Continental Airlines' merger with United lifts collectors' hopes

airline memorabilia will benefit from united continental mergerThe next time you're flying Continental Airlines, remember someone may cough up serious money for that barf bag in the seat pocket in front of you -- especially after the company merges with United Airlines later this year.

Demand for dinnerware, timetables, postcards, model airplanes and other Continental memorabilia more than doubled on eBay since the carriers announced the $3 billion marriage earlier this month. One post trumpeted "collect Continental livery before they become United," as collectors hawked everything from a $1 bar of soap, to a $4.95 swizzle stick set, to a $16.99 redheaded doll and a $75 solid mahogany jet.

If the merger is approved by federal regulators, officials plan to keep Continental's colors and spherical logo and use United's name. The deal lifted collectors' hopes that Continental items would fetch hefty prices online. And the sky's the limit on what might someday be considered a collectors' item.

For instance, one collector on eBay is offering a bright orange Continental Boeing 727 airplane seat from the 1970s or 1980s, with bidding starting at $150. But watch out, shipping alone is listed at $76.25.

"It has the original Continental seat covers in a groovy orange color, reclines, has one moveable (sic) armrest with ashtray, seat belt, life vest pouch and seat back tray table," wrote Chris Laborde, who's been collecting airline memorabilia for 20 years.

"Being just one seat, it certainly makes it easier to fit into your house than a double or triple set (not to mention lower shipping rates)," he wrote

He says he cut the seats apart after finding them in an old hangar so each one would make a "GREAT conversation piece." Although there's also a caveat listed under the item: "It is not intended or certified to be used or installed in ANY moving vehicle."

Laborde is not unlike other airline memorabilia aficionados who will often stop at nothing to find unusual and rare items to add to their collections.

"I know people who have literally gone into the bowels of airports, past do not enter signs, and gone downstairs to lockers and found stuff from 20 or 40 years ago that's never been touched," said Dave Cherkis, a photographer and one of the organizers of an airline memorabilia show in Los Angeles on June 19.

Cherkis, who like fellow collectors specializes in one category -- pilot wings -- said he hopes interest in aviation memorabilia awakened by a United/Continental merger will increase attendees who come to browse tables at the Embassy Suites.

"With mergers, it doesn't create more people who become collectors, the collectibles themselves become more collectible," said Cherkis, who added that his most valuable item is a $400 pair of old Northeast Airlines flight attendant wings.

The market for aviation memorabilia is enormous, with collectors often spending months trolling the Internet or traveling to shows in search of a single rare item.

Scores of airline employees, both current and past, collect items and compare their loot online. A recent thread at the popular industry site www.airliners.net asked members to reveal their favorite piece of airline memorabilia. Responses ranged from the mundane to the bizarre.

"Undoubtedly, my flown Concorde engine parts all black with smoke and burns," wrote Madame Concorde. "I don't think anyone else in the world has a collection of Concorde scarves as complete as mine."

Another collector touted boarding passes from JetBlue's first flight signed by the company's founder and Chairman David Neeleman, with another mentioning a seven-foot-long American flag from the top of a TWA vertical tail fin.

Like TWA, many airlines have come and gone since the dawn of commercial aviation in the 1930s. Today's carriers have fleets with hundreds of aircraft and thousands of employees.

There is little that's not collected, from crew badges and baggage tags, to uniforms and safety cards, with one collector even specializing in emergency exit doors, wrote Dick Wallin in "Commercial Aviation Collectibles." Even old galley carts from Pan Am and other long gone carriers are in demand.

Wallin collected dining ware used on airliners for 20 years and travels the country attending airline collectible shows. He sold his extensive collection of dishes, glasses and silverware, several years ago for a sum he doesn't want to disclose.

He did say that he once sold a rare plate from American Airlines with a flag logo that the company used on DC3 flights for $2,500.

"I think the reason it's so rare is that those were ordered -- I got information from the Syracuse China Company -- two weeks before Pearl Harbor," Wallin said. "Once the war got going the government requisitioned most commercial airplanes."

Hot items at today's airline shows are model airplanes of all shapes and sizes. With the Internet putting most travel agencies out of business, trading in models that span anywhere from two to six feet long is becoming a brisk business. Older metal models that used to adorn travel agency windows can command up to $5,000 a piece, Wallin said.

So what Continental items may fly off eBay's virtual shelves someday?

If United and Continental successfully complete their merger, Continental memorabilia won't be worth much right away, Wallin said, adding that both carriers have been around so long that the market initially will be flooded with items.

But if collectors hold on to items they may someday be rare enough to command good prices online or in person at aviation memorabilia trade shows.

In the short term, Cherkis and Wallin agreed that the airline collectibles market -- which is being buffeted about by a poor economy -- could use some good tail winds from ongoing publicity surrounding the United/Continental merger.

"We're constantly striving to get more of the general public aware of our hobby," Wallin said.

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