R.I.P. Continental Airlines: 800 Employees Say Goodnight to Iconic Airline at LAX 'Memorial'

The Continental crew, circa 1970s.
The Continental crew, circa 1970s.

Like a baseball team or a Hollywood studio, an airline, in America, holds incredible cultural weight. It's a corporation, sure, but only in the way that Coca-Cola is a corporation -- ads don't feel like ads. More like cozy pop art.

What little girl, at one point or another, didn't want to run away in pantyhose and a pencil skirt, for to be stuck with a golden flight pin? And no existing American airline can so legitimately rep its role in the iconic 1950s-70s "jetset" aesthetic -- so hot on the telly right now! -- as Continental Airlines. Pan Am may get its own show this fall, all adorably misogynistic with 10 leggy flight attendants to every man-captain, but Pan Am folded long ago. On the contrary, Continental narrowly avoided that fate and went on to prosper, much for the same reason 800 proud employees will be gathering at LAX this Saturday:

Organizer Todd Magnus says that when former and current Continental staffers got wind of a September 16 "memorial" -- which will commemorate the "passing of the Continental identity" in light of its merge with United Airlines -- they "got really excited," signing up by the droves.

And not just because of the little golden pins. In its 2009 recession guidebook Up in the Air, Cornell University Press used Continental (along with Southwest) as a shining example of how to "build a positive workplace culture that fosters coordination and commitment to high-quality service."

Only then, the book argued, would the failing airline industry have a chance.

Continental may finally be succumbing to a merge, but it's not throwing in the towel. The partnership with United was pitched only as a means to preserve quality in "an increasingly competitive global and domestic aviation industry," and the new fleet will still boast the classic Continental globe on its tail-feathers, according to Magnus. (Though the planes will read "United.")

Now for the fun stuff. Todd says LAX's flight museum will be lending 30 uniforms, dating from the 1950s to present day, to put on display at the memorial. All the major Continental characters will be there, including Gordon Bethune, often credited for the airline's mid-90s bounce-back (on which he wrote his bestseller), and Tiger Childers, the stewardess who famously got married on a Continental flight.

Some more glamorous moments in the Continental legacy: In 1965, it became the first airline to hire a black pilot. In 1970 and 1987, it played a starring role in the original "Airport" and the original "Wall Street," respectively.

Beverly Hills man about town Robert Six also served as CEO for almost 50 years, bringing starlets Ethel Merman and Audrey Meadows into the Continental family. (The latter was commissioned with designing the airline's classic '60s and '70s flight-attendant uniforms, complete with mandatory pearl necklace. Fabulous!)

So, ladies and gents of Continental: Let enough nostalgia flow this Saturday, at LAX's equally iconic Proud Bird watering hole, to make up for the rest of us. And please, share your memories of the glory days below.

We've been watching these old things all afternoon:

[@simone_electra/swilson@laweekly.com]


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