Delta, Northwest pilots reach tentative deal

Atlanta airport
Delta Air Lines planes line up at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
Barry Williams/Getty Images

Neither the two airlines involved nor the unions for Delta and Northwest pilots would provide details about the agreement, but they seemed pleased to have worked out a deal that covers both sets of pilots.

The contract, which would take effect upon the merger of the two airlines, is subject to a ratification vote. Northwest pilot union leaders will review the deal this Thursday to see if it passes muster with them. If it does meet with their approval, the contract will be put to Northwest and Delta pilots for a vote.

University of Minnesota professor John Budd expects Northwest pilots likely got pay equity with their Delta counterparts. However, he suspects the agreement on merging seniority lists may be a bit sketchy.

"Maybe they've agreed on wage and benefit issues, common pay schedules, things of that nature," said Budd. "And then some process for further negotiation, not agreement, on a single merged seniority list at this point."

Budd says the deal, if approved, may mean Delta and Northwest could avoid the squabbling that has divided pilots in past airline mergers, such as the recent merger of US Airways and America West.

In addition, there are still hard feelings among many pilots involved in the merger of Northwest and Republic airlines some 20 years ago.

"I think it is noteworthy that they have been able to reach this agreement before the merger, even though there might be a lot of details to be worked out," Budd said. "It avoids what is going on at America West-US Airways, where that is just a complete mess, because they failed to achieve this before the merger went through and tried to sort of pick up the pieces afterwards."

The Northwest pilots' union said it took seven days of negotiations to reach the tentative agreement. The union said the goal was to reach a joint contract that enhances the careers of all pilots and protects their seniority.

Seniority is a big issue for pilots, perhaps as important, or more important, than wage scales.

"Tt's when you work, how much you work, what equipment you get to fly, what routes you get to fly. All that is very critical, because it's on a bid basis," said Budd.

John Remington is a labor professor at the University of Minnesota. Remington says merging seniority lists is a complex and politically sensitive process. But it's likely that the union has worked out something that will fly with pilots.

"I think we should presume there is an agreement on seniority that was good enough, so the leaders of both pilots groups were willing to put it to a vote by their membership," said Remington.

Delta and Northwest hope to win regulatory approval for their merger by the end of the year. Northwest and Delta have not shown interest in winning the support of other unions for the merger. Other major employee groups may or may not even up with union representation if the airlines merge.

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