A plane flies past the control tower at Salt Lake City International Airport.
A plane flies past the control tower at Salt Lake City International Airport. - 
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Doug Krizner: We've known Delta Airlines and Northwest Airlines have been talking about a merger. Well this morning, there are reports a deal could be announced as early as next week. A marriage of Delta and Northwest would create the nation's largest carrier. There's also word about United Airlines and Continental getting serious about a union.

The big question is whether any of these deals will improve service. Last year was the second-worst ever for flight delays. But the problem may not be with the airlines, as Rachel Dornhelm reports.

Rachel Dornhelm: The National Air Traffic Controllers Association says it knows why delays were so bad last year.

Vice president Paul Renaldi says controllers are retiring at record rates. Those left are handling more traffic than ever. So Renaldi says controllers have to space flights farther apart for safety -- especially at large airports.

Paul Renaldi: On a regular clear day, you look at the New York area, they're running delays at about 30 percent. And that is built strictly off the air traffic control staffing crisis.

Diane Spitaliere: The FAA absolutely disagrees with that.

FAA spokesperson Diane Spitaliere:

Spitaliere: We've looked at it and the data does not suggest a correlation between delays and staffing shortages.

Spitaliere says weather, scheduling problems and mechanical issues cause delays. She says there are isolated incidents where too many controllers out sick do slow traffic. But she says the FAA is working to recruit new hires.

I'm Rachel Dornhelm for Marketplace.