MINNEAPOLIS — Under a new deal with pilots, Delta Air Lines Inc. traded pay raises of almost 13 percent for the ability to operate more large regional jets, according to details of the agreement released on Monday.
Pilots and airlines are in a constant tug-of-war over how many smaller jets can be flown. Airlines like to hire feeder carriers to operate jets in the 76-seat range because they're big enough to be profitable even with higher fuel prices. And they're operated on Delta's behalf by feeder airlines, which pay their pilots less. Pilots see those small planes as a threat to their own jobs and generally try to limit how many of them can be flown for their airline.
The new agreement would allow Delta to add as many as 70 additional 76-seat jets. It would allow Delta to contract for flying on a total of 325 jets with 70 and 76 seats, up from 255 now.
To add those jets, the agreement requires Delta to reduce the number of 50-seat jets, which it has already been doing. It would also have to add to its own fleet more so-called narrowbody planes, those with more than 100 seats generally used for domestic flying. One possible source would be the Boeing Co.'s 717s that Southwest Airlines Co. inherited when it bought AirTran. Southwest has said it wants to sell those planes.
"We have every reason to believe that Delta will soon announce the purchase of aircraft contingent on the ratification of this agreement," wrote Tim O'Malley, the chairman of the master executive council for the Air Line Pilots Association at Delta.
Atlanta-based Delta declined to comment on specific fleet plans. But spokeswoman Gina Laughlin said the deal creates career opportunities for Delta pilots "while providing Delta with productivity gains and additional aircraft flexibility, including an opportunity to accelerate Delta's domestic fleet restructuring strategy, which will result in a better customer travel experience."
The new agreement came seven months early. Delta pilots were able to get a deal now because of "Delta's desire to execute its business plan in a timely fashion," O'Malley wrote. "This agreement represents a significant accomplishment achieved in a difficult economic and negotiating environment."
Delta pilots would get 4 percent hourly raises as soon as the deal is ratified, and another 8.5 percent raise on Jan. 1. They would also get 3 percent raises at the beginning of 2014 and 2015. The deal runs through the end of 2015.
O'Malley wrote that the agreement includes several other improvements, including larger retirement plan contributions and improved sick pay.
Delta's 10,850 pilots begin voting on the agreement next month.