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Mesaba, pilots settle after marathon bargaining
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Tom Wychor, chairman of the Mesaba unit of the Air Line Pilots Association announces the tentative contract agreement. (MPR Photo/Bill Catlin)
Mesaba Airlines and its pilots union announced a contract settlement early Sunday after a marathon bargaining session approaching 40 hours in length. The deal means Mesaba will resume operating flights for Northwest Airlines to more than 100 cities after canceling all its flights Saturday. Mesaba operates 600 flights a day for Northwest, flying passengers between Northwest hubs and mostly smaller cities.

St. Paul, Minn. — As a week of negotiations began last Monday a walkout seemed likely. But the negotiations continued more than 24 hours past a Friday night strike deadline. Close to 1:00 a.m. Sunday Tom Wychor, chairman of the Mesaba unit of the Air Line Pilots Association told a news conference negotiators were able to make some progress as the strike deadline approached.

“And to roll that deadline was not an easy decision. It was not easy for our strategic planners to implement, but it was much, much easier for us to do that and achieve agreement than it was to go out on strike and try to put the horse back together again,” Wychor said.

Getting past a negotiation of this magnitude is very important for the future of the company.
- Mesaba spokesman, Dave Jackson

Key issues in the dispute included retirement benefits, work rules, job security and pay. Union officials say starting pilots earned $17,000 under the previous contract terms, and nearly half earned less than $35,000. Wychor declined to discuss details of the agreement, but said it brings the pilots wages in line with their peers at other regional airlines.

“There was a very large concern of the first officers and their salary ranges. The company did step forward and they made very good increases on our starting salaries for our first officers. There are significant improvements for those pilots,” said Wychor.

Hanging over the negotiations was the possibility Northwest Airlines would withdraw about 30 jet aircraft it leases to Mesaba that represent 40 percent of the regional airline's revenues. Wychor dismissed that as a concern saying pilot salaries would not have an impact on the Northwest decision.

Mesaba officials have said they needed to win a contract that would allow the company to remain competitive in bidding for Northwest's business. Other major airlines have replaced regional partners or brought in additional ones. Some observers said a too costly contract could eventually cost Mesaba Northwest's business. But Mesaba spokesman Dave Jackson praised the new contract.

“Getting past a negotiation of this magnitude is very important for the future of the company, and we're really pleased that we could reach agreement on this,” Jackson said.

The negotiations forced Mesaba to cancel some 600 flights Friday night through this morning. The company says it is aiming to complete most of its 540 scheduled flights today, but more than 70 remain canceled. Pilots union leaders say they expect a ratification vote by week after next.

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