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NWA mechanics fight back on airport, outsourcing
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Ted Ludwig, president of the Northwest mechanics union's Twin Cities local, holds parts from a brake he says exploded on a plane that was taxiing to the gate at the airport. Ludwig says the brake had been repaired by an outside company. (MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)
Twin Cities mechanics for Northwest Airlines lashed out at the company in response to new layoffs announced this week. Northwest is parking planes and expects little growth this year. As a result, the company expects to cut as many as 900 local mechanics jobs in 2005. Today the local mechanics union and an ally in the Legislature attacked the airline on two sensitive topics: the expansion of the Twin Cities airport, and the safety of airplane repairs.

St. Paul, Minn. — Surrounded by dozens of uniformed mechanics, Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley, stepped to a podium in the state Capitol to chastise the Twin Cities' hometown airline.

Right now, Northwest is waiting for the Metropolitan Airports Commission to approve a plan the airline designed to expand and rearrange the airport over the next 15 years. Chaudhary, a member of the Senate Transportation Committee, says the Legislature should step in and halt the project.

"I'm calling for an immediate moratorium on plans to use state funds to give Northwest Airlines a complete monopoly at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport," Chaudhary said. "Using taxpayer dollars to reward a company for cutting Minnesota jobs will simply not happen on my watch."

Chaudhary also says the airline has failed to maintain the level of jobs it promised in earlier agreements with the state. Northwest disputes that, saying it is in compliance with all such agreements. Northwest says those covenants permit job cuts in response to business conditions -- including the 900 mechanics' positions it announced this week.

Senator Chaudhary used the airport bill announcement to take things in a much more provocative direction: aircraft safety. "We also want to talk about how these cuts will impact Minnesotans at large and the danger that these cuts are putting Minnesota airline passengers in," Chaudhary said.

The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association says Northwest plans to lay off far more mechanics than can be accounted for by the 30 planes it plans to park in May. They believe the airline's objective is to outsource as much repair work as possible to third-party repair facilities in the U.S. and overseas. Estimates put the amount of repairs Northwest now outsources at about 40 percent. The mechanics allege outside technicians are often less skilled, less qualified, and work in less secure facilities than Northwest employees.

Any suggestion that safety has been compromised at Northwest is false. Safety of our aircraft and flight operations has always been the top priority at Northwest, and safety is never compromised.
- Northwest spokesman Thomas Becher

Union officials know they could not pick a more touchy subject than safety with which to challenge their employer. AMFA Local 33 President Ted Ludwig held up for the media a letter he received this week from Northwest's vice president of labor relations, telling him he would be fired if he continued to discuss outsourcing safety. "Northwest has said that I'm making disparaging remarks against the company," Ludwig said. "But I'm not. I'm telling the truth."

Ludwig held up in his other hand a number of pieces of clinking metal. "These are parts off of a brake that was overhauled by a third-party vendor," Ludwig said. "This brake blew up when it was on taxi to the gate. To say that we're making this up is crazy. This is happening. The brake exploded, pieces went into the engine."

Ludwig says no passengers were harmed in that event.

In a statement, Northwest did not address this or any other specific cases. But on safety, Northwest spokesman Thomas Becher says the airline's repairs meet the highest standards no matter where they are performed.

"Any suggestion that safety has been compromised at Northwest is false," Becher said. "Safety of our aircraft and flight operations has always been the top priority at Northwest, and safety is never compromised. The company adheres to this principle both in its domestic and international, internal and external maintenance programs, all of which have been approved by, and are subject to continuing oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration."

Airline consultant Darryl Jenkins, a visiting professor at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, points out that Southwest Airlines has a spotless safety record and has no in-house maintenance.

Northwest mechanics understandably want to keep their jobs, Jenkins says. But on safety, he says, they don't have a case. "The only union that has ever made this a safety issue is the maintenance people at Northwest, and I think it's kind of unfortunate they have chosen to take that tack," Jenkins said. "The standards are the same whether it's done internally or by some secondary provider. So I see very little merit to that argument."

Northwest denies its layoff announcement this week was even tied to outsourcing. The airline says it is also cutting some outsourcing contracts as it scales back its expectations for growth this year.

Senator Chaudhary's proposal to halt the airport expansion gets a Transportation Committee hearing in early April. In committee, Chaudhary plans to amend an earlier bill of his that suggested only that the expansion be suspended pending more information from Northwest. A companion bill to his earlier legislation has been introduced in the House, and could be modified in the same way.