The Brancatelli File



April 27, 2000 -- So what do you do when the pot not only calls the kettle black, it sues the kettle and claims the kettle is doing what we know pots and kettles have done for years?

The pot in question this week is Continental Airlines, which Monday filed suit against a kettle containing United Airlines and the bureaucrats who run Dulles International Airport near Washington. At issue are those hateful carry-on templates that United, Delta and American have been slapping on X-ray machines at security checkpoints around the nation.

Continental has spent millions reconfiguring the overhead bins on most of its planes to accept larger carry-on bags and it resents the fact that the Dulles templates reflect United's draconian carry-on dimensions. As it did to Delta in San Diego, and threatened to do to United in Denver, Continental is suing and demanding the templates be removed at Dulles' shared security checkpoints. Continental has a good chance of getting the templates removed. The Delta suit was settled out of court and templates disappeared in San Diego. And United backed off in Denver at any checkpoint that might be used by Continental passengers.

What I find particularly pot-and-kettle about this week's installment of the endless carry-on saga is Continental's grounds for the suit. Continental is shocked--shocked!--to learn that United and Dulles engaged in what Continental called "anti-consumer and anti-competitive practices." It is shocked to discover United "led the conspiracy among airlines" and the carriers engaged in practices that "smack of good ol' boy agreements made in a smoke-filled room."

In other words, Continental is angry that the kettle of airline conspirators has turned against one of its pots. What I find peculiar is that Continental never has a problem whenever it is one of the pots that conspire to raise fares or jawbone Congress or regulators into serving the industry instead of travelers.

In case you have forgotten, Continental has been the pot making the most anti-passenger noise lately. It launched the disingenuous $20 fuel surcharge in February. It initiated all the recent fare increases aimed at business travelers. And no one has uttered more anti-competitive, anti-consumer drivel in recent years than Continental chief executive Gordon Bethune. It is Bethune who has stridently demanded higher fares, who has threatened to retaliate against any airline that challenges Continental in its home markets and has ridiculed regulators whenever they consider investigating the industry they are required to regulate.

So you'll forgive me if I have very little sympathy when this particular pot calls the kettle black and then hauls the kettle into court for pursuing the kettle's black-hearted goals. I say a pox on both their dark, slimy kitchens.

But that said, Continental is right about templates and has been right about templates since day one. I don't propose to rehash the whole carry-on debate again, but let me make a few points that require reiteration:

1) Security checkpoints are for security. I wrote this in my first template column and I repeat it now: Security checkpoints are for security, not about carry-on rules. The government installs checkpoints for passenger security, not for airline convenience. What gives any airline the right to use these stations for their piddling regulations? Airlines do not have the power to make law. Security checkpoints are not airline property and we shouldn't let any carrier treat them as if they are.

2) Whose rules rule? No two airlines have the same rules about carry-on bags and government regulators have chosen not to impose an industry-wide standard. A chart I prepared for a recent column shows the Babelistic state of carry-on regulations. What gives any airline the right to impose its rules on another carrier? If Continental wants to compete for business travelers by enlarging its overhead bins and relaxing its carry-on rules, why are a kettle of Continental's conspiratorial competitors permitted to negate Continental's competitive advantage? It's wrong when airlines act in anti-competitive lockstep on fares--and it's wrong when the kettle of conspirators try to bludgeon one of its pots into line on carry-on bags.

3) Templates don't work. Airlines installing templates insist the devices improve on-time performance. That's a lie. Last December, I wrote a column that showed that Continental bested United's on-time performance in each of the twelve months after United began installing the templates. Continental and Delta were dead even.

4) You're not to blame. The airlines would have you believe that you are to blame for the alleged carry-on "crisis." They claim you are carrying on more and larger bags. I say prove it. They can't. They can't because there is no fact--and no extrapolation of fact--that shows passengers are carrying on more or larger bags.

5) Airlines created the "crisis." Two years ago I wrote a column that reminded us why we carry-on bags in the first place: Airlines do a rotten job of managing their checked-baggage systems. Several months later, I wrote a column explaining why we have a crisis: Airlines are stuffing more passengers into smaller planes outfitted with less carry-on space than any time in the history of commercial aviation.

Keep all this in mind the next time you're carrying a pot--or a kettle--on a plane.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.