Airline CEO Says Distractions Shouldn't Color Merger

It's been one year since Delta absorbed Northwest in the nation's largest airline merger. Integrating the two companies generally has gone well, not withstanding the incident last week, when pilots on a flight to Minneapolis became so distracted they overflew their destination. They said they were studying the airline's new crew scheduling system on their laptops.

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An incident over Minneapolis last week has prompted the Obama administration to broaden its look at distracted driving. The Transportation Department will also examine distracted flying. Two pilots missed their destination by 150 miles. The Northwest Airlines flight has proven to be a distraction from a significant business development. Delta's takeover of Northwest took place one year ago today. It was the nation's largest airline merger. The combined company has made it through some nearly catastrophic economic times.

NPR's Adam Hochberg spoke with Delta's chief executive about what happens now.

ADAM HOCHBERG: For the most part, the merger between Delta and Northwest has proceeded about as favorably as any $17 billion marriage of competitors could. The combined company has made progress repainting planes, renegotiating labor agreements and blending flight schedules. And while the unusual journey of Flight 188 has brought unwelcome attention on the merger's first anniversary, CEO Richard Anderson says it shouldn't color the larger assessment of the deal.

Mr. RICHARD ANDERSON (CEO, Delta Air Lines): The circumstances of Flight 188 were wrong. They were inappropriate, and we're fully cooperating with the NTSB and the FAA to get to the bottom of that as quickly as we can. You don't operate a jet airplane with a laptop open, period. And that doesn't have anything to do with the merger.

HOCHBERG: Even before the FAA revoked the pilots' licenses this week, Delta suspended them. And Anderson says their behavior is not a reflection of the company's 70,000 employees. Likewise, he says the resulting investigations haven't distracted Delta from finishing the merger. The company still needs to unify the two airlines' reservation systems and tackle a number of other integration issues. But Anderson's happy with how it's gone so far.

Mr. ANDERSON: We've gotten really good feedback. And it's been a relatively quiet transition and, you know, the big one we went through with our key customers was our frequent flyer cutover on October 1st, and it could not have gone more smoothly.

HOCHBERG: Airline industry analysts agree the merger has been relatively trauma free, in an industry where several past deals were plagued by problems that alienated customers. Even some passengers who've been most affected by it expressed few complaints.

Unidentified Woman: This is the last and final boarding call on flight 4001 with service to San Antonio.

HOCHBERG: At the Memphis International Airport, a former Northwest hub, the signs that used to red and white Ns on them have been replaced with Delta triangles. And food salesman David Vaughn(ph), who once took about 90 percent of his flights on Northwest, says the new signs are one the few changes he's noticed.

Mr. DAVID VAUGHN (Food Salesman): It seems like it's gone very smoothly, really. This is the first time I've actually used my new Delta frequent flyer number. So it's been seamless, really.

HOCHBERG: Marsha Sparks(ph) of Charlottesville, Virginia says she's also had no bad experiences related to the merger. But as she boarded a flight to Detroit, she said she's troubled about the distracted Minneapolis pilots.

Ms. MARSHA SPARKS: It's a scary thing. You know, if they're concerned about their new policies in place, well, they've got off-time that they can delve into that, and that's when they should be doing it, not during work.

HOCHBERG: Several industry experts have downplayed the idea that what happened on Flight 188 might suggest a larger safety issue. But David Field, a former editor of Airline Business Magazine, says it does indicate some consternation about work schedules among former Northwest pilots who've been merged into Delta's seniority system.

Mr. DAVID FIELD (Former Editor, Airline Business Magazine): Scheduling is paramount of importance to pilots. The fact that they could become so fixated on it is disturbing. But I'm going to have to assume that most pilots are trying to be professional about the merger, even if they're not particularly happy with their fate.

HOCHBERG: Richard Anderson, the Delta CEO, notes the pilots' unions agreed to the seniority system last year. And though the company still is negotiating with its flight attendants and mechanics, he says labor issues haven't slowed down the merger. He expects the airline's computer systems to be combined in the spring, its planes to be fully repainted by next fall. And he even predicts Delta will soon so something it hasn't done in a decade: make a sustained profit.

Mr. ANDERSON: I think we're beginning to see the positive effects of the merger, and that's really what our focus is, to provide high quality, wide-in-scope network, best customer service, and our employees are really committed to doing that.

HOCHBERG: When the merger was announced last year, it prompted concern in Washington and elsewhere that it would lead to a series of other deals, creating ever bigger airlines and less competition. That hasn't happened, and with the current economy, Anderson doesn't expect it to, meaning his company would maintain its newfound distinction as the world's largest airline.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News.

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