Political leaders pounced on Delta Air Lines Wednesday and accused it of breaking a promise to keep jobs in Minnesota after its 2008 takeover of Northwest Airlines.
The criticism followed Delta's announcement that it would move several hundred training and technical jobs from Minnesota to Atlanta to save money, although employees could keep their jobs if they relocated. The decision underscores fears that the Northwest deal would lead Delta to whittle away at its Minnesota presence, but the airline says it remains committed to its Minneapolis-St. Paul hub.
"Delta made a commitment to keep many of these jobs in Minnesota," said U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn. "I am extremely disappointed Delta is now backing away from that promise by moving jobs out of Minnesota."
Gov. Mark Dayton also said he was disappointed by Delta's plans to consolidate some operations. The airline said it will move pilot training, flight attendant training and flight simulator jobs from the former Northwest center in Eagan. Some engineering and technical jobs based at the airport will be transferred, as well.
The former Northwest center was one of the top pilot training facilities in the world, but Delta already has a facility at its home base in Atlanta. Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant said some of the simulator equipment will be moved from Eagan to Atlanta.
He said it is not clear yet whether the Eagan training building will be sold.
Delta responded to criticism of the move by saying that rising fuel prices represent "the new reality for our business," requiring efficient use of assets and investments.
"Delta's merger with Northwest resulted in a stronger company and greater long-term job protection than either carrier could have provided as single airlines," Delta said in a statement. "We've kept our commitment to no frontline involuntary furloughs as a result of the merger and have jobs available for every employee who is willing to relocate as part of the facility consolidation."
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat whose district includes the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, said Delta already trimmed 1,500 Minnesota jobs with the merger.
Ellison questioned why Delta is announcing the latest move at the same time the National Mediation Board, which oversees airline union elections, is investigating whether Delta illegally interfered with representation votes by flight attendants and baggage handlers last year. The former Northwest unions lost their bid to represent the Delta workforce.
Delta responded that Ellison's linking of the union election to the consolidation plan "is an insult to the majority of voters -- including pre-merger Northwest employees -- who rejected union representation."
CEO Richard Anderson said in a memo to employees Tuesday that Delta will continue to have 12,000 employees in Minnesota and remains "firmly committed" to the Minneapolis-St. Paul hub.
The company's decision to move its training and technical workers out of Minnesota means it must pay off $175 million it owes the Metropolitan Airports Commission on a 1992 loan to help then-struggling Northwest. That debt agreement, revised after Delta acquired Northwest, required it to retain its Eagan training centers -- or repay the money.
Pat Hogan, a spokesman for the commission, which owns the airport, said Delta still is obligated by lease agreements to maintain a minimum of 360 departures a day, and the airline more than meets that with 480 now.
Delta has announced plans to cut routes and staff after Labor Day, but Hogan said Minneapolis-St. Paul is expected to remain the airline's No. 2 hub behind Atlanta. In recent discussions with Delta, the airline has indicated that MSP probably won't face the same level of flight reductions in the fall as other airports, Hogan said.
The Eagan training center is part of a 72-acre campus that also contains the two-story former Northwest Airlines headquarters, a property valued at $5.5 million.
Eagan City Administrator Tom Hedges said the Delta center has been an economic benefit to area hotels because pilots from elsewhere in the country stayed in the area for a week or so during simulator training, he added.
Anderson said the job shifts will happen this year and next. Delta also would cease occupying two smaller airport hangars -- not the big ones visible from Interstate 494 -- and offices attached to them, Hogan said.
Star Tribune staff writer Baird Helgeson contributed to this report. David Shaffer • 612-673-7090