What the Delta, Northwest 'Marriage' Means for You

A look at how their trip down the aisle will shape travel for you and me.

April 15, 2008 — -- "Creating America's premier global airline" -- that's the announcement of the Delta-Northwest nuptials, from Delta's Web site.

No, I didn't get all sentimental at the news of the forthcoming "wedding" between Delta and Northwest, but I do wish them the very best.

That said, let's get down to the essentials. You have a ticket for a Delta or Northwest flight and you wonder, is it still good? Yes! Rest easy on that score.

What else is going to happen? Well, let me play "wedding planner" for a bit, and walk you through this engagement. First of all, like a lot of couples these days, this will be a fairly long engagement. It may be two or three years before these airlines "fly as one."

In fact, during the earliest stages of the relationship, passengers probably won't notice much difference at all. They'll still use their Delta tickets for Delta flights, and Northwest tickets for Northwest flights. I think people are really looking for reassurance on this score, after all the airline shutdowns in recent weeks.

And your frequent flier miles plan? It won't be changing, not anytime soon.

So again, the engagement period will move at a glacial pace. Remember, the last major merger between America West and US Airways? The announcement was made back in 2005, but the name America West kept floating around the accounting system for U.S. airline tickets until oddly enough -- Monday.

Something else to consider: It took almost five months for those airlines to gain approval for their merger and they weren't even close to becoming the world's largest airline that the Delta-Northwest monster will be. US Airways is currently the sixth largest airline in the United States.

Which leads us now to:

Parental Approval

Several government entities must weigh in on the Delta-Northwest deal, including the Departments of Justice and Transportation and the Federal Trade Commission, which must review for anti-trust issue, and that's no slam dunk. They scuttled a proposed merger between United Airlines and US Airways on those issues in 2001.

But Delta and Northwest have been working behind the scenes for many months now -- check out this new Web site they "released" Monday night -- and recently scored with temporary anti-trust approval for a joint venture between their international partners KLM and Air France (not to mention Czech Airlines and Alitalia).

Will Airfares Go Up?

No. Well, not in the short term. There will be little or no effect on pricing because the route systems of Delta and Northwest have hardly any overlap.

Besides, those insane fuel hikes are doing just fine, thank you, at driving ticket prices to record highs and beyond and this won't stop anytime soon -- not when you consider there have been more than 20 attempted airfare hikes since Labor Day.

But in the long run, this merger will mean higher prices. It's a simple matter of less competition = higher airfare.

Plus, look for more cuts in terms of domestic routes and flights; when airlines merge, they tend to cut back capacity sharply, and Delta was already doing this before the merger.

This, more than anything, will likely drive prices up for holiday travel later this year (Thanksgiving and Christmas), as well as for what are called "peak travel" times starting in early 2009.

Normally, I would hope to see some of the lower-cost airlines come in and scoop up some of these "lost seats" that merged airlines will be shedding, but fuel costs are preventing them from following this script. This could leave many travelers in smaller cities absorbing huge price increases.

I have been asked by people living near Delta hubs in Cincinnati and Salt Lake City if they'll feel any particular pinch. Not really. Those are two of the most expensive airports to fly in and out of, and prices really can't go up much higher.

As for international travel, the new Delta-Northwest airline will continue the two airlines' expansion efforts, so normal supply and demand will follow and we will likely see some price drops (and the "Open Skies" pact, which has broken down barriers to trans-Atlantic travel, will help there).

Unfortunately, fuel surcharges will keep you feeling the sting when buying an international airline ticket. You'll see base airfare prices at all-time lows for transoceanic travel but with trans-Atlantic fuel surcharges averaging $215 roundtrip and $280 roundtrip for trans-Pacific flights, coupled with $120 in taxes and fees, you won't think those low-base airfares are a bargain.

Now, back to the actual Delta-Northwest wedding:

Who Will Catch the Bouquet?

Are we going to see more mergers? Probably. Watch for the remaining legacy carriers -- American, Continental, United and US Airways -- to start frantically looking around for a partner or two.

With the ridiculous fuel prices and dismal economy, bigger is better in the minds of many airline executives and investors, and they all want to be survivors. Watch for more mergers, and relatively soon.

So -- Delta and Northwest -- is this a "marriage" made in heaven? Well, it was probably made somewhere around 35,000 feet, and that's close enough for me. But how well it works out is something we can only guess at; the only thing to do now, is say "Congratulations."

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site FareCompare.com offers consumers free, new-generation software combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.