It’s common knowledge that religion, politics, and sex should be avoided as topics of conversation on the flight deck. That doesn’t mean those topics are avoided—far from it. But it’s up to the individuals involved to know how far to take a discussion before changing the subject.

But what about airline politics? There have been a lot of mergers in the last 20 years. Just at American, there are the Reno/American, TWA/American, USAir/America West, and USAir/American mergers to discuss. Delta and Northwest have legacy mergers involving Ozark, Republic, and Western. United has the United/Continental merger, and within that are Continental with Eastern, People Express, and the original Frontier, while United has some Pan Am history.

Southwest and AirTran have the sub-AirTran/ValuJet merger. Alaska and Virgin recently announced one, and there have been rumors for a while about Spirit and the new Frontier. JetBlue also has been mentioned as a target. The regionals have their own examples, as Skywest/ASA/ExpressJet shows. Envoy, which used to be American Eagle, is a who’s-who of former localized regional carriers.

Why does any of this matter? To the people involved, mergers often linger as a sore spot (or a not-so-sore spot) for decades. Mergers affect every employee group, with the pilots and flight attendants often in the nastiest fights because of the impact of the integrated seniority lists and new contracts. Some people just can’t let go of their anger.

If you want to navigate these conversations tactfully, you should do some research into what happened. For the record, research does not consist of scrolling through posts on sites such as Airline Pilot Central.

Seek out the various hearing filings and documents, as well as arbitration rulings that deal with the particular merger. Talk to the elected union representatives who were actually at the table in the discussions. Don’t just rely on the stories as told by the pilots you will fly with, but don’t totally discount them either. Arbitration rulings will be among the most informative, because they always include a summation of the basic facts, the arguments of either party, and the points of dispute, along with how the decision is reached. That said, there will always be people who simply will not accept the rulings of an arbitration panel, no matter what.

Mergers leave behind a lot of bad blood. Most employees can eventually let it go, but some can’t, and they view any questions as an attack on them or on their side. If the topic simply can’t be avoided, just let the person talk, or ask fairly specific questions, but start off by prefacing them with, “As you see it, how/why…” Use your questions as a way to gather information, not to point fingers. But at the end of the day, you may need to simply state that you are keeping an open mind because you didn’t have a dog in the fight and are just happy to be there.

I’ve never gone through an actual merger, but I was hired at United just before the seniority list was merged with Continental’s. It was a tense time, and I heard more about it than I wanted to, but in time, the immediate anger and concerns passed. But I studied the written arguments on both sides, as well as the arbitration rulings, and I made a point to see it from the perspective of both legacy carriers. And I’m also glad I didn’t have to participate in it. Now, when the topic comes up, I change the subject as quickly and gracefully as I can.—Chip Wright