Employees worried about jobs, and customers worried about service, by L.M. Sixel, Houston Chronicle 

Washington, May 2, 2010 -

Passengers and customers alike of Continental Airlines were worried Sunday about merging with United Airlines, citing worries that customer service may deteriorate, jobs will disappear and Houston will lose the cachet of having a hometown airline.

ìI think it will be bad,î said Tony Pierce, a graphic designer who was heading to North Carolina aboard a Continental flight Sunday afternoon. It's important for a city the size and importance of Houston to have its own airline, he said.

He likes Continental's service, saying it's always been good.

Debbie Vinelli, a saleswoman for a freight company, was not happy about the merger news because she doesn't like to fly United Airlines after some bad experiences.

Downtown impact?

One baggage handler said he isn't worried about his own job because he figures Houston will still serve as an important hub for the newly merged airline. It's the people downtown that he said he worries about.

He added that in hindsight, he's glad the Teamsters union is now representing the ramp workers, baggage handlers and other customer service agents. While he wasn't initially in favor of the union that recently organized the workers, he said he's glad because he believes it will offer some job protection they didn't have previously.

ëWe don't know enough'

Other Continental employees talked about their anxiety, wondering what the merger will mean.

ìWe don't know enough about it,î said one customer service agent, who didn't want to be identified, citing the company's policy of not talking to the media.

A captain with more than 20 years of service said the news was so distressing that he is thinking of retiring.

ìUnited is nothing but a mediocre airline,î said the pilot who didn't want to be identified. ìI don't think I want to be combined with that work force. Continental has better customer service, it has a better product.î

Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble is also worried.

ìWhile I am encouraged that initial news reports indicate that Houston will remain a hub, I am still very troubled by the potential impact that this will have on jobs in our area,î said Poe.

ìContinental has been a leader in the airline industry and I strongly urge the board to reconsider its decision to relocate their headquarters to Chicago,î he said.

Not everyone was downbeat.Greg Ortale, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, sees the increased capacity and greater connectedness through the United network as an advantage. ìWe have a number of international shows that we're bidding on where expanded service would be an advantage to us,î he said, as long as the number of nonstop flights to and from Houston don't decline.

While there may be some community bragging rights regarding where the actual headquarters is located, said Ortale, it's really all about the service to the community.

Heather Andrews is also optimistic about the expanded travel connections to Asia that a merger with United would bring.

Andrews, who flies often in her sales jobs with an oil and gas services company, looks forward to a bigger network.

Reporter Nancy Sarnoff contributed to this report.