Saturday, February 22, 2020
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Northwest proposal to mechanics: How does it compare?
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This mural at Minneapolis-St. Paul International airport once decorated an aircraft repair hangar that no longer exists. Mechanics say the airline's proposal to shrink their numbers even more is a "non-starter." (MPR file photo)
In the contract battle between Northwest Airlines and its mechanics, each side claims the other is out-of-step with reality. Northwest says it must slim down and restructure to match the rest of the industry. Mechanics say the airline demands cuts that go far beyond those put in place at major competitors like United and US Airways.

St. Paul, Minn. — Mechanics are right that they're facing cuts that are in some ways deeper and more sudden than at other troubled carriers. Northwest is right that its proposal hews to trends proving financially successful in the industry.

On the question of layoffs, mechanics say the job cuts Northwest wants are unprecedented and unthinkable. Northwest has often said it needs to compete with cost cuts made at bankrupt competitors, namely United and US Airways.

But union spokesman Steve MacFarlane says even those carriers never eliminated more than half of all mechanics jobs with one stroke of the pen, as Northwest initially proposed.

"Clearly Northwest is asking for something that no one else has achieved, either in bankruptcy or out of bankruptcy," MacFarlane says.

Mechanics are right that they're facing cuts that are in some ways deeper and more sudden than at other troubled carriers. Northwest is right that its proposal hews to trends proving financially successful in the industry.

That may be true at United, where job losses are still shaking out from a contract that was just ratified last week. A union official there says they don't expect anything on the scale of the cuts proposed at Northwest.

But the layoff experience at US Airways is more comparable to what Northwest is seeking. Mechanics' ranks have fallen 45 percent since the airline declared bankruptcy in September. This is on top of job cuts mechanics suffered in another bankruptcy just two years before.

Still, both United and US Airways will have far more mechanics employed per plane than what Northwest is aiming for. United will have about 12 mechanics for each aircraft it flies. Northwest's proposed cuts would leave it with just under 2,300 in-house mechanics -- that's about five per plane.

This would put Northwest in an entirely different realm, with a ratio nearly almost as low as Southwest Airlines, which relies heavily on outside maintenance shops.

While Northwest has often drawn employees' attention to the ongoing cuts at United, airline industry consultant Bob Mann says Northwest has a different -- and more profitable -- model in mind for its aircraft repair.

"If the goal is to map up against truly low-cost carriers who are able to operate outside of bankruptcy, then America West, Southwest, JetBlue -- that's the market," Mann says. "If you're targeting restructured network carriers still in bankruptcy, then you pick the guys with the letter 'U' in front of their names."

Northwest mechanics point out that while the airline might look like Southwest in the amount of repair work it outsources, the mechanics who remain at Northwest would be much lower paid than Southwest's.

Top paid mechanics at Southwest make about $33 an hour, $10 an hour more than a top Northwest mechanic would make if Northwest gets the concessions it wants. In fact, Northwest mechanics would make less than they would at any major airline, except for US Airways.

Mechanics also fault Northwest's plan for offering no ceiling on the amount of work that could be outsourced to third party maintenance shops. At United and US Airways, mechanics got guarantees that certain labor intensive aircraft checks would remain in house. At both airlines, some maintenance that had been outsourced was actually brought back inside.

David Quinn, a mechanics union official at United in Chicago, says this was crucial to the agreement there.

"We said from the beginning that we cannot invest in United's future if we're not going to be around. So some of the things we included in our agreement that are really outside the bankruptcy process are job protection measures," Quinn says.

United mechanics did suffer another painful loss that Northwest is trying to avoid. Quinn says turning over the mechanics pension plan to the federal government dealt a big hit both to current workers and retirees, who will now get just a fraction of the pensions they expected.

Northwest says it hopes to avoid drastic pension cuts for its employees if it can get some help from Congress.

Still, Quinn -- whose Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association is the same union that represents mechanics at Northwest -- says the cuts Northwest wants surpass what workers were forced to accept at the bankrupt United.

Northwest officials say the airline can't afford anything less.