When hundreds of travel agents gathered at a Houston seminar last month, a top Continental Airlines executive urged them to keep selling its tickets and reaping big commissions, insisting bankruptcy was out of the question.
Those same agents now feel betrayed.
On Monday, Continental Airlines filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code.
Some agents and frequent fliers panicked, others were blase as Houston-based Continental became just the latest victim of very tough times rattling the airline industry.
Saddled with soaring costs and huge debt, Continental's gung-ho assurances at November's industry meeting ran out of steam as quickly as the carrier ran out of cash.
"Continental admitted at this seminar they were hemorrhaging, hammered up against the wall by higher fuel costs," recalled Robin Engel, who sells air tickets for Aero, a wholesale agent. "But the vice president of sales and marketing insisted bankruptcy was out of the question.
"He claimed the company was on and it had a whole bunch of new young people. They were just about ready to paint all their planes new colors," Engel added.
Things looked different on Continental's Black Monday.
While the airline said business would continue as usual, protected by law from cash-hungry creditors, industry experts said its glory days as the No. 5 U.S. carrier were history and predicted its ticket prices would be forced lower.
"The initial booking trend is away from the bankrupt carrier," said Kidder Peabody analyst Samuel Buttrick.
Just as fliers fear they are paying good money for tickets to nowhere, agents say they are reluctant to play middle man to a company trying to steer a tricky crash landing.
"Travel agents are the ones who suffer through all this," said Ken Fish, an agent with Adventures in Paradise. "Consumers react and don't want to travel. They cancel reservations and request refunds -- all more work for agents.
"For their own personal benefit, agents will recommend passengers not to fly Continental," Fish predicted. "Why take the risk when they offer no better service?"
And Engel said that as fliers run to stronger carriers, the only incentive for agents to sell Continental tickets might be its hefty commissions and preference for quick cash deals.
Continental says services will keep running, tickets will be honored, prices will not change and refunds will be paid.
"The public will not be caught up in this," Continental lawyer Paul Welsh said. "There will not be anybody stranded."
Isae Wada, an airline specialist at Travel Weekly, the nation's biggest travel trade publication, said Continental may be salvageable, but it would be no smooth flight.
"The stigma of filing Chapter 11 is always going to have repercussions with the flying public," she said. "We've talked to a number of agents who were in near panic."
"The industry is collapsing. Continental is not (the) last to fall," said Ted Harris, a consultant with Airline Industry Resources, an airline consulting firm based in Virginia.
And Fish said ultimately it would be ordinary fliers, not the remote creditors, who pay the steepest price.
"In the future there are only going to be three airlines and the consumer's going to suffer," he said. "There will be the choice of American, Delta and United. The rest will go away or be gobbled up."
Fish said the industry was "over-expanded, over-leveraged. There's just not enough profit and too much overhead.