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Rural air service concerns surface

ST. PAUL - Minnesota policymakers say they are united in a fight to keep jobs if Northwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines merge, and they also promise to keep air service around the state a priority.

Most talk centers on saving the 1,000-employee Northwest headquarters in suburban Eagan and preserve the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport as a major hub, but Gov. Tim Pawlenty and legislative leaders on Monday said rural air service also is on their radar screens.

Pawlenty said Delta is "in the driver's seat," prompting worries about the future of service Northwest has provided Minnesota communities.

"We are working hard on getting some assurances of access to rural air service in the state," House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said.

Pawlenty agreed, but said political leaders cannot offer specific reactions to the proposed merger until some information is available.

The GOP governor said "there have been no specific threats or comments from the airlines about greater Minnesota service or the call center."

Northwest maintains a reservations center in Chisholm.

Delta board members are expected to vote on the merger proposal Wednesday; the Northwest board should meet soon, too.

Talks have been conducted in secret, with only a few tidbits leaking out. For instance, Pawlenty confirmed on Monday that Delta plans to move headquarters of the merged company to its Atlanta base. The governor also said he expects a merged airline to retain its Minneapolis-St. Paul hub, but he did not know what changes may be forthcoming.

Any merger probably is months away, even if both airlines' boards approve it this week. Federal regulators need to give it their approval, and members of Congress from areas Northwest serves are expected to demand congressional investigations.

The state also will hold hearings, Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said. Rural air service, which Northwest and affiliates provide to many communities, probably would be part of a Senate hearing Sen. James Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul, promises in coming days.

Pawlenty and the four top legislative leaders appeared in front of reporters in a hastily called news conference Monday afternoon to show "one unified response," Pawlenty said.

Keeping jobs is the prime mission of the policymakers.

"We want to make sure the job count is maximized for Minnesota," Pawlenty said. "Our position on the merger will depend on what they do for Minnesota."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.