Delta, Northwest one step closer to becoming one

AJC exclusive: Certificate key to merger operations

The Atlanta airline expects to get a single operating certificate, which allows the two carriers not just to be a single airline on paper, but to operate as one.

The certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration clears the two operations to use a single carrier code and combine operations, culminating more than a year of paperwork and reviews. For passengers, it enables Delta to present itself and function fully as a single airline. Among employees, pilots from both airlines will be able to fly together and other workers can begin to join forces.

“It means there’s one airline instead of two,” said FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen. “Everything’s merged from a safety standpoint.”

In order to accomplish that, an FAA team has reviewed Delta’s proposed combined operations, manuals and materials to ensure they meet safety standards.

The certificate means the FAA has decided the merged airline can safely operate under unified safety procedures, training, maintenance operations, flight dispatch systems, computer systems and manuals.

Delta has integrated about 385 manuals and completed more than 10,000 tasks. Teams at Delta “closely evaluated each Delta and Northwest program, process and operating specification to determine the best choice for the combined carrier,” said Delta spokeswoman Betsy Talton.

The FAA accepted the airline’s plan toward getting the certificate in September 2008, then monitored it as work progressed.

“We’ve had a lot of great work done by our operational teams,” said Delta’s chief operating officer, Steve Gorman, in recent comments to financial analysts. On Jan. 1, the “invisible curtain between the two certificates” in flight control, aircraft routing and crew tracking will disappear, he said.

The combined pilot procedures will go into effect, and pilots will “open up that cellophane on Jan.1 with new manuals,” Gorman added.

Delta has taken steps that did not require FAA safety approvals, such as blending frequent flier programs, repainting most of Northwest’s planes, outfitting Northwest employees with Delta uniforms and allowing customers to book flights from either Web site.

The single operating certificate — or SOC, as it is known — will allow Delta to move this winter to a single airline code so that all Northwest tickets will become Delta tickets and all Northwest flights will become Delta flights.

Northwest’s Web site, nwa.com, will disappear. Delta and Northwest pilots will be trained on each other’s aircraft and will be able to share a single cockpit, and the airline will gain full flexibility to schedule planes and routes from the two carriers interchangeably.

“We need to get SOC before we can make that change,” Talton said. “We’re taking a careful, phased approach to integrating the airlines to make the process seamless for customers.”

She said customers should expect travel plans to continue with no changes.

Having two Web sites and two carriers more than a year after the merger is “complex to the traveler,” said Glen Hauenstein, Delta’s executive vice president of network planning and revenue management, at the investor day. “We have not been able to maximize the value proposition of the merger yet.”

The single code will eliminate any remaining confusion from having two different airline operations that have been essentially operating under a single Delta name at airports, on employee uniforms, at airports and on planes, Hauenstein said.

“That is almost behind us. By the end of the first quarter we will eliminate any customer confusion as far as dual sites” and dual paths, he said.

In the cockpit, the certificate will simplify communications with controllers. Northwest crews have continued to use the “Northwest” call sign and the “NWA” identifier in flight plans. An FAA notice directs pilots to use terminology such as “Detroit Ground, Northwest 222 with you, Delta colors.” The words “Delta colors” are also filed with flight plans to avoid confusion when planes are designated as Northwest aircraft but painted with Delta’s paint scheme.

The certificate will also mean the virtual disappearance of the company that was built over decades from its Minneapolis headquarters.

But even with the single operating certificate, Delta still won’t be done with its integration. As is often the case with airline mergers, labor issues linger.

Delta had hoped to resolve the biggest last summer through elections among flight attendants and certain ground workers to determine if they will be unionized or not. Northwest workers in those groups are unionized while Delta’s are not. But a federal labor board proposed a change in election rules that could make it much easier for airline workers to unionize, and two key unions withdrew their applications toward union elections at Delta pending the change.

The rule change, if finalized, is not likely to take effect until next year, pushing the elections into 2010 and dashing Delta’s hopes of resolving labor issues quickly.

Flight attendants and ground workers will still work under different rules and job terms until representation elections are complete.

Still, getting the approval by year’s end will mean Delta accomplished the milestone more quickly than the last two big airlines to merge, US Airways and America West. US Airways took two years to get a single operating certificate.

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