SITTING IN THE COCKPIT of his metallic-gray 1998 Porsche 911 cabriolet, Gordon Bethune was gearing up for a lunch meeting with a group of newly hired pilots at a hotel near George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. The 56-year-old chairman and CEO of Continental Airlines was talking away about the state of labor relations at his company as he neared the ramp that leads from Interstate 45 to the Hardy Toll Road when suddenly the conversation stopped. “Look at this shit,” he said, waving at the road. “These people are going thirty-five in a sixty-five. What’s wrong with them?” As soon as the traffic cleared, he floored it. “Look,” he yelled a couple of seconds later, pointing at the speedometer, “One hundred and twenty and we’re only in fourth gear. Sometimes, after a long day, I come down here and get it up to one hundred and forty or one hundred and fifty. It’s f—ing therapeutic.”
On this February day, Bethune—who normally looks like a cross between John Madden and Tommy Lee Jones—resembled Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, ranting about how he loves the smell of napalm in the morning. And, indeed, although Continental today is not the war zone it has been for most of the past fifteen years, remnants of past struggles linger like unexploded land mines. Those mines seem to be concentrated around the company’s pilots, and Bethune knows that in his dealings with them, complacency is out of the question. When he arrived at the hotel conference room, he set his sights on a pilot trainee across from him. After he sat down on the inside of a U-shaped set of tables, decked out in cowboy boots and a blue oxford shirt but no tie, Bethune took bites of chicken and rice and asked the trainee what he did before he was hired by Continental. “Flew for a Belgian airline, sir,” the trainee said, fidgeting nervously.
“Did you learn French?” asked Bethune.
“That’s good,” said Bethune, who sensed correctly that he had the attention of everyone in the room. “I always thought the best way to learn a language was by osmosis.” After a brief pause, he continued in a serious tone: “In bed, that is. With a woman. That’s why the first three words I learned in French were ‘faster, faster, faster.’” Except for the one female pilot in the room, who seemed to be holding back a grimace, everyone erupted in the throaty har-har-har of a group of good ol’ boys.
The moment was vintage Bethune—the corporate chief as regular guy, yukking it up in the trenches—and it tells you everything you need to know about the way he runs Continental, which has gone from laughingstock of the airline industry to one of its undisputed leaders during his four years at the helm. As Bethune explains in a new book he coauthored, From Worst to First: Behind the Scenes of Continental’s Remarkable Comeback (John Wiley and Sons), his strategy centers on his employees; he speaks their language, boiling down business complexities into folksy (if occasionally off-color) anecdotes and phrases. “Gordon is extremely smart and driven, which is not unusual for guys at his level,” says David deWilde, the San Francisco headhunter who recruited Bethune on Continental’s behalf. “Where he’s unique is in his understanding of people. He’s comfortable in the boardroom and on the shop floor.” Bethune’s tenure hasn’t been seamless—his testimony before a Texas House committee last session during a hearing on jet fuel prices was so disjointed that onlookers whispered he was “Gordon Buffoon”—but he has mostly avoided major missteps. And his stewardship of Continental’s recently announced alliance with rival Northwest Airlines was masterful.
Given Continental’s history of contentious labor relations, a get-along approach was just what the company needed. Back in 1983, two years after his hostile takeover of Continental, the infamous Frank Lorenzo found he was unable to win wage concessions from the airline’s employees to help finance its debt—so he declared bankruptcy, fired everyone, and then offered some workers their jobs back at roughly half-pay. Four years later, Lorenzo merged three smaller airlines he owned—New York Air, PeoplExpress, and Frontier—into Continental, creating the nation’s fifth-largest airline, albeit one with a severely disgruntled work force. That bad feeling translated into bad service: As recorded by the U.S. Department of Transportation, customer complaints against Continental from January to April 1987 were more than twice the number filed against all other airlines combined. Continental’s work culture was changed forever, and the gulf between labor and management widened. “Our employees were like abused children, and management was the abusive parent,” says Bethune. “For years they had been beaten, slapped, made to kneel bare-legged on uncooked rice, or whatever.”
Bethune’s history suggested he could be the one to bridge the gulf. He was born in Austin on August 29, 1941; his father was a crop duster and his mother sold Americana encyclopedias. After dropping out of high school at age seventeen, he joined the Navy and remained there for twenty years, serving mostly as an enlisted man and working on or supervising aircraft maintenance teams the entire time. Bethune, who earned the nickname Oilcan in the Navy, has many fond memories of that period in his life, but none fonder than the day he quietly ordered his crew of mechanics not to touch a plane needed by his commanding officer because “he was such an asshole.” Feigning confusion, Bethune let the plane sit for two hours in perfectly good working order before signing off.
In 1979, a year after he returned to civilian life, Bethune was hired by Braniff as its supervisor of subcontracted mechanics. Three years later, he joined Western Airlines as vice president of engineering and maintenance. In 1984 he left for Piedmont Airlines, where he worked his way up to head of operations; while there, at age 43, he earned a bachelor’s degree in general studies from Abilene Christian University. When Piedmont was bought out by USAir in 1987, Bethune went to work