I admit to being of two minds about the ongoing salary dispute between Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) and its pilots. On the one hand, you have a struggling airline whose own CEO says that unless drastic changes are made, the company is headed for bankruptcy. On the other hand, you have hardworking pilots trying to put food on the table for their families and being asked to take a massive 35% salary cut. To add insult to injury, the pilots have already offered what would ordinarily be considered an extraordinary concession -- a 23% salary cut -- and been turned down.

So who's right? It is hard to come down on management's side. These guys are responsible for keeping the airline in business, the employees employed, the shareholders enjoying profits -- and they appear to be failing miserably on every score. Now they say the pilots, the very heart of the company, must take pay cuts to save the company from the damage the executives failed to prevent over years of raking in mid-six-figure (and up) salaries themselves. Since 2001, Delta has lost well more than $5.5 billion.

As for the pilots, I think a lot of newspapers are doing them a disservice by quoting their salaries as ranging from $50,000 to $280,000, making Delta's pilots sound like spoiled millionaires when they complain about proposed salary cuts. I suspect that "$280,000" number is a red herring and that your average Delta pilot doesn't rake in a quarter mil a year. Still, even if the number is closer to $100,000, that would be an awfully large sum for an "average" salary figure in any healthy company -- and Delta, like competitors United and American Airlines (NYSE:AMR), Continental (NYSE:CAL) and Northwest (NASDAQ:NWAC), is far from "healthy."

In all likelihood, the outcome for Delta's pilots will be one of three. They will accept severe wage cuts; they will leave Delta for a competitor; or they will refuse to accept the wage cuts. In each case, the Delta pilots will end up with roughly the same size paycheck. The only variable will be whether they work for a lower salary at the perpetually struggling Delta; leave for a lower-paying job at a healthier company such as JetBlue (NASDAQ:JBLU), AirTran (NYSE:AAI), or Southwest (NYSE:LUV); or help their executives drive Delta into the ground. In which case, post-layoff, they will eventually find new jobs at whatever airline emerges to take the place of the defunct Delta -- whether that is one of the other companies named above or an airline still to be created.

Fool contributor Rich Smith owns no shares in any company mentioned in this article. The Fool has a disclosure policy .