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A Former CEO Glimpses Airlines' Future

The years since 2001 have presented new challenges to airlines.
Jack Speer, NPR
The years since 2001 have presented new challenges to airlines.
Gordon Bethune in his office in the Continental building in Houston.
/ Jack Speer, NPR
/
Jack Speer, NPR
Gordon Bethune in his office in the Continental building in Houston.

Troubles in the airline business spark essential questions over the industry's future. From higher fuel prices to increased security costs that drain revenue, commercial airlines have had a rough time of it.

By his own count, former Continental CEO Gordon Bethune outlasted many of his counterparts at other airlines: four at USAir, three at United, and two each at American and Delta, to name a few.

Bethune, credited with turning his company around to become one of the few profitable airlines during his tenure, talks with NPR's Jack Speer about what to expect from an industry in a prolonged decline.

"It's sort of like being a tomato farmer, Bethune says. "In the year that there's way too many tomatoes, there's a bumper crop, nobody makes any money because tomato prices go to nothing." And, he predicts, like tomatoes, when supply and demand regain their balance, the industry will return to health.

In the meantime, airlines should continue to cut costs with automated services -- but they must also stick to their schedules, and keep the planes running on time.

Now a consultant to Continental after retiring in December, Bethune looks back on his 10 years at the company's helm with pride in the airline's safety record -- and relief. As he says, "it is a responsibility and it's kind of nice not to have to fly the airplane every day."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jack Speer
Jack Speer is a newscaster at NPR in Washington, DC. In this role he reports, writes, edits, and produces live hourly updates which air during NPR programming.