At the end of this month, Delta Air Lines expects to hit one of the most significant milestones in its merger with Northwest Airlines, more than a year after the deal closed.
The airline, which employs 3,200 people in Utah and operates its westernmost hub out of Salt Lake City International Airport, will get a single operating certificate. That will allow the two carriers not just to be a single airline on paper, but to operate as one.
The certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration clears the two operations to use a single carrier code and combine operations, wrapping up more than a year of paperwork and reviews. For passengers, it enables Delta to present itself and function fully as a single airline. Among employees, pilots from both airlines will be able to fly together and other workers can begin to join forces.
The certificate means the FAA has decided the merged airline can safely operate under unified safety procedures, training, maintenance operations, flight dispatch systems, computer systems and manuals.
Delta has taken steps that did not require FAA safety approvals, such as blending frequent-flier programs, repainting most of Northwest's planes, outfitting Northwest employees with Delta uniforms and allowing customers to book flights from either Web site.
Passengers using Delta's Salt Lake City hub have gotten an early glimpse of the integration of the two airlines. The Northwest ticket counter inside the airport's Terminal 1 was closed in January and moved to Terminal 2, occupied by Delta.
Northwest passengers have been using Delta's kiosks and ticket counters for most of the year. Passengers landing in Salt Lake City on Northwest flights have picked up checked baggage in Terminal 2.
Delta initiated a nonstop route in June from Salt Lake City to Northwest's hub near Tokyo. It was suspended a few months later for economic reasons but is set to restart in May.
The single operating certificate -- or SOC, as it is known -- will allow Delta to move this winter to a single airline code so that all Northwest tickets will become Delta tickets and all Northwest flights will become Delta flights.
Northwest's Web site, nwa.com, will disappear. Delta and Northwest pilots will be trained on each other's aircraft and will be able to share a single cockpit, and the airline will gain full flexibility to schedule planes and routes from the two carriers interchangeably.
"We're taking a careful, phased approach to integrating the airlines to make the process seamless for customers," said Delta spokeswoman Betsy Talton.
In the cockpit, the certificate will simplify communications with controllers. Northwest crews have continued to use the "Northwest" call sign and the "NWA" identifier in flight plans. An FAA notice directs pilots to use terminology such as "Detroit Ground, Northwest 222 with you, Delta colors." The words "Delta colors" are also filed with flight plans to avoid confusion when planes are designated as Northwest aircraft but painted with Delta's paint scheme.
But even with the single operating certificate, Delta still won't be done with its integration. As is often the case with airline mergers, labor issues linger.
Delta had hoped to resolve the biggest last summer through elections among flight attendants and certain ground workers to determine if they will be unionized. Northwest workers in those groups are unionized, while Delta's are not.
But a federal labor board proposed a change in election rules that could make it much easier for airline workers to unionize, and two key unions withdrew their applications toward union elections at Delta pending the change.
The rule change, if finalized, is not likely to take effect until next year, pushing the elections into 2010 and dashing Delta's hopes of resolving labor issues quickly. Flight attendants and ground workers will still work under different rules and job terms until representation elections are complete.
Still, getting the approval by year's end will mean Delta accomplished the milestone more quickly than the last two big airlines to merge, US Airways and America West. US Airways took two years to get a single operating certificate.
Shares of struggling Japan Airlines Corp., with whom Delta Air Lines is trying to established an alliance for Asian routes, nosedived to a record low on growing fears the money-losing carrier could be put through bankruptcy court as part of restructuring.
The final steps of integration should be seamless for passengers
Pilots from both airlines will be able to fly together
Labor issues linger, including union elections for attendants, ground workers
Northwest Web site to close