Malko In Charge
Seniority for pilots at Delta, Northwest Airlines to be decided by status, aircraft category
By HARRY R. WEBER , Associated Press
Last update: December 9, 2008 - 2:09 AM
ATLANTA - The pilot seniority lists at Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines will be integrated based on pilots' status and aircraft category, though pilots from one carrier will not be able to fly for a period of time certain planes the other carrier brought to the combination, an arbitration panel ruled.
The three-member panel's decision Monday, which affects roughly 12,000 pilots, is binding and effective immediately.
Atlanta-based Delta, which became the world's biggest carrier when it acquired Northwest on Oct. 29, wants to smoothly integrate the two work forces as part of its effort to achieve significant cost savings from the deal. A joint pilot contract was reached previously, but seniority had remained unresolved until Monday.
Pilots value their seniority. Those at the top of the list get first choice on vacations, the best routes and the bigger planes that they get paid more for flying.
During closed-door hearings before the panel, a lawyer for Delta pilots argued that Delta pilots' seniority list should be merged with Northwest based on pilots' status and aircraft category, while a lawyer for Northwest pilots insisted the fair and equitable method would be to merge the lists based on pilots' date of hire.
In a memo to Delta pilots just before midnight Monday, the head of Delta's pilots union, Lee Moak, said the foundation of the panel's integration method is "ratioed status and category" with a "rational treatment for the minor attrition differences that exist between the two pilot groups."
Northwest pilots tend to be older than Delta pilots because many senior pilots retired from Delta during the run-up to the airline's 2005 bankruptcy filing.
Delta and Northwest will not be able to fly as one carrier under the Delta name until Delta obtains a single operating certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration, which it hopes to have by the end of next year. According to the panel ruling, a "fence" will be imposed for five years from the implementation date of the single operating certificate.
The restriction means that during that period, no pre-merger Northwest pilot may be awarded or displaced to a vacancy on a Boeing 777 aircraft or category and no pre-merger Delta pilot may be awarded or displaced to a Boeing 787 or Boeing 747 vacancy.
Delta pilots attorney Jeffrey R. Freund had told the panel that to integrate the two pilot lists, the first step should be to place the aircraft on both sides of the combined company in broad categories and then look at each pilot's status on those aircraft.
For example, Freund said, there could be international wide-body captains and narrow-body first officers. He said that whatever the categories are, the appropriate process would be to then count the pilots in each status and category who held those positions on a particular date, on the respective seniority lists.
So, if there were 200 Delta international wide-body captains and 100 Northwest international wide-body captains, the top 300 pilots from the two seniority lists would be distributed on the merged seniority list on the basis of two Delta pilots and then one Northwest pilot, and so on down the line. Freund said the pilots in other aircraft categories should be distributed on the merged list the same way.
But Daniel M. Katz, an attorney for Northwest pilots, had told the arbitration panel that the only truly fair way to integrate the two lists so that pilots on each side understand they are where they belong is to do it based on the date they were hired.
Ultimately, the panel ruled that the status and category method is the more equitable approach. It said that if the two groups of pilots had their seniority lists combined based on date of hire, it would result in "a dramatic overloading of Northwest pilots in premium flying categories."
The arbitration panel — California labor attorney Fredric Horowitz, attorney Dana Eischen and veteran arbitrator Richard Bloch — was called in to resolve the seniority issue after the pilots at both airlines reached an impasse.
Delta also has labor issues to resolve with other employee groups, such as flight attendants and ground workers. Northwest is heavily unionized, while Delta's pilots are the carrier's only major work group to be in a union.