Like carriers before them, Delta and Northwest are finding this issue can be biggest hurdle.

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Merger talks between Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines have been held up for a couple of weeks while pilots at each carrier discuss how to combine their union seniority lists.

How long can such a procedural matter take to resolve? If the last big airline merger is any guide, the answer is 28 months. And counting.

The post-merger battle over seniority between US Airways and America West has turned into one of the country’s nastiest union brawls. And it is forcing the company to continue operating, in some ways, as two separate carriers.

The Delta and Northwest pilot groups, who were asked by management to negotiate a seniority agreement before a merger deal could be announced, share a problem with their contentious colleagues: There is an age mismatch, with Delta employing the younger group.

Tuesday Delta Chief Executive Richard Anderson sent a memo to update employees on merger talks. Without mentioning Northwest, the memo said, “To date, we have not arrived at a potential transaction that meets all of our principles.”

Seniority principle

Among the principles Anderson listed was “that the seniority of our people is protected.”

Anderson wrote that Delta would “continue to look at strategic alternatives” while also pushing forward with the airline’s stand-alone plan. A spokeswoman, Betsy Talton, would not elaborate.

Northwest CEO Douglas Steenland also sent a note to workers Tuesday, saying, he, too, took a cautious tone in addressing a merger, while not naming Delta.

“We continue to believe that consolidation among the network carriers is inevitable,” Steenland wrote.

Among other things, a merger would need to “provide greater long-term security and growth opportunities for our employees,” he added. “We continue to consider strategic alternatives based on these criteria.”

An age mismatch raises the stakes in any melding of seniority lists, with the potential for junior pilots to leapfrog more senior ones and take away more lucrative and attractive assignments.

The lists are used to decide who is a captain and who is a co-pilot, pay rates, work schedules, how big an airplane a pilot gets to fly, and who is laid off first.

“Seniority — it’s very sacred ground,” said Jack Stephan, who heads the Air Line Pilots Association local for the 2,700 pilots from the old US Airways side of that merger.

Even if union leaders at Northwest and Delta agree to a seniority plan, clearing a path for the largest airline merger ever, the deal could be scuttled months later if rank-and-file pilots decide the plan treats them unfairly.

A union spokeswoman for the 6,300 Delta pilots, Kelly Regus, declined to comment. Union officials for the 4,500 Northwest pilots did not return calls.

The US Airways dispute shows how hard times in the industry — including pay cuts, lost pensions and longer work hours — have brought out fratricidal tendencies in pilots.

Each side, though represented by the same union, pushed seniority arrangements that would have put pilots on the other side toward the bottom of the list. They refused to compromise.

And an arbitrator’s award in May favored the America West pilots, setting off a campaign to decertify the union, a move that has gathered strong support from old US Airways pilots, who outnumber their America West colleagues.

If a new union, the US Airline Pilots Association, wins an election starting next month to represent pilots at the merged airline, it said it would try to scrap the arbitrator’s award and install a seniority list based on date of hire. That would favor pilots from the old US Airways.

If that happens, said John McIlvenna, who heads the union local for the 1,500 former America West pilots, “we will be in all-out warfare.”

Regardless of the outcome, US Airways and its pilots face months, or even years, of litigation over the seniority list.

This turmoil makes clear why Delta and Northwest management want a seniority deal before they announce a merger.

Delta pilots younger

The Delta pilots are younger, on average, in large part because more than 1,100 Delta pilots took early retirement in 2005 to collect lump-sum pensions before the carrier’s bankruptcy led it to terminate its pension plan.

So a merged list based strictly on date of hire would favor Northwest pilots. A list that simply shuffles in the two groups — one from Northwest, one from Delta, and so on — would put younger Delta pilots ahead of older Northwest colleagues.

The union also uses what are known as fences to protect groups of pilots from being displaced. A portion of the fleet, say, can be reserved for a set number of years to be piloted by those who fly those planes.

But the US Airways case suggests that making a seniority deal — and making one that sticks — will be difficult.