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Ex-Delta pilots say Northwest merger is necessary, but won't be easy

POSTED: April 26, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Two Gainesville residents who spent decades working as pilots for Delta Air Lines say the merger with Northwest Airlines is necessary for the survival of the airline industry, but they say the creation of the "mega-airline" will definitely take a good bit of tweaking.

Issues with differing pilot seniority lists and questions as to how to deal with the heavily unionized Northwest employees were already flying through the air shortly after the two airlines announced their consolidation Tuesday. But Ruben Black, a 34-year veteran of Delta, said the two companies make a good fit, if only for their routes.

"Their route systems just seem to fit together like a glove," Black said. "It’s probably a good thing."

But Black said that probable "good thing" was also the necessary thing for the two airlines to stay competitive in the airline industry.

"It’s probably something that’s got to happen in the industry all over, because of the economy and gas prices and things like that," Black said.

Yet, neither Black nor former Delta pilot Augie Deaugustinis said they would want to be a current pilot during the merger, which already has Northwest pilots pledging to fight the consolidation deal as it stands.

"I would not look forward to having to go through another merger, especially one that may be resisted by other employee groups," Deaugustinis said. "It’s going to be a pretty steep hill that they have to climb to make this thing work."

Deaugustinis was with Delta when it merged with Western Airlines in the 1980s, and he said that merger, though amicable from the outside, took lots of time and money to make the change.

"Within the pilot ranks there was a lot of issues, and it took a while to get the two seniority lists blended," Deaugustinis said.

And that was a good situation, Deaugustinis said. There promises to be many more issues blending the union-heavy Northwest and Delta, which only has unionized pilots.

"Trying to merge those two cultures right now is going to be very interesting," Deaugustinis said.

Black said Northwest and Delta will probably keep their pilot seniority lists, as well as their routes, separate for now. He said Northwest has pilots on separate seniority lists from a long-ago merger with Republic Airlines.

"It would be better if they had one list for the airline as a whole," Black said. "That’s a real problem."

The merger seemed to be a problem for investors Tuesday amid word there are no plans for further domestic flight cuts, as well as the challenges of integrating companies with contrasting cultures, planes and labor relations.

The two airlines have very different relationships between management and workers, which was reflected as soon as Delta’s acquisition of Northwest was announced Monday. Delta pilots support it. Northwest pilots oppose it.

Northwest is heavily unionized, while Delta’s pilots are the only major work group at Delta to be part of a union. Delta flight attendants begin voting April 23 whether to join a union.

"Northwest pilots have probably been on strike as much as they’ve been working, so they’re not reticent to do that," Black said. "But Delta pilots on the other hand have never had a strike ... they always tried to work things out."

The merger will have a positive effect on frequent flyers of both airlines, because both will have more destination options available to them. Regular consumers, on the other hand, could see a problem when the mega-airline decides it needs to raise prices, because there will be less competition to reduce prices.

"They can do it, and everyone else will fall in line," Deaugustinis said.

The merger had some questioning whether it violated federal anti-trust laws by limiting competition in the industry, but Black said the industry is in a different situation than it was years ago.

"I don’t see the anti-trust people raising a lot of stink like they would years ago," Black said.

Deaugustinis agreed: Consolidation is evil, but necessary.

"Neither one really wants to consolidate, but because of the market forces ... it’s forcing them to team up," Deaugustinis said. "Together they can survive, while separate they may not."

Executives said they are confident they will be able to consummate the deal and integrate the two carriers.

"Bottom line is, we think it’s a really good fit," said Delta Chief Executive Richard Anderson, who will head the combined airline.

The Associated Press contributed to this report



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