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In airline mergers, pilots are in the driver's seat

The outlook for the Delta-Northwest and United-US Airways mergers? Ask the pilots.

With the exception of the Department of Justice, which must ultimately give proposed mergers a clean bill of health on antitrust grounds, the pilot unions have as much to say as any of the many stakeholder groups.

So critical was the pilots' cooperation in the Delta-Northwest case that management made a special effort to secure the agreement of both unions before proceeding with other merger-related negotiations. When neither union proved receptive to the terms under which the workforces would be combined, the merger process was temporarily derailed.

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Delta was eventually able to reach agreement with its pilots, at which point the larger merger discussions were resumed, even without buy-in from Northwest's pilots, who felt their seniority and benefits would be unfairly compromised.

The latest, according to the Associated Press: The Delta and Northwest unions will meet next week for another attempt at reconciling their differences.

Meanwhile, the union representing United's pilots has made its feelings about a merger with US Airways clear. The Associated Press reports that Steve Wallach, head of United's union and also a member of the airline's board of directors, expressed "serious concerns" about such a tie-up, and warned that integration could take as long as seven years to implement and was not likely to achieve the cost efficiencies promised by merger proponents.

What does US Airways' pilots union think about a tie-up with United? So far, there's been no official position statement. That could be because pilots from America West and US Airways are still focused on working out the details of their integration following the 2005 merger of America West and US Airways.

Airlines can, of course, merge now and deal with the thorny specifics of integrating workforces later. But the pilot union sets the tone for other unions. And a workforce that is at odds with management is a workforce that is at odds with customers.

In a service-intensive industry, that's a recipe for disaster. And mergers, we're told, are supposed to avert disasters, not foster them.

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