ATLANTA (AP) -- Northwest Airlines Corp. pilots have integration issues to sort out. Not just the ones with their counterparts at Delta Air Lines Inc. that threaten to scuttle talks to combine the two carriers. The ones with Republic Airlines. From 1986.

An arbitrator is still sorting out seniority questions from that deal, illustrating just how much the point matters. Employees at the top of the list get first choice on vacations, the best routes and the bigger planes that they get paid more for flying.

The boards of Delta and Northwest had been expected to vote Wednesday on a combination projected to be worth $20 billion if a pilot deal was in place. Because of the impasse, the meetings could simply be briefings or might be canceled altogether.

Northwest is Michigan's biggest passenger air carrier.

Delta and Northwest don't need a labor agreement between the pilots unions before announcing a combination, but having one in place could help speed up the integration of the companies down the line.

"I think they obviously recognize that with an unhappy pilots group, that could make the merger and integration process painful and expensive," said Dan Kasper, an airline consultant with LECG in Cambridge, Mass.

Pilots at US Airways and America West waited until after the 2005 announcement that the airlines would combine to try to hammer out a seniority and joint contract accord. Nearly three years later, no joint pilot contract has been reached.

People close to the Delta-Northwest talks said the pilots unions have agreed on a comprehensive joint contract, but cannot agree to how seniority for the 12,000 pilots would work under a combined carrier. The people asked not to be named because of the sensitive stage of the talks.

John D. Kasarda, a management professor at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School, said it would be prudent for airline executives to wait for the pilots to settle their differences.

"One more week to resolve a pivotal issue would generate far greater returns to both airlines," said Kasarda, who has studied airline labor issues. "I think Delta and Northwest are very astute for getting that issue resolved."

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