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Delta begins long integration with Northwest
Posted 10/31/2008 5:59 AM ET
MINNEAPOLIS — One day after his airline swallowed Northwest Airlines, Delta executive Ed Bastian was in town with a polar bear tie and a smile in a bid to reassure travelers that little would change.

Hubs? They all stay. Flights? Maybe fewer seats, but no outright cuts. Frequent flier miles? You'll keep them all.

Still, Bastian and the rest of the executives who will stir the two airlines together have plenty to do.

"It's probably going to take us two years before we can really operate as a single carrier," Bastian, who is Delta Air Lines Inc.'s chief financial officer, said Thursday. Bastian is also now the chief executive of Northwest, which became a subsidiary of Delta when their tie-up closed on Wednesday.

Although dozens of teams with members from both companies have been working together for months toward the integration, several items still have not been decided yet, Bastian said from behind a "Delta" podium above a ticketing area dominated by Northwest counters. That includes whether Delta will continue to allow a single checked bag for free (Northwest charges a fee), and which planes will go on which routes.

Bastian did not rule out the possibility that Delta would add a checked-bag fee. In any case, both airlines will have the same fee structure soon, he said.

He said Delta would arrange its fleet and schedule in the spring. Only one airplane, the 757, is common to both carriers.

Airline mergers have a checkered history. AMR Corp.'s American closed on a buyout of TWA months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks turned the industry upside-down. And US Airways Group Inc. is still struggling with its integration with America West.

"In the past it's been like trying to integrate oil and water," said Mo Garfinkle, who runs airline consulting firm GCW Consulting.

Delta and Northwest will have to integrate different corporate cultures, different software for ticketing and schedules, different fleets, different unions (most of Delta's workers are not unionized) -- and it all has to be done without missing a beat in a 24-7 operation that includes hubs from Tokyo to Amsterdam.

Garfinkle says he is optimistic, because of all the work that the two airlines have already done, and because they seem willing to take it slow.

"I think this is going to be the poster child for successful airline mergers," he said.

Bastian said that regional subsidiary Comair would remain a part of the airline. Comair's future has been uncertain, in part because it flies 50-seat jets that are money-losers when oil prices are high.

"Comair is an important part of the family, just as they've always been," he said.

The airlines have been cutting domestic capacity while in many cases adding international routes. Bastian said that's on hold now because of the economy.

"The growth will be slowed if there's any growth at all on the international seats," he said.

On Wednesday, before the deal closed, Northwest said it had arranged $500 million in loans backed by its remaining unencumbered assets, which had included its old DC-9 planes. Bastian said the borrowing won't change Delta's ability to park or fly the planes as the schedule requires. He said Delta has not settled on a replacement for the DC-9.

Delta is also negotiating with the state of Minnesota over bond debt backed by the state. Northwest signed agreements promising to repay the debt, at a cost of about $230 million, if its headquarters leaves the state. That hasn't happened yet because it's still a Delta subsidiary.

Northwest has its headquarters in Eagan, Minn. The combined carrier will be based in Atlanta.

Minnesota Rep. Debra Hilstrom, D-Brooklyn Center, said she would call a Nov. 13 hearing about the matter in the House Local Government and Metropolitan Affairs Committee, which she chairs.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Posted 10/31/2008 5:59 AM ET
 Graphic looks at significant events in the histories of Delta and Northwest airlines; 3c x 3 1/8 inches; 146 mm x 79.4 mm
by Yuko Yajima, AP
Graphic looks at significant events in the histories of Delta and Northwest airlines; 3c x 3 1/8 inches; 146 mm x 79.4 mm

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