Feb. 23--The day American Airlines and US Airways announced their merger proposal, their union leaders smiled and shook hands with airline executives and one another.
Some union presidents, including those who represent American's pilots, flight attendants and ground workers, had advocated for a merger of the carriers for months, even signing conditional labor agreements with US Airways executives in April.
Others, such as US Airways' pilots and flight attendant leaders, got involved in the discussions later but willingly signed memorandums of understanding to help ease the integration.
But despite the hugs and good will exchanged when the merger was announced Feb. 13, challenges lie ahead for the unions. Seniority integration lists need to be crafted. Workers must decide which union they want to represent them in contract talks with the merged carrier.
"We're not going to see how amicable this merger is for a few more years, when the difficult questions come," said Gary Chaison, professor of labor relations at Clark University in Massachusetts.
And if the unions, along with airline management, can't solve these issues in a timely fashion, that could limit the financial benefits touted by AMR CEO Tom Horton and US Airways CEO Doug Parker.
"Union issues have to be put away if American is going to be successful going into the future," airline industry consultant Darryl Jenkins said.
AMR has 54,700 unionized workers. US Airways has 30,260.
Happy to work together
For the flight crew, nothing is more important in a merger than seniority.
The memorandums of understanding signed by the pilot and flight attendant unions outline how to discuss seniority. But the issue probably won't be decided for over a year.
"Nothing in an official capacity will occur until after the [National Mediation Board] does a ruling on single-carrier status and the representation issue is settled," Allied Pilots Association President Keith Wilson said the day after the merger announcement. "Then we'll go into the seniority integration after that."
The board didn't grant the merged United Continental single-carrier status until April 30, 2011, almost a year after that merger was announced. Its pilots agreed to a joint contract in December and are working on a seniority integration list.
Leaders at the Allied Pilots Association, which represents only American Airlines pilots, and the US Airline Pilots Association, also a one-carrier union, continue to discuss integration. Last week the two boards met in Fort Worth to talk with US Airways executives including Parker, who will lead the merged airline.
"The success of this merger will signify the cooperative effort of professional pilots and management working together. We are pleased to be working with our colleagues of the Allied Pilots Association who are also committed to seeing our new company succeed, and ensure a safe flight for our passengers each and every day," President Gary Hummel of the US Airline Pilots Assocation said when the merger was announced.
Like the pilots, flight attendants union leaders have reached out to each other to begin integration discussions.
"We've had a long relationship with the [Association of Flight Attendants] and we've committed to making this a smooth transition," President Laura Glading of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants said the day the merger was announced.
The Association of Flight Attendants, which represents attendants at US Airways and American Eagle, said the merger holds "great opportunities" for flight attendants.
"As full partners in the world's largest airline, we expect meaningful participation in its benefits," the union said in a statement. "We look forward to working with our colleagues at American in improving wages, benefits, work rules and retirement security for all Flight Attendants at the new American."
Another question that remains is which union will represent each work group after the merger. Airline analysts say American's unions are likely to prevail in representation elections held by the National Mediation Board, simply because those unions have significantly more members.
Seniority agreements still need to be reached by the pilots and flight attendants unions.
Even if the leaders of United and Continental agree to merge their airlines, the hard work of combining two work forces with different unions and conflicting interests will remain.
The history of the airline industry is littered with cases in which peace in the boardroom was followed by rancor among co-workers at 30,000 feet.