- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 21, 2005

From combined dispatches

Northwest Airlines Corp. flights appeared to stay on course this weekend with limited disruption from a mechanics’ strike as the company operated under a scaled-back U.S. fall schedule.

Northwest travelers and travel agents said yesterday they encountered few flight cancellations or delays.

The carrier, the fourth-largest in the U.S., planned to have 1,215 flights yesterday, or 18 percent fewer than a week ago Saturday, as it switched to a fall schedule two weeks earlier than usual under a prior plan to cope with the strike.

“If this week goes really smoothly at all three hubs, and if some of the other employees don’t honor the picket line, then I think they’ve probably bested the union,” said Jan Durbahn, a travel agent in Stewartville, Minn., near the carrier’s St. Paul base.

But the real test arrives with a far busier weekday schedule.

The strike — the first U.S. airline strike since 2001 — began on Saturday, generally the lightest flying day of the week. Northwest averages 1,215 flights on Saturdays, but that increases to 1,381 on Sundays and 1,473 on weekdays, spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch said.

The airline will find that maintaining its schedule will be tougher as the workweek begins, said Scott Hamilton, an airline consultant for Leeham Co. in Sammamish, Wash.

Saturday’s nationwide walkout by 4,200 members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) failed to draw sympathy strikes from the carrier’s pilot, bag-handler and flight-attendant unions. The union, which also represents aircraft cleaners and custodians, picketed at 35 U.S. airports, union leaders said.

Between 6 a.m. and noon yesterday, Northwest had 85 delayed flights at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport and 68 at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, said Bob Rose, president of Local 5 of the AMFA. The local represents 916 Northwest employees in Detroit. The company had 234 delays at those two airports Saturday, Mr. Rose said. He did not have data on canceled flights.

Mr. Ebenhoch declined to say how many flights the airline canceled. The airline was scheduled to have 1,381 flights yesterday and 1,473 today. Mr. Ebenhoch would not say how many flights the carrier operated on Sunday and Monday of last week. During the summer, Northwest operated an average of 1,600 daily flights, with fewer flights on weekends than on weekdays.

Contract negotiations between the company and the union broke down after five months of negotiating, mainly over the airline’s demand to fire all 600 cleaners and custodians and to pare mechanic jobs to 2,350 from 3,600. The talks were overseen by the National Mediation Board.

The spokeswoman said no further talks have been scheduled between the AMFA and Northwest, which flies about 177,000 passengers daily and has hub airports in Detroit, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Memphis, Tenn.

Northwest has been trying to wrest $176 million of annual labor savings from the mechanics union as part of an effort to cut labor expenses by $1.1 billion, stem losses and avoid a bankruptcy filing.

Travel agent Ms. Durbahn said a client flying back from Seattle yesterday on Northwest reported his flight was on time, and another customer seeking a flight to Manila next month had no qualms about booking on Northwest.

The strike threat did bother some clients, though, she said. She booked more flights on United Airlines and Delta Air Lines in the past month than she ever has in the past and said two families preferred to take Amtrak this weekend to Milwaukee and Chicago.

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