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Mesaba pilots pay dispute reflects turmoil in the industry
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Mesaba Air Line Pilots Association President Tom Wychor addresses a union rally Monday evening. (MPR Photo/Bill Catlin)
Mesaba Airlines and its pilots union face a strike deadline Friday at 11:01 p.m. A walkout would ground about 600 daily flights Mesaba operates for Northwest Airlines. Negotiations continue over issues including wages, work rules, and job security. The dispute reflects the upheaval in the airline industry since 2001.

St. Paul, Minn. — Northwest and other major carriers pay regional airlines like Mesaba to fly passengers to mostly smaller cities under the major airline's brand name. Mesaba spokesman Dave Jackson says the industry's decline over the last few years has forced the major airlines to look at every cost, including their regional partners. He says US Airways, Delta and United Airlines have replaced regional partners or brought in new ones.

"Major airlines are the customer, regional airlines provide them with that service, and if the regionals can't meet those customer needs of the majors, they're going elsewhere" Jackson says. "That's the biggest fear at Mesaba, and that's why we need a cost-competitive contract."

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Image Picketing

Citing cost concerns, Northwest is studying whether to end Mesaba's leases on jets that provide 40 percent of the regional airline's revenues.

But pilots union leaders say they are concerned the major airlines want to play the regionals' labor groups off each other and push business to the lowest bidder. Tom Wychor, chairman of the Mesaba unit of the Air Line Pilots Association laid out the concern at a union rally earlier this week.

"Our individual managements collectively believe that if they keep their pilots in individual separate silos, they will keep us divided, and weak. They believe that this system will get us to enter into a race to the bottom, with the loser getting to keep his or her job," said Wychor.

The Air Line Pilots Association national leadership says if a strike occurs, no pilots from Northwest or its other regional partner, Pinnacle Airlines, will fly passengers that would otherwise have gone to Mesaba.

At the regional level they've been treated like red-headed step-children.
- Duane Woerth, president of ALPA, International

Duane Woerth, president of ALPA, International, says the union has instructed pilots at other regional airlines not to take over the work of striking Mesaba pilots either. And he says the industry needs to compensate regional pilots better.

"At the regional level they've been treated like red-headed step-children, and [told] that, 'You should think of this job as a stepping stone, it's not a real career, we expect you to perform like a 747 captain and you're flying in the same environment and taking the same risks. But we assume you're going to move on at some point so you don't have a retirement plan, you don't have decent wages and work rules.' And that's what has to change in that part of the business," Woerth says.

Mesaba does have a retirement plan, which, along with wages and work rules, is a key issue in the contract negotiations. But Ken Polovitz says pilots traditionally accepted low wages at regional airlines to gain experience. Polovitz is assistant dean at the University of North Dakota aerospace program, many of whose students eventually head for airlines.

"You just have to build up your experience to be marketable to a major airline. And so pilots were willing to do that: 'Well, I'll put in my time and grade here, and some day, I'll make it to the big airline with bigger salaries,'" Polovitz says.

But the industry's downturn since 2001 has reversed the roles. Polovitz says big airlines are shrinking and have laid off many former regional pilots who made the jump. Regional airlines are growing, and Polovitz says their senior pilots -- those who stayed -- generally have job security, relatively high pay, and a reasonable schedule. Still Polovitz says Mesaba pilots' pay seems low compared to other regional carriers.

Airline industry consultant Mike Boyd says that doesn't matter.

"It used to be, you compare yourself to other airlines like you and you want the same or one percent more," Boyd says. "That can't be done any more."

Boyd says labor contracts must reflect not what other carriers pay, but what an airline's route system makes affordable. The airline industry has lost billions of dollars since 2001. Northwest alone has lost $1.3 billion since early 2001, and is asking its own labor groups for pay and job cuts.

"What airline unions are going to have to recognize is different airlines can only pay different rates. Some airlines do well; they can pay more," Boyd said. "Other airlines won't be able to pay as much as they used to."

Boyd agrees Mesaba's pilots' pay is lagging. But he also says a strike might be fatal to Mesaba eventually. Northwest might well take its business elsewhere.

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