Saturday, July 11, 2020
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Mechanic replacements waiting (and training) in the wings
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Northwest airplanes may be under the care of new hands starting late on August 19th. That's when Northwest's union mechanics could go on strike, and replacements now in training could take over. (MPR File Photo)
In the next few weeks, replacement mechanics for Northwest Airlines will make their way to the Twin Cities and other Northwest hubs. The airline says it will have a replacement workforce ready to go by August 19, when unionized mechanics could go on strike.

St. Paul, Minn. — Northwest Airlines has revealed few details about the replacements or their training regimen. But executives speak in broad and confident terms about the airline's contingency plan to cover for striking mechanics. On a recent conference call, CEO Doug Steenland said the training was "very specific" and the mechanics "high-caliber."

"We're dealing with a very seasoned, very high-quality group," Steenland continued. "They're getting as thorough a training and exposure to our program as anyone who has ever worked with the airline has received."

Among the basic facts that are still unknown is just how many replacements will be ready. In a strike, Northwest would lose about 2,900 licensed union mechanics and 2,100 other union employees such as cleaners and custodians. Northwest is reportedly training at least one thousand replacements; that's also about how many replacement mechanics are known to be staying at hotels in Tucson. Beyond that, though, it's not clear how many Northwest management employees may be putting on coveralls during a strike, or how many mechanics from outside vendors will be coming in-house to work.

The content of the replacements' training is also fuzzy. Steenland said only that it involves "both classroom training and working on airplanes."

Lynda Edwards has reported on the replacement mechanics for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson. While doing a story about the replacements' impact on the local economy, Edwards observed the hotel conference rooms where mechanics were crowded shoulder-to-shoulder for class. The set-up "looks very ad-hoc and very rudimentary," she says. "They have tables set up with laptops on top of them and they're studying schematics of engines and the particulars of Northwest airplanes."

They felt guilty about being strike-breakers...A lot of them said it was a lifeline they grabbed to save their families.
- Lynda Edwards, reporter for the Arizona Daily Star

Edwards says the red tails of Northwest planes have been seen at a nearby airfield normally used for general aviation, where replacements are presumably getting hands-on experience. The training schedule is reportedly rigorous, with multiple shifts throughout the day.

When Edwards spoke with some mechanics at a nearby restaurant, they told her the early technical tests had been very difficult. "The guys did say a lot of their buddies had tried to take the test and failed -- that it was much more demanding than the work they had been required to do on a freight plane or a cargo carrier."

Edwards says the seven mechanics she talked with in-depth had backgrounds with small cargo airlines, working on smaller planes. The Northwest mechanics union, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, has said many replacements are unlikely to have experience with the variety of large jets at Northwest -- many more than 30 years old.

"We have seven different aircraft types from three different manufacturers," says AMFA spokesman Steve MacFarlane. "It's likely these guys have worked on airplanes; it's highly unlikely they have worked on the types of aircraft Northwest flies."

Northwest has painted a somewhat different picture of the replacement mechanics backgrounds. CEO Doug Steenland recently said the "vast majority" of replacements "have extensive experience" working as licensed mechanics for large airlines. The airline says 85 percent of replacements have at least 5 years of experience with aircraft "comparable with" those at Northwest, and about two-thirds have at least 10 years experience.

Steenland said the industry slump in recent years means there are many out-of-work mechanics "who are eager" to take Northwest up on its offer of $32-an-hour, with a $2,000 signing bonus.

The account from Edwards, the Tucson reporter, corroborates that -- except for the part about being "eager."

"The seven men I talked with had all been laid off," she says. "And they felt guilty about being strike-breakers -- they used the word 'scab.' A lot of them said it was a lifeline they grabbed to save their families."

Edwards says the mechanics were closely following and fascinated by the negotiations at Northwest. And she says the replacements expressed strong support and sympathy for union mechanics -- even as they moved closer to possibly taking over those union jobs on August 19th.