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Northwest planning cutbacks if mechanics strike
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For weeks Northwest has been trying to reassure customers that even if the mechanics walk out, it'll be business as usual. (MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik)
Northwest Airlines and its mechanics union have agreed to return to the bargaining table next week. The two sides are facing a strike deadline. Northwest says a year and a half of contingency planning will allow it to fly its full schedule even if there is a walkout. There are indications the company is preparing for possible flight cancellations, and has considered rerouting passengers on buses in some cases.

Eagan, Minn. — Listening to Monday's Northwest Airlines employee telephone hotline message leaves the impression that the airline's customers aren't worried about a walkout, despite the fast-approaching deadline for a mechanics strike and stalled negotiations.

In fact, at least according to the company, "all signs are that customers continue to choose Northwest for their travel with confidence."

"During the past few weeks, despite all of the media coverage, less than 1 percent of the callers to our reservations centers have expressed concerns about a possible work stoppage," said Crystal Knotek, VP of reservations sales, services and customer care.

The message goes on to tout what Northwest says are strong ticket sales and record-setting reservations through its Web site for the first three days of August.

But travel agents say customers are beginning to express concerns about flying on Northwest.

"There definitely is a greater interest in the story or the situation than there was even a couple of weeks ago," says Maggie Buttweiler, a spokeswoman for Minnesota-based Carlson WagonLit, the nation's largest franchiser of travel agencies. "And part of that is the deadline is approaching, so it's starting to hit on people's radars."

Earlier this month, Carlson Wagonlit surveyed travel agents about whether customers are concerned about a potential mechanics strike.

"Just over half of them said, 'No, we've had very few questions.' Just over a quarter of them responded that they've been getting some questions -- meaning one to five a week. And a little under a quarter of them said they're getting one or more questions per day," Buttweiler says.

For weeks Northwest has been trying to reassure customers that even if the mechanics walk out, it'll be business as usual. The company says it's been planning for a strike for a year and a half, and that it's prepared to use a mix of replacement workers and outsourcing to handle maintenance without its union mechanics.

"We have a high degree of confidence that the contingency plan that we have in place is one that will work. This plan will allow us to operate 100 percent of our scheduled flights," said CEO Doug Steenland, in a recent installment of his "A Word From Doug" message to employees.

While Northwest insists it will continue fully operating in the event of a strike, documents obtained by Minnesota Public Radio News by way of Northwest employees indicate the airline is also planning for possible flight cancellations.

The 17-page report, labeled, "NWA Board of Directors Meeting Contingency Planning Strategy/ Status Overview," is dated June 28 and marked "privileged and confidential." Northwest declined to authenticate the document.

Representatives of the airline declined to grant an interview for this story.

According to the document, Northwest is prepared to cancel flights on a daily basis if necessary, and will do so with a concentration on markets where bus transportation can be used as an alternative to flights.

Northwest is prepared to cancel flights on a daily basis if necessary, and will do so with a concentration on markets where bus transportation can be used as an alternative to flights.

The document also states Northwest moved up by nearly a week the start of its fall schedule, which has fewer flights than the summer schedule. That will free up more planes to cover "potential maintenance inefficiencies during the transition."

The owner of Hobbit Travel in Minneapolis confirmed Northwest has shifted its fall schedule to an earlier start.

According to Northwest's Web site, the airline's new schedule takes effect Aug. 20, the first full day the mechanics could strike.

Although Northwest would not comment on the document, the airline provided Minnesota Public Radio News with a written statement, noting it has occasionally used surface transportation in the past in cases of irregular operations, such as weather interruptions.

In a document filed Tuesday with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company said, "While the company believes (these) preparations will allow it to continue operating a full schedule in the event of a strike, there can be no assurances that this will be the case. Any labor action that results in a significant operational disruption, even for a short period of time, could have a severe detrimental impact on the company's financial condition and results of operations."

Carlson Wagonlit says it appears Northwest is positioned to continue operations in a strike scenario. Carlson Wagonlit says it's not advising customers to book away from the Minnesota-based airline.

But some of its agents are collecting additional contact information from customers so if problems arise, they'll be positioned to help customers as quickly as possible.

The president of Carousel Travel in Minneapolis, Neil Kraemer, is not so optimistic Northwest can run smoothly without its union mechanics. Kraemer says common sense leaves him to conclude that if there's a strike, there will be service interruptions, and travel agents will be struggling to accommodate frustrated passengers in markets dominated by Northwest -- like Minnesota.

"Our job is to take care of our clients and our travelers. I don't think that we're necessarily naive enough to think that this is going to run 100 percent without glitches," said Kraemer. "I personally don't believe that. I think it's hard for us to advise clients of that."

Kraemer says there's hardly an exodus away from Northwest now, but that some customers are asking for alternatives and booking elsewhere because of the strike threat.

There's speculation that if the mechanics walk out, Northwest flight attendants might honor the picket line. To cover that problem, Northwest has been training replacement flight attendants in addition to replacement mechanics.

The document provided by Northwest employess also suggests the airline is anticipating that rather than walking traditional picket lines in support of striking mechanics, the flight attendants could launch a work interruption strategy commonly referred to as CHOAOS in the airline industry.

CHAOS is an acronym for "creates havoc around our system." Unions liken CHAOS to guerilla warfare. Rather than everyone walking out en masse, workers, often in key positions, call in sick or show up late to sabotage the flight schedule, all while remaining on the payroll.

The president of Northwest's Professional Flight Attendant's Association, Guy Meek, won't say whether his union is planning a CHAOS campaign. Meek will say it's among possible actions the flight attendants could take in support of the mechanics.

"Like most unions we don't play our hand until, indeed, there is a strike," says Meek. "Also, under the PFAA constitution, our members are entitled to vote on any strike action on our property or any sympathy strike. PFAA is in the process at this time of sending out a mailing and a strike ballot for our members to vote."

Meek says the flight attendants will have the vote results, and be prepared with whatever response they choose, by Aug. 19 when the mechanics could legally strike. Northwest pilots walked out on strike for more than two weeks in 1998. The airline shut down and other carriers increased service to Minnesota to help accommodate Northwest passengers.

Metropolitan Airports Commission spokesman Patrick Hogan says so far the MAC has received no requests for additional space from other airlines. But Hogan says the MAC is in a position to open up gates if they're needed.

"We do have space to accommodate some additional flights by other airlines if they choose to add them," says Hogan. "It will be a business decision on the part of the airlines in terms of whether or not it makes sense for them to do so. But certainly if they want to do that we'll make every effort to accommodate them, and we believe we can do so."

Sun Country Airlines, also based in Minnesota, says it's in a position to add flights on the routes it currently flies, and that it will consider doing so to meet demand if a strike interferes with Northwest's schedule.