Northwest reports normal operations on third day of strike by mechanics

Unions say airline may struggle to meet safety requirements

August 23, 2005|By Paul Marks | Paul Marks,THE HARTFORD COURANT

Northwest Airlines said it flew a normal schedule yesterday during its third day of a mechanics strike, but two unions questioned how long the nation's No. 4 carrier can keep that up with less-experienced replacement mechanics.

Leaders of the striking union, as well as a union representing federal flight safety inspectors, stopped short of charging that that Northwest is compromising safety. But they suggested the airline could struggle to meet safety standards if it relied on its replacement work force over a long period - and if it continued to move maintenance work to outside contractors.

The airline and the Federal Aviation Administration insisted yesterday that adequate maintenance and inspections are being done.

The strike began Saturday after the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association rejected Northwest's proposal to cut about 2,000 mechanics' jobs - almost halving a work force that has already been sliced in half since 2001. The airline also proposed to reduce the workers' salaries by about 25 percent.

Northwest had prepared for the strike by hiring and training about 1,500 replacement workers, and it is less reliant on its own work force because it has contracted out an increasing share of its maintenance.

The airline said it expects to cancel about 4 percent of its mainline jet flights this week and said it has been hampered by a pre-strike union work slowdown Friday, the last day of negotiations with the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association.

That cancellation rate is higher than Northwest's historical average of about 1 percent to 2 percent for this time of year. But canceling 4 percent of flights and completing 96 percent isn't bad, said Michael Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, an aviation consulting firm. Problems arise when completion rates fall to the low 90s and stay there, he said.

Possible `mistake'

"They can fly through this strike," Boyd said. "The fact that they're doing 96 [percent], it says to me the strike may have been a mistake for the union."

The mechanics union accused the airline of downplaying widespread problems. It claimed that, by sampling flight numbers on Northwest's Web site, it found that Northwest canceled 54 flights Sunday.

One of Northwest's worst delays involved a Sunday evening flight from Detroit to Hartford, Conn., that was held up overnight because of aircraft maintenance. Scheduled to leave Detroit about 5:30 p.m. Sunday, it did not arrive in Hartford until almost 11 a.m. yesterday.

"That it was normal operations was pure nonsense," the union's assistant national director, Steve MacFarlane, said yesterday.

Meanwhile, the union representing the FAA's airworthiness inspectors questioned whether it has enough inspectors to adequately oversee replacement Northwest mechanics.

Linda Goodrich, a national vice president with the Professional Airways Systems Specialists, said FAA inspectors already are spread too thin to ensure that safety standards are met. She said she worries that the new mechanics are being forced to defer repairs that are not essential for an aircraft to take off safely.

FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory said the agency has inspectors working around the clock at Northwest's 10 largest repair centers, including those at hub airports in Detroit, Minneapolis and Milwaukee. The FAA brought in 10 additional inspectors over the weekend to augment seven already assigned to those centers.

"We're maintaining close oversight on all aspects of the operation, including the training of those replacement workers and [their] performance," she said.

Stiffest test

With 1,473 flights scheduled yesterday - about 260 more than Saturday and about 90 more than Sunday - Northwest faced its stiffest test in relying on about 1,500 replacement mechanics, cleaners and other mechanics to weather the strike that began at midnight Saturday.

The airline says its new mechanics - hired at about 25 percent less than the roughly $36 an hour paid to comparable union workers - are FAA-certified and have been trained over the past several months in Northwest's work techniques. Many were laid off from other airlines, said Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch.

MacFarlane questioned whether replacement workers are up to handling the constant "line" maintenance, routine tasks done rapidly after each arriving flight. "If you don't have people who are `line' experienced, you don't have the ability to get these planes turned around," he said.

Outside contractors

Before the strike, Northwest had contracted maintenance to outside vendors at 29 of its 32 maintenance work centers across the United States, Ebenhoch said. The replacement mechanics are assigned to Detroit, Minneapolis and Milwaukee. He said the new workers have an average of 14 years experience in aircraft maintenance, compared with about 20 years for the striking mechanics.

Northwest says it is performing "a necessary transformation" to save costs by moving to outside contractors as many other airlines have done. Northwest says it spends about $54,000 a year in average wages and benefits for each aircraft cleaner and about $70,000 a year for the average mechanic.

So-called line maintenance, done on every arriving flight, involves inspection and repair of anything from a broken seat back or torn carpet to a defective autopilot system. Under FAA rules, airlines also perform scheduled "heavy maintenance" on airliners, engines and airframes, which can involve a full disassembly and replacement of components.

The airline says on its Web site that a new approach to maintenance "is a necessary component of Northwest's larger ongoing restructuring plan." Maintenance of Airbus 330 and Boeing 747 widebody planes was sent overseas years ago.

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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