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If bigger isn't better, will Northwest vows be kept?: Duluthians are all-to-familiar with what happens when a bankrupt airline defaults on commitments

After the many broken promises surrounding the former Northwest Airlines maintenance base at Duluth International Airport, it's hard for those in the Northland not to be jaded by assurances from the airline that it will honor its commitments.

After the many broken promises surrounding the former Northwest Airlines maintenance base at Duluth International Airport, it's hard for those in the Northland not to be jaded by assurances from the airline that it will honor its commitments.

This time, in its mega-merger with Delta (or would it be better termed a takeover if the "merged" company is headquartered in Atlanta and called Delta?), the Minnesota operations at stake aren't in Duluth but in the metro area and Chisholm, hometown of House Transportation Chairman Jim Oberstar.

And this time, virtually every politician with "Minnesota" in his or her title is joining with Oberstar to demand the airline, by whatever name, abide by covenants signed with the in 1991 guaranteeing a specific number of jobs. Among those operations are a pilot training center in Eagan, reservation centers in Chisholm and Minneapolis, and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport hub of the airline translating into a home base for some 12,000 workers. Most at risk are1,000 employees at the airline's headquarters in Eagan

"Those agreements are explicit and were obtained by the state in exchange for approximately $440 million in loans and lease concessions," Gov. Tim Pawlenty wrote in a letter to Delta CEO Richard Anderson (who, late as the head of Northwest, is quite familiar with the covenants and the broken one in Duluth) and Northwest President and CEO Doug Steenland. "It is our expectation that the merged entity will honor these commitments," Pawlenty continued.

While remaining vague about the 1,000 corporate jobs in Eagan (how many headquarters does an airline need?), Steenland and Anderson, meeting with Twin Cities newspaper editors and reporters last week, promised to retain Northwest's "major operations" in Minnesota and went as far as to promise "zero job loss" at the airport.

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That's fine if the merger works and the new mega-airline is discovered to be the formula for turning a profit in the sky -- though so far, more streamlined discount carriers such as Southwest have fared much better.

But if bigger doesn't turn out to be better, the promises could become eerily reminiscent of those made to Duluth. As Northwest was defaulting on its deals with Duluth, it was headed into bankruptcy, making enforcement of its commitments virtually impossible.

Oberstar, while acknowledging Congress cannot halt the merger, has vowed to slow down the process with a series of hearings. That won't assure a profitable merged airline, either, but it will perhaps buy time for Minnesota to secure an iron-clad guarantee the airline's commitments will be honored.

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