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Mesaba talks begin with strike deadline looming
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Mesaba Saab 340 turboprops represent the only air service to several smaller Minnesota cities. (Photo courtesy of Mesaba Airlines)
Mesaba Airlines and its pilots union begin an 11th-hour round of contract talks Monday. The Twin Cities-based regional airline and its 840 pilots face a strike deadline Friday night. Mesaba operates 600 daily flights to mostly smaller cities for Northwest Airlines from Northwest's hubs in Minneapolis, Detroit and Memphis.

St. Paul, Minn. — At Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Mesaba operates about 200 daily departures. Most of a small sampling of travelers near Mesaba gates last week said they would not be affected by a strike. Jim Tercha said he could be. He's scheduled to fly from Arizona back to his home near Houghton, Mich. about a week after the strike deadline.

"To get back to Houghton, Mesaba is it. There isn't any other choice. So it's either Mesaba, or hitchhike, or rent a car," Tercha said.

As he headed to Arizona, Tercha said a strike would be an inconvenience, but it's not a big worry.

"At the moment, no. But catch me on the 17th and maybe my attitude will change by then," he said.

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Image Not too worried

Mesaba and Pinnacle Airlines are the two regional partners Northwest Airlines pays to fly passengers from its hubs to smaller cities. Many fly on to other destinations on Northwest. Mesaba is the only carrier serving several smaller Minnesota cities, and the prospect of a Mesaba strike has travel agency owner Al Walseth feeling uneasy.

"I am worried about it. Some things are totally beyond your control," said Walseth, "but I'm definitely concerned about it."

Walseth owns Bergan Travel in Thief River Falls, where Mesaba is the only carrier. He says five to 10 people per day fly Mesaba from the city, which is home to Arctic Cat and Digi-Key, an international supplier of electronic components. He says a strike would hurt the local economy, and his business as well.

"A lot of people in this area are going south for vacations, warmer climate, so actually January is a pretty busy time for us," Walseth said.

Walseth said right now he's just taking a wait-and-see attitude.

There isn't any other choice. So it's either Mesaba, or hitchhike, or rent a car.
- Jim Tercha

The talks begin just days after the pilots union took Mesaba to court, alleging the airline mishandled retirement funds. Mesaba disclosed the problems to the union in September. The airline says it regrets the errors, is refunding accounts and taking steps to prevent future errors.

The lawsuit is the union's second. And the problem with retirement funds appeared to increase the acrimony in contract talks, which have dragged on for two and a half years. Pilots union spokesman Kris Pierson labeled the company's actions "stealing," and said the lawsuit raises the pressure on the company.

"I think that the Mesaba pilots have even more reason to desire [the contract] that they deserve. They have been mistreated in this matter, and we need a contract and want our money back," said Pierson.

The contract issues include job security, retirement benefits and wages. The union says starting pilots make $17,000 a year, and nearly half make less than $33,000.

In November, Mesaba officials complained the union engages in personal attacks and "demonization" of management, and is insisting on "unreasonable compensation proposals."

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Image Mesaba pilots' strike operations center

Mesaba spokesman Dave Jackson says the company views the lawsuit as a separate issue from the contract. Even so, he sounded a note of displeasure, saying the lawsuit is unnecessary and adds a layer of distraction.

"They have known about this for three months. And we have been working with them to try and address their concerns, address the concerns of the pilots and address the concerns of all employees, and they've chosen a lawsuit," said Jackson.

Northwest Airlines declined to comment on how a Mesaba pilots strike would affect Northwest.

Last January, Mesaba accounted for about 80,000 passengers at the Twin Cities airport. Mesaba's passenger count runs about 5 percent of Northwest's total at the airport. But Mesaba also operates 600 daily departures systemwide, a large addition to Northwest's more than 1,500.

Consultant Doug Abbey of AvStat Associates predicts Northwest would not cancel flights over the loss of Mesaba's passengers.

"It wouldn't be sufficient for Northwest to cancel a flight of its own accord. They would be disrupting passengers who weren't connecting, and that's something Northwest doesn't want to do," said Abbey.

Northwest says it will discuss a passenger re-accommodation policy in the event of a strike possibly later this week.

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