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Northwest Faces Mechanics Strike


Northwest Airlines faces a strike as soon as this weekend. Negotiators for Northwest and its mechanics union are meeting with federal mediators in Washington, DC, this week. They face a strike deadline of 12:01 AM Eastern time Saturday. From Minnesota Public Radio, Jeff Horwich looks at what's at stake and what travelers might expect.

JEFF HORWICH reporting:

At issue is a new mechanics contract proposed by Northwest this spring, which the airline calls essential and the union calls impossible. Northwest has lost $3.6 billion since 2001. The company blames the recent record-high jet fuel costs and ticket prices held down by low-cost competitors. Even with its planes nearly full, the airline loses $4 million a day. Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch says these losses are unsustainable.

Mr. KURT EBENHOCH (Spokesman, Northwest Airlines): There's a number of things changing in the industry, and these changes are bigger than this particular labor negotiation, they're bigger than Northwest, they're bigger than any one union. They're happening to the entire industry. And Northwest needs to change with them to be competitive.

HORWICH: Northwest's proposal would radically overhaul the way it maintains airplanes. In addition to a 26-percent salary cut, Northwest wants to lay off about half the current union work force. After the cuts, Northwest would look much like its low-cost competitor Southwest Airlines in terms of the amount of aircraft maintenance it outsources to other companies. Steve MacFarlane, assistant national director of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, says the Northwest proposal is so draconian his members could not possibly approve it.

Mr. STEVE MacFARLANE (Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association): I don't think anybody really has any real argument with the fact that all businesses have to evolve. But they don't have to evolve overnight. And that's really what Northwest is attempting to do. They want to shed literally thousands of long-term, loyal, dedicated mechanics and cleaners who have given their life's work to Northwest.

HORWICH: Airline labor disputes come and go and many reach this stage, but industrial relations Professor John Budd at the University of Minnesota says the dispute at Northwest mixes a perfect storm of airline financial woes with a union that has nothing to lose.

Professor JOHN BUDD (University of Minnesota): In most of those situations, the actual likelihood of a strike is probably pretty small. I think this is significantly different and the likelihood of as strike actually is probably pretty significant.

HORWICH: Northwest has spent about $70 million training replacements for striking mechanics and flight attendants who might walk out in sympathy. The airline pledges to keep flights safe and maintain a full schedule. Some travelers aren't so sure. Tammy Brown was getting her in-laws to the Twin Cities' airport this week, one week before their original ticket to return home.

Ms. TAMMY BROWN (Traveler): We certainly had heard about it and thought it probably would be a prudent choice to fly a little earlier. Better safe than sorry, I guess.

HORWICH: Union mechanics predict their absence will cut Northwest's flight schedule to about half within a week of the strike, but the investment community and the White House are banking on stability. President Bush has indicated he does not expect travel to be disrupted enough for him to intervene. Travelers, particularly across the Midwest, are hoping he's right. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Horwich in St. Paul.

STAMBERG: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg.

STEVE INSKEEP (Host): And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Horwich