hours in long lines for worthless and pointless security checkpoints, long flight delays, lousy food, and long wait times for baggage. After 9/11, I gave up flying when going to a city that’s two to three hours away because the proposition is a no brainer: 1 hr drive to airport, 1 hr in security, 0.5 to 1 hr flight delay vs. getting in a car and driving straight to the location. Driving is cheaper, faster, and better!

The only good thing I have to say is about the pilots who all seem to take it in stride. I’ve heard plenty of flight attendants complain just about everything as I usually sit just a few feet away from where they’re making the coffee and perhaps it’s unfair if the pilots are doing the same behind a locked door but things just keeps getting worse.