updated 9/20/2004 6:04:36 PM ET 2004-09-20T22:04:36

Delta Air Lines Inc.'s pilots union agreed Monday to allow the struggling carrier to recall retired pilots on a limited basis to help prevent the grounding of flights due to staff shortages.

The move came after the company agreed not to terminate the pilots' pension plan before February even if the company files for bankruptcy in the meantime.

The tentative agreement must be ratified by the 7,500 active Delta pilots, which could take several days to complete. The third-largest U.S. airline has warned that it would have to file for bankruptcy if it didn't stem a wave of early pilot retirements by the end of September.

The agreement still does not resolve Delta's larger problem: Getting the pilots to agree to $1 billion in concessions. The Atlanta-based airline has also warned of the possibility of a Chapter 11 filing without the concessions.

Delta fears that its pilots could jump ship en masse because they are worried about their pensions amid United Airlines' threat to terminate its employee retirement plans. Several hundred Delta pilots have retired early in recent months, and more have threatened to, chief executive Gerald Grinstein has said.

Delta pilots who retire can elect to receive 50 percent of their pension benefit in a lump sum and the other 50 percent as an annuity later, regulatory filings show.

According to Monday's tentative agreement, which was announced in a memo from the pilots union to its members, the agreement would cover pilots whose retirement date is Oct. 1 or later.

The pilots union said there will be a "random selection process" for those in the post-retirement pool, which can be tapped only when staffing falls below a certain level. Eligible pilots must be captain-qualified and current in certain models of aircraft.

The union said the agreement allows it to determine any time after January that no additional pilots can be employed as post-retirement pilots.

Post-retirement pilots will be able to collect their retirement benefits, the union said.

There was no immediate response from the company. Spokesman John Kennedy said earlier Monday that the company had no comment on the status of negotiations.

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