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Updated from Wednesday, Oct. 29

As expected, antitrust regulators at the Justice Department have approved the merger between

Delta Air Lines






Hours after receiving antitrust clearance, the airlines officially closed the merger.

The deal, announced in April, will create the largest airline in the world, surpassing



, the parent of American Airlines. The carrier will be based in Atlanta and retain the Delta name.

Currently, Delta is the second-largest carrier, while Northwest is fifth. "We're pleased the DOJ has decided not to challenge the Delta-Northwest merger," said Delta spokeswoman Betsy Talton.

Northwest, founded as a mail carrier in 1926, will disappear as a separate entity. Delta will acquire its shares in a deal valued at about $2.6 billion.

Observers had widely expected the merger to be approved. "After a thorough, six-month investigation, during which

it obtained extensive information from a wide range of market participants -- including the companies, other airlines, corporate customers and travel agents -- the

Justice Department's antitrust division has determined that the proposed merger between Delta and Northwest is likely to produce substantial and credible efficiencies that will benefit U.S. consumers and is not likely to substantially lessen competition," the division said in a prepared statement.

"The two airlines currently compete with a number of other legacy and low cost airlines in the provision of scheduled air passenger service on the vast majority of nonstop and connecting routes where they compete with each other," the regulators said.

The merger's principal opponents have been the International Association of Machinists, the largest airline union, and the Association of Flight Attendants. Both unions represent workers at Northwest, but not at Delta, and now face union elections that will determine whether workers want to maintain representation.

"The Machinists Union will fight to ensure that workers at the combined airline will be protected by the guarantees that can be found in a union contract," IAM General Vice President Robert Roach said Wednesday in a prepared statement. "The days when Delta could ride roughshod over their employees is coming to an end."

Roach called the deal "another opportunity for executives to stuff their pockets at the expense of working-class Americans" and noted that it was preceded by bankruptcies at both carriers.

Nevertheless, it became clear at a series of four congressional hearings, which took place in the month after the merger plans were announced, that opposition beyond the two unions was limited.

Additionally, the deal had the strong support of the Delta pilots union, which a year earlier had been a principal opponent of a failed plan by

US Airways


to take over Delta.