- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 2, 2006

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The threat of mutually assured destruction kept Northwest Airlines and its pilots at the bargaining table yesterday.

Though Northwest had the power to impose a cost-cutting contract of its choosing, the pilots’ threat of a strike that could wreck the nation’s fourth-largest airline made that unlikely.

Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch said the company intended to keep talking.

“We continue to negotiate, and we are making progress on reaching a consensual agreement with our pilots,” he said.

The company wants $358 million in concessions from pilots, the union said last month. But the union and the company said last week that they had reached a framework for an agreement on who would fly small jets for Northwest, which had been at the heart of the pilots’ strike threat. Pilots also are pressing for protection if Eagan, Minn.-based Northwest is sold or split up, and for a share in the company once it emerges from bankruptcy.

Industry watchers and the pilots union both said it was unlikely Northwest would impose its terms. But Daniel Petree, dean of the business college at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said it wasn’t out of the question.

“I don’t think it’s something they would do lightly,” he said, but added, “I doubt they’ve ruled it out.”

The airline has said a strike could put it out of business for good. Pilots would lose even more than most workers if that happened, because their large pensions are cut the most if the government has to bail out Northwest’s pension plan. And with the industry in layoff mode, getting a job at another carrier would be difficult.

“I’ve had pilots who’ve e-mailed me saying they’re so fed up they’re willing to fall on their swords,” said Vaughn Cordle, chief analyst at AirlineForecasts, who also flies part time for a different airline. “Now think about that for a second — is that a silly thing to say, to take it to the point that they’re willing to shut down the airline out of principle?

“They have a right to be upset, because what management is proposing is quite dramatic,” but changes to the industry have been dramatic, too, he said. Discount carriers have driven prices down and encroached on desirable routes, and fuel prices are up.

Based on 2005 numbers, Mr. Cordle estimated that Northwest pilots are 28 percent more expensive than the industry average. Since then, Northwest pilots have taken a temporary pay cut that would close much of that gap, but not all of it.

“They don’t want to go that deep,” he said of the union. “Hence the strike threat.”

The strike talk had passengers keeping an eye on negotiations.

Ron Protko and his wife, Rhonda, were leaving yesterday from Minneapolis on a 10-day trip to Hawaii that they had planned well in advance. Mr. Protko said they had been tracking the negotiations every day, but it hadn’t affected their travel plans.

“You can’t let it change things. You have no control over it,” Mr. Protko said.

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