Monday, December 05, 2011

United and Continental airlines working out details of merger

United loads passengers in window seats first. Continental boards from the back. And United has a specific way to load dogs onto a plane — always tail-first as they ride up the conveyor belt in carrier cages. On Continental, there's no strict policy.

These are just three of the thousands of differences in the daily practices and policies of United and Continental airlines. But soon they will have to act as one.

The two airlines are close to completing a $3-billion merger that next year will create the nation's largest carrier, with more than 86,000 employees and nearly 1,200 jets. Federal regulators approved a final clearance to the merger this week.

But over the last year and a half, a team of managers and staff from the two carriers has made about 2,000 decisions about how the new hybrid airline will operate. The trick has been trying to preserve the most popular practices of each without alienating devotees of either.

One merger decision — whether to have a fleet-wide audio channel to let passengers hear pilots talk to air traffic controllers — even sparked an online campaign by fans of the channel.

"If the acquiring airline has an open mind, it will examine both carriers' business practices and pick those that offer a combination of better service for the traveler and improved savings or efficiency for the airline," said Henry Harteveldt, co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group, a San Francisco travel marketing and technology research firm.

It's a time-consuming process. When Delta Air Lines merged with Northwest Airlines last year, airline officials said they had so many decisions to make that they started by writing the topics on yellow Post-it notes that covered an entire wall.

"It only made sense that they would do that," said Bob McAdoo, an airline analyst for Avondale Partners in Nashville. "That is the kind of stuff that makes a merger work."

Airline executives from Delta and Northwest opted to keep the Delta name but adopted some of Northwest's most popular menu choices in the first-class section, including adding Twix candy bars and fresh fruit. It also adopted Northwest's policy of offering pretzels in coach.

When United and Continental begin to operate as one, the new airline will fly with United's name but with Continental's globe symbol and a new motto — "Let's Fly Together."

In weighing which system of boarding passengers to use, airline executives chose the United method. Post merger, customers with window seats will be first to get on the plane, followed by those in middle seats and finally passengers in aisle seats.

Industry studies have shown that the United process reduces boarding time, allowing the airline to squeeze in more flights per day.

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