A quick pop quiz: What's the world's biggest airline?
Venerable world-hopper American Airlines? Southwest, the populist discounter and busiest carrier at Tampa International Airport?
Wrong. It's Delta Air Lines, which vaulted to the No. 1 spot though a merger with Northwest Airlines in the fall.
Don't feel bad if you missed it. Northwest still flies as a separate airline. You buy a seat from Northwest, check in with Northwest ticket agents and most likely fly a plane with the airline's name or initials on the side.
That's why local Northwest customers — roughly 1,100 each day — need to pay more attention next week when they fly to places such as Detroit and Minneapolis out of Tampa International.
Starting Tuesday, you'll start to see the most obvious signs the two airlines are really combining into one. Northwest's Tampa ticket counter will be gone, with signs directing passengers to Delta's counter across the terminal. Ditto for Northwest's curbside check-in station.
Don't try riding the tram out to Airside A to catch a Northwest flight. The jets will be parked at Delta's gates in Airside E.
Delta and the airport expect a minimum of problems. They promise lots of signs inside the airport and employees looking out for confused travelers. Signs to airport parking will still direct Northwest passengers to the proper side of the garages.
Delta has made the switchover at more than 130 airports, including Orlando, Miami and Jacksonville. All 400 major airports where the carriers fly will be "rebranded" by year's end.
Merging two global carriers with more than 1,000 aircraft and 6,000 daily departures, not to mention 70,000 employees, is hugely complicated.
Last month, the airline standardized service on domestic flights. Free snacks — Biscoff cookies and peanuts served by Delta — returned to economy class on Northwest. Beer prices for Delta fliers dropped to Northwest's $5. Other alcoholic drinks were set on both airlines at Delta's $7 fee.
Some Northwest first-class fliers were steamed when Delta cut back on hot meals. Northwest used to serve hot food up front for flights 900 miles or longer. Delta decreed the combined airline would dish up hot grub in first class only on flights over 1,500 miles.
Customers will see changes continue for at least another year. In August, airline officials are scheduled to release specifics of a combined frequent-flier program for Delta SkyMiles and Northwest WorldPerks members. It will retain the SkyMiles name.
Delta expects to receive a single certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration by the end of this year to operate the carriers as one airline, with crews and planes able to fly any routes within the two systems.
The last big piece comes early next year: putting Delta and Northwest on a single reservations system. When US Airways and America West tried that in March 2007, the system crashed. The Web site and airport kiosks stopped working. Reservations were lost and flights delayed nationwide.
Not exactly the smooth, seamless image marketers were spinning.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.