Mr. Bethune, the airline's president-chief operating officer since February, last week added responsibilities but not the titles of Vice Chairman-CEO Robert Ferguson. Mr. Ferguson abruptly resigned to "explore other career challenges" just as the airline released third-quarter earnings that disappointed Wall Street.
While the nation's No. 5 carrier reported net income of $30.6 million for the third quarter on revenue of $1.5 billion, the company said results were still "well below" an acceptable profit margin.
Mr. Bethune must improve operations and boost revenue. But it is marketing that looms as his most daunting task.
The company's high hopes for Continental Lite, a no-frills operation that now accounts for about 1,000 of its daily 1,675 flights, have not yet materialized.
"Gordon has to find a way to get more people on planes-his biggest lever is in the marketing area-especially in advertising and promotion," said one former airline executive.
The marketing department, headed by Senior VP Don Valentine, last summer began reporting to Mr. Bethune rather than Mr. Ferguson. Since then, several key players have left, including ad director Teri Steele, who left last week.
So besides reshaping the marketing team, Mr. Bethune has to get Continental Lite on track. Advertising from the Richards Group, Dallas, has played off a peanuts theme with an authentic Georgia peanut farmer as pitchman. The airline plans to spend about half-or $30 million-of its marketing budget on Continental Lite, a clear signal of the low-fare product's strategic importance.
Analysts are dismayed because Continental has an enviable low-cost structure of 7.5 cents per available seat mile. They say the carrier should be doing better, especially as the rest of the industry is enjoying something of a rebound.
But many agree Mr. Bethune's people skills and airline operations experience are just what Continental needs. He's straightforward and approachable, his friends say.
Southwest Airlines' success proves passengers want frequent, low-cost service. Mr. Bethune now must find a way to differentiate Continental Lite from the rest of the pack.
"It's obvious that airlines have chosen pricing as their major competitive tool," said Clive Chajet, chairman of corporate identity consultant Lippincott & Margulies, New York.
"The more price-driven it is, the more passengers are compelled to make decisions based on price; and that makes for a very difficult business," he said.