- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 14, 2005

Labor and management negotiators at Northwest Airlines plan to resume talks today in a last-ditch attempt to avert a strike by 4,430 airplane mechanics and cleaners that will begin Saturday if the two sides remain at an impasse.

Company officials at the nation’s fourth-largest airline want $176 million a year in concessions from the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association as part of an overall effort to trim labor costs by nearly $1.1 billion a year.

High fuel costs and a brutally competitive airline industry have reduced revenue at Northwest and forced the carrier to ask workers for concessions to stay afloat, said Richard Aboulafia, aviation analyst at Teal Group Corp. of Fairfax.

Northwest, based in Eagan, Minn., has lost almost $700 million this year.

“This is a dismal revenue environment for airlines,” Mr. Aboulafia said. “Northwest absolutely has to make these cuts to avoid bankruptcy.”

But the union fears the company simply wants to break its union.

“We want to continue working at Northwest, but they have decided we’re too expensive, we’re a nuisance and they want to get rid of us,” said Steve MacFarlane, assistant national director of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association.

Northwest hopes to outsource about 2,000 jobs held by members of the union, including all of the 789 aircraft cleaner jobs, and have contractors clean its planes. The remaining 2,430 workers would have to take pay cuts of 26 percent.

The union is skeptical that those jobs will be safe, despite the company’s pledge to protect 75 percent of the 2,430 remaining positions.

“Northwest has zero credibility,” Mr. MacFarlane said.

The airline is looking to other unions for help cutting costs.

Northwest pilots took a 15 percent pay cut in December, approving contract changes that will save the airline $265 million a year. Northwest wants another $307 million in pilot concessions, and the union is looking at its contract for ways to cut more costs.

Northwest wants $143 million in annual cuts from the Professional Flight Attendants Association and $110 million in annual cuts from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents some mechanics at the airline.

Management employees took a 15 percent pay cut to save another $30 million annually.

Mechanics earn an average of $94,000 a year in wages and benefits, according to the company, and airplane cleaners earn an average of $54,080 a year in wages and benefits.

A strike by mechanics and cleaners isn’t expected to ground Northwest, but consumers may notice problems, said David Stempler, president of the passenger advocacy group Air Travelers Association in Potomac.

“The airline isn’t going to run as smoothly. The only question is about the level of disruption,” Mr. Stempler said.

Northwest’s other unions could stage sympathy strikes in support of the mechanics. The only one considering that step is the union of flight attendants, which is holding a strike authorization vote that concludes at 11:59 p.m. Friday.

Consumers also could notice problems if the legions of replacement workers hired by Northwest fail to serve as adequate backups, Mr. Stempler said.

Northwest officials said last week they have recruited and trained 1,200 replacement workers and 300 managers to step in. Northwest has another 400 mechanics available at third-party vendors.

Andy Roberts, Northwest executive vice president of operations, said safety is not a concern.

“Any individual who touches a Northwest aircraft will be fully trained in the Northwest maintenance program,” Mr. Roberts said. “Some were furloughed from other airlines. Some are from vendors that already work on Northwest equipment. We recruited from a rather large pool the best we could get. They’re certainly not off the street.”

The last major airline strike occurred in 1998, when Northwest pilots went on strike for 15 days.

Northwest mechanics are able to strike this week because a government-mandated, 30-day cooling-off period ends at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. At the end of the cooling-off period, Northwest can present its final offer to the union. If the union rejects the offer, Northwest can lock out union members and use replacement workers.

Northwest operates about 1,600 flights each day. The airline has 58 flights a day at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, 18 flights a day at Washington Dulles International Airport and 14 flights a day at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

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