What was once a Fortune 500 airline with a headquarters and 17,000 employees in Minnesota will soon become "Delta North," a center of regional operations for Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines. As the Northwest-Delta merger moves forward, about 11,000 airline jobs remain in the state. It could have been worse.

The Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) used the limited leverage it had to secure the best possible deal with Delta to keep service, operations and jobs in Minnesota. The MAC could have asked the airline to repay $245 million in bond debt that was tied to the airline's retention of a full-scale headquarters in Eagan, but early repayment would not have benefitted the state nearly as much as the promises the agency was able to extract from Delta. The MAC simply collects the money to pay off bondholders, so the funds could not have been used by the agency or the state. As part of the renegotiated deal, which must be approved by MAC commissioners in January, Delta will pay off the bondholders in 2016.

A more important term in the tentative agreement calls for Delta to keep at least 10,000 jobs in Minnesota and locate management of its regional operations here. Some of those jobs will come from Delta's Atlanta headquarters. In addition, Virginia-based Compass Airlines, a Northwest subsidiary that flies regional jets, will move here. Other terms require Delta to maintain flight-training and technology centers in the Twin Cities for at least three years, regardless of business conditions. After three years, those operations could be moved only if the business activity is sold, eliminated or completely outsourced. That prevents Delta from moving those functions to another hub.

An air-service covenant in the original 1992 MAC-Northwest agreement required the airline to operate at least 187 daily flights from the Twin Cities. The new deal calls for at least 400, including at least 250 with planes seating 70 or more.

In an important symbolic move, Delta North employees will work in a Northwest building at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport that MAC will spend $10 million to upgrade, with Delta on the hook to repay the money over several years.

Is the 10,000-job guarantee ironclad? No. Just like the 1992 pact, which required Northwest to have 17,000 employees in Minnesota, the new agreement gives the airline an out during unusual business conditions. Northwest has not had 17,000 employees in the state since cuts following the 2001 terrorist attacks.

MAC officials deserve credit for negotiating the best possible deal with Delta. The sting of losing the headquarters remains, but MAC could no more prevent airline mergers than it could 9/11. Ultimately business conditions and the efforts of Delta's employees and management will determine whether the merger will succeed. If it does, Minnesota is well-positioned to benefit.

Ideally, Northwest-Delta will follow a pattern not unlike the 1998 merger of banking giants Norwest and Wells Fargo, when the Twin Cities also lost a headquarters. Because of strong management and a skilled workforce here, Wells actually added thousands of jobs in Minnesota. That's a major challenge in the boom-and-bust airline industry, but thanks to the MAC and Delta CEO Richard Anderson Minnesota has a good shot at making Delta North more than a stagnant Midwest outpost.