Delta Air Lines pilots have been granted permits to picket at Northwest Airlines hub airports amid a dispute over seniority between the two airlines' unions that so far has held up a combination of the carriers, according to a memo Tuesday.
The permits grant Delta's pilots permission to picket at the Minneapolis and Detroit airports, which are considered Northwest crew bases, from Thursday to April 24, a person familiar with the situation said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Northwest's pilots union told its members in the memo that Delta's pilots have been granted such approvals in the past but have not followed through and actually picketed. The union said it reserves the right to do the same thing at Delta hub airports if it chooses.
A spokeswoman for Delta's pilots union did not respond to an e-mail Tuesday evening seeking comment.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Delta and Northwest could be in a position to proceed with their merger announcement as early as next week if Delta management succeeds in talks with its pilots.
With fuel prices at historically high levels and the economy weakening, Delta and Northwest are under financial pressure that has made a merger look compelling. A combination of the nation's No. 3 and No. 5 airlines by traffic would create the world's biggest airline, with a larger network that could boost revenue and reduce some costs.
The airlines also are running out of time to get a transaction vetted by the Bush administration Justice Department, a strategy they prefer to waiting for a new team to arrive in Washington in January.
A person familiar with the situation said there is no particular timeline or deadline for the airlines to decide whether to proceed with a deal, and things could still fall apart.
No meetings are scheduled this week between officials from both companies, though Delta's board met last week, one of the people familiar with the talks said. There was no substantive change as of Tuesday in the issues being discussed, nor was there the likelihood of an announcement in the next few days, a person familiar with the talks said.
The usual approach in airline combinations has been to have pilots work out a joint union contract after a deal is announced. Atlanta-based Delta and Eagan, Minn.-based Northwest for months took a different approach in their talks, figuring that if they could obtain full pilot agreements in advance they would reap the benefit of a combined airline much sooner.
With that in mind, pilots were in line to get raises and equity in the combined company. But the two groups couldn't agree on seniority, which determines who flies more desirable aircraft and routes.
Now, the rising cost of oil has put all airlines under intense financial pressure. Since the talks began, Delta and Northwest have announced plans to reduce capacity this year, and Delta has announced plans to eliminate 2,000 jobs.
The pilot negotiating committees at Delta and Northwest have not had any recent meetings, but there has been informal contact between members of the two unions, one of the people familiar with the discussions said.
Delta has said it would be interested in a combination under the right circumstances, including the ability to protect its employees' seniority. It has said it has a strong standalone plan and is not obligated to find another partner if a deal with Northwest falls through.
Another option that remains on the table is a "light" deal between Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines in which they would combine some corporate functions but keep separate pilot ranks and operations, people familiar with the talks said.