Southwest to run AirTran separately if pilot vote fails
By Mary Schlangenstein and Mary Jane Credeur Bloomberg News STLtoday.com
Southwest Airlines Co. told pilots that it would keep operating newly acquired AirTran Holdings Inc. as a stand-alone carrier if union members don't agree to combine seniority lists.
Southwest briefed pilots on a "Plan B" for 'separate and unintegrated" operations after that union declined to hold a membership election on a seniority proposal, according to an AirTran union summary obtained by Bloomberg News. Pilots at both airlines are now voting until Nov. 7 on a new agreement.
Keeping AirTran flying on its own would run counter to the goal of folding the discount carrier into Southwest, the biggest low-fare airline. Dallas-based Southwest paid $1 billion in cash and stock in May to buy AirTran, winning access to fly into Atlanta, home of the world's busiest airport.
Winning pilots' approval of one seniority list would give Southwest a timeline to blend workforces and fleets, and set union members' rankings for pay, schedules and the types of aircraft they fly. For AirTran pilots, ratification will mean "certainty of integration," Southwest said in a Sept. 22 letter to union members.
Beth Harbin, an airline spokeswoman, declined to discuss the AirTran union summary or what options that Southwest would consider if pilots don't accept the new seniority agreement.
Jim Morris, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association at AirTran, declined to comment, as did Jacob North, a spokesman for the Southwest Airlines Pilots' Association. AirTran has about 1,700 pilots, while Southwest has more than 6,000.
The seniority agreement now being voted on by pilots was crafted after AirTran's union decided against sending the original version to rank-and-file members. Under the new plan, current Southwest pilots' seniority rights would be protected, and AirTran pilots would get pay raises.
Pilots' failure to agree on an integration plan can scuttle mergers or keep airlines from operating as a single carrier after a tie-up.
Southwest's 2009 bid for Frontier Airlines Holdings Inc. faltered when the carriers' pilots couldn't agree on seniority.
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