ST. PAUL, Minn. - A week away from what could be the first major airline strike in seven years, Northwest Airlines asserts that it can operate without missing a beat if its unionized mechanics are off the job.
The company has worked for 18 months and spent tens of millions of dollars to recruit and train more than 1,000 replacement workers who would be tapped to keep its planes flying if its flight attendants opt to join the mechanics on the picket line.
Yet Northwest is operating in unfamiliar air space; a major airline hasn't successfully replaced a group of workers in more than 20 years. And its plans assume that other workers, such as pilots and baggage handlers, will cross the mechanics' picket lines.
Its business-as-usual approach aside, the airline has noted internally that its plans are ambitious. A document dated June 28 outlining its plan to keep its flights on schedule notes that "there is inherent risk in the plan due to its scope and complexity."
In a quarterly financial report to the Securities and Exchange Commission. this week, Northwest said a bankruptcy is more likely if a strike interrupts its operations.
Such a disruption, "even for a short period of time, could have a severe detrimental impact on the company's financial condition," it said.
Talks are expected to resume Monday between Northwest and the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, which represents about 4,900 mechanics and cleaners. The mechanics have agreed to take a pay cut, but their proposal falls short of the $176 million in annual cuts that Northwest says it needs from the group to help it cut annual labor costs by $1.1 billion. Northwest also wants to slash its mechanics' jobs by half, which the union calls Draconian.
Yesterday, Northwest executives spoke with confidence as they laid out their plan to weather a strike for local and national media.
"We don't anticipate any disruption in travel plans," said Tim Griffin, the carrier's executive vice president of marketing and distribution.
The airline plans to shift more mechanics' work to third-party vendors and tap about 1,200 replacement workers and 300 managers. Most of the replacements will be working on line maintenance at hubs in Detroit and the Twin Cities, supervised by Northwest managers. Ground workers who are part of the International Association of Machinists have been trained to perform some work done now by mechanics, such as pushing planes back from gates, airline executives said.
The airline followed the same hiring standards for replacements as it has for its permanent workers, executives said. Layoffs have swelled the numbers of mechanics and others looking to land work, they say.
"As a basic principle, we will stick with our basic safety credo," said Andy Roberts, Northwest's executive vice president of operations. "We will never ever compromise safety."
1,600 daily flights
Northwest operates about 1,600 daily flights, but the schedule will be reduced about 10 percent as its fall schedule kicks in Aug. 20, which would be the first full day of a strike.
Northwest said major work on its aircraft - called heavy maintenance - is mostly handled by outside companies, a widespread industry practice. Replacements will work on the daily repairs, troubleshooting problems at the gate and writing up orders for later repair.
But recruiting and training workers is one thing, and deploying and coordinating them is another.
"Replacement workers are never going to be as efficient as the existing work force, at least in the short-term," said John Remington, an industrial relations professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.
Mechanics insist that the replacements won't be able to run a smooth operation, especially at first. And complications could multiply if flight attendants vote to stay off the job. Unions representing pilots and ground workers haven't said publicly whether they will honor the picket lines.
It was the 1981 air traffic controllers' strike that many say emboldened companies to tap replacement workers to defeat strikers. President Ronald Reagan fired about 11,000 controllers who walked off the job, charging that they had violated the law. Nonunion replacements were hired.
That practice spread across industries, sometimes provoking epic labor battles like the strike 20 years ago at Hormel Foods' meat plant in Austin, Minn.
Still, within the airline industry, the method has met with minimal success.
In 1983, Continental replaced its striking pilots; a few years later, striking pilots were called back to work. When Machinists struck Eastern Air Lines in 1989, other unions refused to cross the picket lines. The airline operated with replacements for a year or so, then collapsed into bankruptcy.
`A service industry'
"This is a service industry, and disruptions in service - let alone negative publicity - are hardly desirable for a carrier," said Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at the University of California at Berkeley.
Northwest's plan worries Linda Goodrich, a regional vice president with Professional Airways Systems Specialists, the union that represents Federal Aviation Administration inspectors. While Northwest might meet safety requirements, workers will be less familiar with the nuances of the airline's operations. That means a greater chance of something going wrong, particularly given the fact that FAA inspectors are stretched thin, Goodrich said.
"You can't keep degrading the safety margin without recognizing an increasing risk," she said. "The problem that we have in all this is that they are trying to bandage the system to get by."
FAA inspectors have increased their monitoring of maintenance at Northwest.
"We are going to watch them very carefully," said Elizabeth Isham Cory, an FAA spokeswoman in Chicago. "We are watching the training of these individuals, and we watch as the situation unfolds to make sure the airline is in compliance with the regulations."