American Airlines and US Airways expect their merger to be officially sanctioned by fall. Then the hard part starts: making the marriage work.
If previous U.S. airline mergers are any guide, the new partners may face some rough patches as they mesh booking systems, frequent-flier programs and eventually getting pilots familiar with new aircraft -- all while persuading passengers to stick with them for the ride.
Being the last pair of big network carriers to wed -- after Delta and Northwest merged in 2008, and United and Continental in 2010 -- the new American can take notes from the earlier mergers on what went right and what went wrong, and potentially avoid some of the same pitfalls.
"They've been able to sit back and watch how Delta handled their merger and how United handled their merger, and I think there are lessons to be learned," says industry analyst Holly Hegeman, founder of PlaneBusiness.com. "Are there going to be glitches? Sure. Is it going to be smooth sailing? No."
The American merger must clear government hurdles before it's final to ensure it won't be anti-competitive. Approval is expected by most industry analysts, likely by fall. But it won't come without the airline proving it won't hurt fliers.
The new airline's leaders, for instance, were called before a House Judiciary subcommittee last month, where they said service would continue to most communities and that mergers don't necessarily mean fares will go up. Questioning before a Senate committee is scheduled for March 19. Most important, the Justice Department must sign off on the deal.
Only then can the work of putting all the pieces together begin, and travelers can start learning what the frequent-flier program will look like, what routes are available and what type of planes they'll fly. Scott Kirby, president of US Airways and a leader of the transition team, says merging the airline will take about two years.
Speed bumps are pretty much inevitable. Consider United's absorption of Continental: Many passengers had long waits to talk to a ticket agent last spring, when a switch to Continental's reservations system suffered computer glitches. United and Continental still work in separate terminals at nearly two dozen airports. Hegeman says some employees seem to have more allegiance to their previous bosses than to the combined carrier.
United spokeswoman Megan McCarthy says the carrier has turned the corner: It's beaten its goals for getting flights to their destinations on time. Gates and check-in counters have been combined in 125 of 148 airports. New uniforms will be introduced this year, which can help build team spirit.
"Airline mergers are incredibly complex," McCarthy says. "There were definitely challenges, particularly in 2012, but we now are in a great position to really focus on delivering all the benefits of the merger to our customers going forward."
American's new leaders -- including Doug Parker, the US Airways CEO who will be head of the new American -- say they've got some advantages in making the marriage go more smoothly.
Chief among them is the support of American's pilots, flight attendants and mechanics, whose unions made agreements with US Airways before the merger deal was struck. Parker has been through this before, having presided over the 2005 merger of US Airways and America West
"While we know it won't be perfect, we have a lot of confidence that it will go smoothly because, first, we have the employees and labor on board," Kirby says. "Additionally, we have experience at both American and US Airways with mergers in the past, of what went well and what went wrong."
Are my miles safe?
Perhaps most important to fliers, and an early sign of how they'll be treated by the new airline, is how the loyalty program will work.
"It's important everyone knows that all frequent-flier miles at either airline will survive intact and will move into the new program," says Kirby.
He says details of the new "Aadvantage" rewards program will likely be revealed around the time the merger closes.
As jet-fuel prices soar and Delta battles to lift itself from bankruptcy protection, members who cherish their SkyMiles have a lot of worries.
One thing is certain for the airline industry next year: There will be fewer flights.