PHOENIX — Three years after their companies joined forces, pilots from America West Airlines and the former Virginia-based US Airways remain locked in a bitter seniority dispute that's become a cautionary tale as other carriers ponder a new wave of consolidation.

The internal fight at US Airways Group Inc., based in Tempe, Ariz., reached a climax Thursday when pilots ousted their union of 59 years and replaced it with another group. The new union, the US Airline Pilots Association, is dominated by pilots from the former US Airways. It will try to throw out an arbitrated seniority ruling that isn't favorable to them.

"It's going to be extremely difficult for me personally and professionally to watch what happens to this pilot group now," Capt. Jack Stephan, chairman of the ousted Air Line Pilots Association for US Airways, said in a statement after the vote was announced.

"Industry consolidation is inevitable, and the economy is slowing. I believe that these challenges will be too much to ask of an untested, underfunded union."

The struggles of US Airways pilots have become a highly visible example of the problems with consolidation. Although US Airways' profit surged the first year after the companies combined, problems among its pilots have festered.

Pilots have said that disagreements over seniority have led to shouting matches in airport terminals. Supporters of rival pilot unions have sent each other threatening e-mails, engaged in at least one shoving match and called each other to the parking lot to settle their arguments.

Seniority is extremely important for pilots. Their place in the company pecking order decides what planes they can fly, what routes they'll take, and when they can go on vacation.

The US Airline Pilots Association was created last year by a disgruntled group of pilots who were unhappy with their seniority.

The fledgling group asked the federal National Mediation Board to call a rare decertification election this year. The vote, which ended Thursday, gave US Airline Pilots Association collective bargaining rights for all 5,300 pilots in the US Airways system.