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VOL. 123 | NO. 42 | Friday, February 29, 2008

Northwest Pilots Explain Problems Holding Up Combo Talk

By JOSHUA FREED | AP Business Writer

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - With talks stalled between pilots at Northwest and Delta airlines, the Northwest pilots on Wednesday laid out some of the key problems that are holding up a potential airline combination, according to the latest available by press time.

Negotiators from both unions have not met since Feb. 21, according to a person familiar with the pilot negotiations who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the situation. It was not clear when or if the two sides would meet again.

As expected, seniority has been a huge obstacle in the talks. Pilots with more seniority bid first for desirable planes and routes. Lower-ranked pilots are the first to be laid off.

Leaders of Northwest Airlines Corp. pilots based in Seattle issued a written update Wednesday that did not name Delta Air Lines Inc. or any other airline.

The update from the Seattle pilots said the largest difference between Northwest's pilots "and other potential pilot groups" is that Northwest has nearly 1,000 aviators who will turn 60 within five years - nearly a quarter of its 4,800 pilots. And although mandatory pilot retirement age is about to change to age 65, Northwest pilots survived bankruptcy with their age-60 pension largely intact and many are expected to retire then rather than waiting until 65.

If Northwest doesn't merge, younger pilots could expect to move up quickly as older colleagues retire. But that won't be the case if Northwest pilots find themselves mixed into the younger work force of a consolidated airline, which would number roughly 12,000 pilots if Delta and Northwest combine.

The update didn't name Delta, but Delta's pilots are younger as a group than Northwest's.

Northwest pilots, who took steep pay cuts before the airline emerged from bankruptcy May 31, have been widely expected to get raises in a consolidation.

"Seniority is not for sale," the Northwest pilot update said. "It makes no sense to trade seniority, which is long-term, for contractual improvements, which can be very short term," with the risk that raises given today can be taken away later with the threat of bankruptcy.

Staffing levels are another key issue, according to the Seattle update. Northwest runs a leaner staff than other airlines, so a change could affect how quickly Northwest pilots can expect to move up.

"The computer modeling our merger committee has demonstrated these problems very graphically" to leaders in the Northwest branch of the Air Line Pilots Association, the update said. The union leadership said the expected pilot retirements and the staffing levels "must be taken into account in any merged seniority list."

The update also said that while pilots could not confirm or deny talks with any specific airline, "the fact is that we have been in discussion with more than one group." The document did not say whether it was referring to other airlines.

"We are in 'exploratory discussions' with several parties," the update said. Representatives of the union and the airline both declined to comment.


AP Business Writer Harry R. Weber in Atlanta contributed to this report.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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