Continental CEO speaks with ABC13 about merger

HOUSTON Eyewitness News reporter Kevin Quinn was in Chicago to cover the merger deal, and on Tuesday, he scored an exclusive interview with Continental's CEO.

We found Smisek on a flight out of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on Tuesday morning. He was flying first class back to Houston to meet with Continental employees who he said he really wanted to talk to about the merger.

On Monday, the airline told us Smisek was too busy to talk with us one-on-one. Tuesday, though, before the flight we were both taking back home, he agreed to field questions about the mega-merger he orchestrated.

With the way Smisek was greeted at Gate B-2 inside Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, you might mistake him for a celebrity. He's been in the news enough the last few days maybe to qualify.

He announced on Monday the $3 billion merger, which would create the world's largest airline.

"We are creating, with combining United and Continental, we're creating a future for Houston and our employees that is better than we would have had on a stand-alone basis," said Smisek.

He admits he's excited about the opportunities this deal would create. The airline will be headquartered in Chicago, and Houston will remain a major hub. Smisek told us candidly that there will be some jobs moved or eliminated, but he can't say how many.

"It won't be just job redundancies in Houston, it will be job redundancies in Chicago. Now it is true that some people will be asked to move to Chicago, and I know that can be difficult, but again, we'll be flexible. If you've got a son or daughter who is a senior in high school, we're not gonna make you move right away," Smisek said.

We asked Smisek what types of jobs those would be. He says those involved in the day-to-day operation of the airline would likely stay in Houston. He said, preliminarily, those who would need to move would be employees in administrative and corporate positions.

"Some jobs make no sense to move, and other jobs are needed to move. I mean I need to move, I'm the CEO. I need to move to Chicago. It's necessary, but where it's not necessary, we will do our very best not to move them," he said.

Smisek calls this the right partnership, under the right conditions, at the right time. It's one which will create a much more stable, and he hopes, a more profitable airline.

"I don't have a lot of fears about this. I'm very confident this deal will close. I'm very confident we'll be able to integrate the carriers. I'm very confident we'll be able to reach joint collective bargaining agreements with our unions because we will treat them as we always have - with dignity and respect, and open, honest, direct communication, and reach agreements that are fair to them and fair to the company," he said.

One Continental shareholder is suing on behalf of all Continental shareholders to stop the merger with United. The lawsuit, filed Monday in downtown Houston, claims the merger deal happened too fast and the price for the stock swap is too low. The class action asks the court to rescind the merger. Smisek would not comment on the lawsuit.

As for the merger, the deal still must be approved by federal anti-trust regulators and labor groups.

You can see the entire interview with Continental CEO Jeff Smisek here.

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