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Continental to United: Bag the Templates

Continental is suing United for limiting competition by installing baggage-sizing templates on shared scanners at airports.

Updated from 6:00 p.m. EDT

The airline wars are heating up again, but the latest round of fighting has nothing to do with fare prices. Instead, it could be called the battle of the bags.

On Monday,

Continental Airlines

(CAL) - Get Caleres, Inc. Report

, the nation's fifth-largest airline, sued

UAL Corp.'s

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United Airlines

, the nation's largest carrier, and the management council at

Washington Dulles International Airport

. Both parties are accused of conspiring to limit competition by installing baggage-sizing templates used in shared X-ray security screening machines that do not accommodate larger carry-on bags.

This means Continental passengers, who are generally permitted to stow larger bags aboard the planes than passengers of other airlines, are likely to face more inconveniences at security checkpoints. Because of the templates, oversized luggage can no longer fit through the X-ray machines, and security personnel must now hand check bags or ask passengers to repack their luggage into smaller bundles in order to examine the contents. Such disturbances, Continental said, would undermine its lenient carry-on policy, dampen customer satisfaction and cause defections to other airlines.

"We have filed an antitrust complaint that says United and the management council interfered with our contractual agreement with our customers," said David Messing, a Continental spokesman, adding that the airline is now posting employees at the security checkpoints in order to facilitate security passage for its customers.

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United declined to comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, but said that baggage templates allow the airline to board passengers faster, thus helping to improve the company's on-time performance. In the 12 months through February, United ranked eighth out of 10 airlines for on-time perfomance, with 68.8% of its flights arriving as scheduled.

When it comes to airline bags, United has developed an unenviable reputation. The

U.S. Department of Transportation

just published a report indicating that out of 10 airlines, United had the worst baggage handling rate in February 2000.

A total of 37,909 reports of mishandled luggage were filed against United in February, or 6.72 per 1,000 passengers, compared with 42,837, or 7.71 per 1,000 passengers in the corresponding month a year ago. Although United's record improved year over year, its rating did not.

Alaska Air

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, the highest-ranked carrier in February 2000, received a total of 3,081 baggage reports, or 3.57 per 1,000 passengers. Continental was ranked fifth, with 12,024 complaints or 4.35 per 1,000 passengers.

Continental and other United critics said that rather than improve its record on baggage handling, United resorted to using the template in order to stop its passengers from trying to carry more luggage on board as well as to thwart other airlines' more lenient policies.

This is not the first time United has tried to install the templates. In 1998, United sought to install the templates in Denver before agreeing to remove them from scanners leading to United's concourse because they were such an inconvenience to passengers.

Continental had expressed its annoyance to United about the templates in the shared X-ray system at Dulles, both airlines sought to compromise. When that attempt failed, Continental said, it filed the suit.

"It's unfair because they are basically telling us and our customers what they can bring on board," the Continental spokesman said.

Continental is sensitive to limitations on bags following a $15 million investment the Houston-based company made to retrofit the overhead compartments in 187 aircraft in order to accommodate larger carry-on bags.

The spokesman said Continental was seeking an injunction to bar the baggage-sizing templates as well as damages of an undisclosed amount.