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Strike or not, Northwest still in the air

The airline keeps flying after its mechanics walk out. A few mechanical glitches cause minor problems.

By wire services
Published August 21, 2005


MINNEAPOLIS - Northwest Airlines jets roared into the sky over the heads of striking mechanics Saturday as the nation's fourth-largest carrier turned over its maintenance to replacement workers on Day 1 of the industry's first major walkout in seven years.

Northwest's union mechanics walked out rather than take pay cuts and layoffs that would reduce their ranks almost by half. They said they don't believe replacement workers will be able to maintain the fleet, the oldest among domestic airlines.

Saturday, Northwest already faced several maintenance questions.

A jet landing in Detroit blew out four tires on the runway; no injuries were reported, and the airline said the cause was likely "an anti-skid braking issue" that had nothing to do with the strike.

A second Northwest jet made an emergency landing at Detroit's Metro Airport a few hours later after flight attendants reported smoke in the cabin.

No injuries were reported in that incident, either, Northwest spokeswoman Jennifer Bagdade said. The airline said the smoke in the cabin appeared to be caused by a problem with an air-conditioning system, and the smoke cleared when the crew turned off the system.

Bagdade said the incidents did not cause delays or cancellations of other flights at Metro Airport. An airport spokesman did not return a call seeking comment.

Northwest said there were few cancellations and flights were mostly running on time, though the company declined to provide specifics. It switched to its fall schedule on Saturday, a few weeks earlier than usual. That lightened its schedule by about 17 percent, the company said.

Northwest vice president of operations Andy Roberts said Saturday that a union slowdown Friday inconvenienced some travelers, and he apologized. He said replacements would clear the backlog of minor maintenance issues through the weekend.

"We certainly don't expect delays to increase," he said. "As we work through these maintenance writeups, the operation should continue to improve."

A union spokesman didn't immediately return a call for comment.

Northwest's pilots said the airline appeared to be running smoothly, said Hal Myers, spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association. The union is running an around-the-clock call-in center to answer pilot concerns about maintenance issues.

He said there were reports from Detroit on Friday that some of the tractors used to push airplanes back from the gate had damage to their ignitions, and that keys were broken off in the locks of some jetways. But "we didn't see anything done to aircraft that would pose a safety threat," he said.

The Friday slowdown was causing problems on Saturday for Susan Lowery and her husband Roy Zagieboylo of Glastonbury, Conn. After 10 days in the Canadian Rockies near Calgary, they emerged Friday to discover the impending strike.

They made it as far as the Minneapolis hub, but got stranded when one flight after another was canceled Friday. Northwest paid for a hotel room, but Saturday morning they were still stranded.

They had few choices. Northwest accounted for 78 percent of the airport's operations last year.

"Here, we're sort of a captive audience. If we were in Chicago, we could get an American flight home, or we could get a United flight home. They've got sort of a monopoly here," Lowery said.

From his corner office at Northwest headquarters in Eagan, Minn., Northwest CEO Doug Steenland watched a steady stream of red-tailed Northwest planes depart Saturday morning from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

"Our operation is running smoothly, our employees are hard at work and we are meeting the needs of our customers as we operate our full flight schedule," he said.

"We made a good faith effort to reach agreement with (the union)," he said. "Since that did not occur, we have implemented our plan."

"It is business as usual at Northwest," Steenland said.

The walkout is the first major airline strike since Northwest pilots grounded the airline for 20 days in 1998. But this time, the mechanics are striking alone. Pilots, flight attendants and other ground workers all said they would keep working, and a federal judge barred mechanics at Northwest regional carrier Mesaba Airlines from conducting a sympathy strike.

That lack of support - and Northwest's ability to operate despite the walkout - demonstrated a new reality in the airline industry, which has lost more than $30-billion and cut more than 130,000 jobs in the past five years, buffeted by stiff competition from low-fare rivals and record fuel prices.

The situation was in sharp contrast to the walkouts that shook the industry in the 1980s and 1990s, which triggered airline bankruptcies and contributed to the demise of major industry names like Pan American World Airways and Eastern Airlines.

"This strike may be of historic importance," said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "Here members of a labor union are on strike to save their jobs, and the rest of the labor movement refuses to help it. So much for solidarity."

After months of talks broke off in Washington just before midnight Friday, union negotiator Jim Young said the mechanics would rather see the airline go into bankruptcy than agree to Northwest's terms. The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association represents 4,427 mechanics, cleaners and custodians, about 11 percent of Northwest's 40,000 employees.

The mechanics average about $70,000 a year in pay, and the cleaners and custodians can make about $40,000. The company wanted to cut their wages by about 25 percent as part of a package to save $176-million a year.

It also wanted to lay off about 2,000 workers from a workforce that is already half the size it was in 2001. The cuts would be concentrated among the cleaners and custodians. Northwest has said that other airlines get that work done more cheaply with contractors.

Mike Tyrna, an aircraft cleaner for Northwest for 16 years, said union members had to strike.

"I know this has devastated a lot of people," he said. "But we can't deal with this. It's impossible in this economy to take a pay cut that extreme. We have families. We have things we have to pay for too."

Northwest, based in Eagan, has said it needs $1.1-billion in labor savings from all its workers. Only pilots have agreed, accepting a 15 percent pay cut worth $300-million when combined with cuts for salaried employees.

Northwest and its regional carriers operate more than 1,500 flights to 750 cities.

Information from the New York Times, Associated Press and Minneapolis Star Tribune was used in this report.

FOR INFORMATION

To check your flight's status, contact Northwest at www.nwa.com or by calling 1-800-225-2525.

[Last modified August 21, 2005, 00:51:14]


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