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Continental's reemergence from its second bankruptcy was signaled by its taking on the naming rights to New Jersey's Continental Airlines Arena, which it held until 2007

A Continental Douglas DC-10
In 1990, Frank Lorenzo retired after 18 years at the helm of Texas International and later Texas Air and Continental Airlines, selling the majority of his Jet Capital Corporation to Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS). According to William F. Buckley, in his September 17, 1990 article on National Review, the sale to SAS was conditioned on Lorenzo leaving the company.[14] On December 3, 1990, Continental filed for its second bankruptcy, due to Lorenzo dedicating himself almost full-time to Eastern Air Lines acquisition and labor relations issues, the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the resultant Gulf War had prompted a dramatic increase in the price of jet fuel, and People Express had been highly leveraged at the time of its merger with Continental, having purchased Frontier Airlines just two years before.[18] In addition to Lorenzo embarking on deals which saddled the airline with other carriers' debts, he also began consolidating the different airlines into one system. That resulted in a fleet comprising numerous aircraft types and liveries.[19]

Boeing 757–200 in 1991–2011 livery
In the late 1980s, following a dramatic reduction of service by United Airlines and an unsuccessful attempt by USAir to establish point-to-point service, Continental expanded at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and established what would become its third-largest system hub. Continental quickly gained nearly all of the gates in the C concourse (once dominated by United), and later expanded that concourse to 24 gates in addition to eventually constructing a new Concourse D in 1999.[20] On February 12, 1991, Continental unveiled a new blue and gray livery and the "globe" logo. This would continue as Continental's identity until it was dissolved in 2012, and was adopted by the post-merger United Airlines.[21][22] In 1993 Air Canada, Air Partners and Texas Pacific Group, enabled Continental to emerge from bankruptcy by investing $450 million in the airline.[citation needed] In March 1993 the airline cancelled its services to 9 U.S. destinations and 6 non-U.S. destinations, including all 24 weekly services between the United States and Australia and New Zealand in addition to its flights between Guam and Australia, effective October 31 of that year.[23] Under the leadership of former Boeing executive Gordon Bethune, who became President in October 1994, Continental began a successful transformation project. When Bethune took over in 1994 as COO and President of Continental Airlines the troubled airline had twice faced bankruptcy and was again headed that direction. A search firm hired by Continental's board of directors suggested Bethune, who had recently completed an Advanced Management Course at the Harvard Business School, to salvage the company.

Bethune ascended to the role of CEO and was elected chairman of the board of directors in 1996. Continental went from being ranked last in every measurable performance category to winning more J.D. Power and Associates awards for Customer Satisfaction than any other airline in the world. BusinessWeek magazine named Bethune one of the top 25 Global Managers in 1996 and 1997. Under his leadership Continental's stock price rose from $2 to over $50 per share. Fortune named Continental among the 100 Best Companies to Work for in America for six consecutive years. In his final year piloting the airline Fortune magazine ranked Continental 2004's No. 1 Most Admired Global Airline, a title it earned again in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008. Bethune released his book, From Worst to First, in 1999 detailing his success at that carrier. While at Continental, Bethune created the Go-Forward plan, to fix problems with the airline, which included employee morale, the quality of the product, and the route structure, among others. He and his management team are credited for saving Continental from extinction. Bethune began by ordering new aircraft in an effort to convert to an all-Boeing fleet. After the opening of the new Denver International Airport on February 28, 1995, Continental management decided that the Denver hub – its historic operational base and heart of the system for almost 60 years – would be abruptly reduced to spoke status (with service only to Houston, Newark, and Cleveland). This decision centered on cost-reductions, since DIA charges and landing fees were substantially higher than those at Stapleton, which DIA had replaced.

Between 1993 and 1995, Continental experimented with an "airline within an airline" by launching CALite, later renamed Continental Lite, which provided all-economy, low-fare, no-frills service between primarily leisure destinations. Continental Lite operated with a dedicated fleet of 100 McDonnell Douglas DC-9-30 and Boeing 737–200 aircraft, each repainted with the 'Lite' livery and stripped of its first class cabin. (The Continental Lite experiment was rumored to be the result of "extra" aircraft on hand following the closure of Continental's Denver hub.) This service was based primarily at Continental's existing hub in Cleveland as well as a new hub established in Greensboro, NC. The experiment, which had been developed and launched by Bethune's predecessor, Robert Ferguson, proved unsuccessful and the brand was dissolved in 1995. Continental's short-lived Greensboro hub was dismantled in the process. On March 26, 1996, Continental launched the first phase of its website.[26] During this time period Continental was the subject of hostile takeover bids submitted by then Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines. The final deal struck with Northwest, as described by Bethune in his book, allowed Continental to keep its corporate identity but all major decisions, mergers and alliances, were controlled by means of a "golden share" owned by Northwest Airlines.

Beginning in 1998, Continental again embarked on a program to expand its international operations. In that year it inaugurated services to Ireland and Scotland, and in October 1998 the airline received its first Boeing 777-200ER aircraft, allowing non-stop flights from Newark and Houston to Tokyo, Japan, and from Newark to Tel Aviv, Israel. Continental in the same year launched partnerships with Northwest Airlines, Copa Airlines, Avant Airlines, Transbrasil, and Cape Air, and Continental and America West Airlines became the first two US airlines to launch interline electronic ticketing.[27] In 1999, Continental Airlines started service between Newark and Zurich, Switzerland, and from Cleveland to London. The Cleveland to London originally flew from Cleveland Hopkins International to London's Gatwick Airport, but moved in 2009 to London Heathrow. Due to the economic situation, this flight was suspended. In 1998 Continental expanded its flycontinental.com functionality, including the addition of WebTV and Windows CE functionality and expanding services to Canadian users.

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