Delta Air Lines Inc. and its pilots were on the verge of heading to arbitration over the carrier's efforts to impose long-term pay and benefit cuts as a Wednesday deadline for an agreement neared.

The two sides have until 5 p.m. EST to reach a deal on their own or have a three-member panel of arbitrators step in.

The sole purpose of the arbitrators, who would hold two weeks of hearings in Washington starting March 13, would be to decide whether to grant Atlanta-based Delta's request to throw out its contract with its 6,000 pilots so it can impose $325 million in cuts unilaterally.

The pilots union says it will strike if the contract is rejected. The nation's third-largest carrier has described a strike as "murder-suicide" and said such action would put it out of business.

No consensual deal was expected before Wednesday's deadline, though negotiators for both sides were meeting, according to spokesmen for the company and the union. Another negotiating session was expected Friday, company spokesman Bruce Hicks said.

The company has offered to reduce its long-term concessions request to $315 million, while the union is currently offering about $115 million in average annual concessions. The pilots, in late 2004, agreed to a five-year deal that cut pay and benefits by $1 billion annually. It included an immediate 32.5 percent pay cut.

In December, Delta and its pilots reached an interim deal on pay cuts that would be replaced by the long-term deal the sides are currently discussing.

According to the company, the average pay of pilots last year who worked the full year was more than $157,000.