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Working out the thousands of details in United-Continental airline merger

LOS ANGELES — Continental Airlines serves Angus cheeseburgers. United Airlines doesn't even have the right ovens to heat them.

United loads passengers in window seats first. Continental boards from the back. And United has a specific way to load dogs onto a plane. 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.

But in the past 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 fleetwide 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 company.

It's a time-consuming process. When Delta Air Lines merged with Northwest last year, airline officials said they had so many decisions to make that they started by writing the topics on 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."

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

In weighing which boarding system to use, airline executives chose the United method, which has been shown to reduce time.

On the other hand, the new airline will adopt a Continental policy that gives employees priority over retired workers when waiting to fly coach on standby.

Some policy changes are made in response to customer feedback.

"We have a lot of data," said Rahsaan Johnson, a spokesman for United Continental Holdings, the Chicago company that owns both carriers. "We know what people say they like."

The new airline will adopt Continental's policy of offering early boarding to active-duty members of the military traveling in uniform and Continental's practice of offering free alcoholic drinks at members-only airport lounges.

It will also sell a snack box that contains some of the most popular food sold on both airlines.

Continental's Angus cheeseburgers, a passenger favorite, will not survive the merger because United's planes are not equipped to heat up the patties.

Working out the thousands of details in United-Continental airline merger 12/11/11 [Last modified: Sunday, December 11, 2011 7:37pm]
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