United Finds Reason To Celebrate At Newark Airport

May 22--United Continental Holdings, Inc. lost more than $600 million last year when the airline suffered from unusually high pension costs and damaging merger integration and customer service issues.

But the Chicago-based carrier that combined in 2010 with Continental Airlines to create the world's largest carrier, found three ways Tuesday to change the subject, at least for now.

United threw itself a big party at its Newark hub to celebrate Continental's 25 years at the airport, the introduction of new employee uniforms, and the re-inauguration this week of its Boeing 787 "Dreamliner" service, which was interrupted in January when the aircraft were grounded worldwide because of lithium battery smoke and fire concerns.

"We were New York and New Jersey's hometown airline way back before that was cool," CEO Jeff Smisek said from a stage set up in the airline's Terminal C, where "Cake Boss" Buddy Valastro of Carlo's Bakery in Hoboken served a three-foot-by-five-foot flat cake adorned with the New York City skyline at one end and downtown Newark and Newark Liberty International Airport at the other.

Employees, ranging from ramp workers and technicians to flight attendants and pilots, modeled new uniforms in a festive mock fashion show as a DJ blasted throbbing dance music. The employees will don their new uniforms in June.

"This is a terrific economic engine for the region and this is our global gateway," Smisek said, after walking the terminal floor and posing for cell phone snapshots with the employees and elite frequent fliers who attended the event.

Reporters were allowed to tour one of the fuel efficient Dreamliners, which has a fuselage made of lightweight plastic composites and features that aim to provide more comfort -- higher ceilings, better air, oversized windows and storage bins. It is expected to bring stronger yields on long hauls. United has six of them and plans to get 49 more.

Continental Airlines started flying out of Newark when it merged with financially troubled People Express Airlines in 1987, between two of its own bankruptcy filings, in 1983 and 1990. In the 1990s CEO Gordon Bethune, a former Boeing executive, took the Texas-based carrier "from worst to first," as he described his tenure in his memoir, and he built a strong a transatlantic hub at the airport.

United Continental now is the top carrier in the New York metro area and handles seven of every 10 passengers at Newark, where the it operates 400 flights a day and employs 13,000 -- although it laid off more than 470 cargo workers earlier this year to cut costs by shifting work to an outside contractor. Meanwhile, Delta Air Lines' strength has grown, while the planned merger of American Airlines and US Airways will pose another competitive threat in the region.

United, concerned about losing market share, has initiated this year a training program to try to solve complaints received over the past year of slow or ineffective service. Smisek said that progress was being made. "We posted our best on-time performance in the first quarter in a decade, and we are also focused on delivering great customer service every day," he said.

Employees had varying takes on the situation.

New procedures take longer and keep customers waiting, said Laura Leschynski of Garfield, an airport service agent who works at the bag check counter. Since the United and Continental systems were integrated last year, "it's more complicated and more convoluted," she said.

"I think [the training] it's going OK," said airport service agent Angela Matt of Kenilworth, who is training to be a gate agent, after transferring from another department.

"Change is difficult for everyone," Matt said.

United is the first U,S. airline to put the 787 into service. Smisek left Newark at 1:15 p.m. for Houston on one of the airlines' Dreamliners.

Although the initial re-inaugurated 787 flight on Monday from Chicago to Houston was nearly full, the Newark to Houston flight on Tuesday afternoon carried only about 50 passengers.

The seats had gone on sale only 10 days before, explained United spokesman David Messing.

"We have confidence in the airplane and we feel our customers do too," he said.

Email: newman@northjersey.com

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