) -- Pilot leaders at


(CAL) - Get Report



( UAUA) say they are receptive to a merger between the two airlines, but they expect contract improvements to accompany it.

"We have been negotiating a new contract for three years," said Jay Pierce, chairman of the Continental chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association, in an interview. "We look at this as a vehicle to rectify that situation. "

United and Continental said Monday that they

plan to merge

to create the world's largest airline, which will be based in Chicago and see its largest hub in Houston.

Continental has offered its pilots a contract resembling the deal reached by


(DAL) - Get Report

pilots immediately following the 2008 merger with


. "That's a good template, a good place to start," Pierce said, noting that Delta pilots received $700 million in salary increases and $500 million in equity.

However, he said that for half of Continental's pilots, the Delta contract represents a pay cut. Widebody pilots would get a raise to Delta levels, but 737 pilots would take a pay cut.

Wendy Morse, chairman of the United ALPA chapter, also called the Delta contract "a good place to start" during a conference call with reporters on Monday. It is not surprising that her view resembles Pierce's. The two have talked several times a day since merger talks between the carriers began around April 9th.

Asked whether she is happy about the merger, Morse responded: "Time will tell whether we're happy or not. This is a wonderful opportunity

for the airline to move forward and not backwards. But it won't move forward without us."

She stressed that the Delta process, in which negotiating a pilot contract was an important early step, provides a good model to effect a merger. It definitely benefits United pilots, who have been working under a contract negotiated during the carrier's three-year bankruptcy.

Still, Morse -- like Pierce -- does not see the Delta contract as the best possible outcome. In particular, she noted that Continental pilots have stronger protections against outsourcing flying to smaller airlines, which fly smaller airplanes under the mainline carrier's name. While the Continental contract prevents the airline from using regional aircraft with more than 50 seats, while the United limit is 70 seats.

"We understand how hard it is to put that genie back in the bottle, but we're going to try," Pierce said. "We see it as a better solution for all concerned when legacy carriers do their own flying, not just to protect jobs, but also to ensure safety." Airlines argue that broader use of small planes allows them to feed more passengers into their hubs, where mainline pilots fly longhaul flights.

Pierce acknowledged that the Continental culture is widely felt to be superior to United's because it "promotes customer service and pride." Even though Continental is smaller than United, its culture could predominate in a merger, he said. "I believe that when you have a strong, proud culture, that is going to permeate through the entire new entity, if it's done right and if labor is allowed to be part of the solution," said Pierce.

Both leaders noted that they must negotiate new contracts before they negotiate seniority integration between the two pilot groups.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.


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