Delta to begin post-merger aircraft hub shifts in 2Q 2009

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Delta Air Lines plans to begin moving Northwest Airlines aircraft to Delta hubs and Delta aircraft to Northwest hubs in the second quarter of next year.

Delta and Northwest executives have been working the last several months on a network and fleet plan which will be implemented after their planned merger.

"We can move our planes around as soon as the merger is complete," Delta's VP of in-flight service, Joanne Smith, said yesterday at an event in Minneapolis.

The two carriers expect to complete their merger by the end of this year.

The process of combining their two FAA operator certificates is expected not to conclude until late next year but in the interim the carrier can move around aircraft as long as the crews move with them.

For example, if a Northwest aircraft moves to Delta's Atlanta hub Northwest crews must commute or move to Atlanta. If a Delta aircraft moves to Northwest's Detroit hub the Delta crews similarly need to commute or move to Detroit.

Once the operating certificates are combined, Delta pilots will be able to begin flying the Northwest aircraft which are based in Atlanta and Northwest pilots will be able to begin flying the Delta aircraft which are based in Detroit.

Delta and Northwest executives have been touting the benefits of a combined fleet since unveiling plans to merger earlier this year. While having uncommon fleets is typically seen as a disadvantage in mergers, they believe the fact they have different aircraft types present opportunities to right-size routes by putting Northwest aircraft on legacy Delta routes and Delta aircraft on legacy Northwest routes.

For example in Atlanta, which will be the largest hub for the merged carrier, Delta will be able to use smaller and larger aircraft.

Currently the smallest aircraft at Delta's Atlanta hub are 50-seat regional jets and the largest are Boeing 777s. Delta, however, is expected to move some Saab 340 turboprops and Boeing 747-400s to Atlanta.

The 340s are now operated by Northwest subsidiary Mesaba Airlines and the 747-400s by Northwest mainline.

Smith said at the event yesterday that moving aircraft between hubs is one way Delta will achieve the $2 billion in savings that are expected to be generated by the merger.

"We've got do that that," she says. "It's in everybody's best interest."