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Friday, August 11, 2000

Continental puts
$500 million into
Pacific isle flights

The airline plans to have
10 new planes connecting
the islands by year-end

By Russ Lynch

Continental Airlines Inc. has invested about $500 million in its Pacific island service as it switches to a fleet of 10 new Boeing 737-800s for its Continental Micronesia subsidiary.

The airline since April has been replacing its fleet of 14 Boeing 727s with the new higher-flying, fuel efficient 737-800s. Continental planned to show off its latest $50 million aircraft to Hawaii business and government leaders today.

The big investment illustrates Continental's commitment to connecting Hawaii to the islands in the Pacific, an area it has serviced for more than three decades, Continental Micronesia officials said yesterday.

By the end of this year, Continental will have 10 of the new 155-passenger 737-800s flying between Honolulu, the Marshall Islands, Guam, Saipan, Tokyo and Taipei, said William A. Meehan, the Guam-based president of the Continental Micronesia subsidiary.

Meehan said Continental Micronesia has eight of the 737-800s in service now and the one being shown at Continental's maintenance depot off Lagoon Drive is the ninth. The tenth will be delivered later this year.

The airline worked closely with Boeing Co. to adapt the aircraft specifically for the Micronesia service, Meehan said.

"We're a vital link," he said. "It's not just tourism." he said. Continental Micronesia provides a key commercial link among the tiny dots of land scattered thousands of miles apart in the vast Pacific. It is a medical link too, taking Micronesian residents where they need to go for health care, he added.

Just like 33 years ago when the airline started serving the area, Continental Micronesia is about the only way island residents can get to move around their own countries.

"You'll see stretchers, motors, air conditioners, even some small livestock" brought into the cabins, Meehan said.

Continental Micronesia had Boeing build in extra large overhead baggage bins in the 737-800s so passengers can haul in a full-size suitcase, he said.

Ron Wright, Continental's Hawaii managing director of marketing and sales and a member of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, said Hawaii will gain tourists through Continental's marketing of its Pacific Islands destinations.

People will stay a few days in Hawaii on their way to and from the Pacific islands, he said, adding that Continental has a large sales force on the mainland pushing the islands as a destination.

For pilots, the 737-800 is a gem, said Ralph A. Freeman Jr., Guam-based chief pilot for the Continental Micronesia operations. Its computerized controls allows the pilot a hands-off experience for most of the flight, he said.

Instead of looking at the old-fashioned round dials that were the norm on older aircraft, the 737-800s have an array of half a dozen computer screens showing everything about the aircraft. Trips are planned and fed into the computers, which do the time-consuming work that the flight crew used to have do with paper and calculators, he said.

The 737-800 is not like the earlier generation 737s such as those seen in interisland service in Hawaii, Freeman said. The newer aircraft has been completely redesigned, with a longer body, more passenger room, more powerful engines and a new wing design, allowing the aircraft to fly thousands of feet higher and with more fuel efficiency than previous models, he said.

The $500 million-plus investment in the new aircraft for the Micronesia service is in line with Continental's decision to have the youngest fleet in the industry, Meehan said.

The 737-800 on show here today will go into direct Honolulu-Majuro service, a five-hour flight, starting Aug. 21.

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