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Monday likely to provide major test in mechanics' strike
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Striking Northwest Airlines mechanic Paul Joyce (L) hands out a leaflet to a passenger (R) at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. ( STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)
It was less clear on Sunday whether the Northwest Airlines' flight operations have escaped unscathed as the mechanics strike continues. Flight cancellations and delays were more common a day after the beginning of the strike, both in the Twin Cities and other parts of the country, and some employees charge the airline is not being open with passengers.

St. Paul, Minn. — Northwest will not publicly discuss its on-time performance, or the circumstances of individual flight disruptions. Employees say the airline has also turned off an internal notification system, that usually lets workers view the performance from the day before.

In response to an interview request, a Northwest spokeswoman would only say this: "It is a normal operational day, consistent with other weekends during the summer."

What is "normal" operation may be in the eye of the beholder. Spot-checks of the Northwest Web site throughout Sunday showed the airline was not operating without problems.

THE SCOREBOARD

Of 10 flights on Sunday between Atlanta and the Twin Cities, for example, three were cancelled because of maintenance issues. Of the flights bound here from Detroit, five of the eight that had been scheduled to take off and were delayed more than an hour. Morning flights to Boston from both Minneapolis and Detroit were cancelled for "irregular operations," a catch-all category that includes maintenance issues.

"The information I'm getting is that delays are occuring around the system," according to flight attendants' union spokesman Bob Krabbe, who says his members are reporting maintenance difficulties around the country. Krabbe accuses the airline of running a "cloak and dagger" operation to communicate with the public about its operations this weekend.

"They're saying things are running on-time and normal, and we are getting lots of reports that things are not running on-time, they are, in fact, running delayed.

Like the striking mechanics, the flight attendants' union is locked in a contract dispute and has a difficult relationship with Northwest, though flight attendants did vote not to walk out in sympathy with mechanics.

Pat Hogan, a spokesman for Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, says if there are major delays and large numbers of disgruntled passengers, he's not seeing the signs.

"If the rebooking stations are busy, if people are stranded overnight, and I'm just not seeing that. That doesn't mean that there aren't some delays or cancellations, because there always are. But I can't tell from looking that there's any noticeable difference between what's going on this weekend and what went on last weekend," Hogan said.

A spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration also says she's unaware of major delays. Elizabeth Cory says the agency's main concern is safety -- and on that front, the 80 FAA inspectors who are watching Northwest around the country are not concerned at this point.

"What we're seeing is a veyr safe atmosphere. We're very pleased," she said.

Cory says inspectors are reporting a good sign: the newly-hired replacements are taking over more of the work from the trained management employees who put on coveralls to help out during the strike. She says two incidents in Detroit yesterday -- where one plane blew out four tires while landing and another made an emergency landing because of smoke in the cabin -- do not appear to be related to the strike.

SOME GRUMBLING

Not all passengers are taking the delays in stride.

"From Detroit there are several anticipated delays. A flight that was supposed to arrive at 3:45 has just arrived now and that's 5:45," one passenger said on Saturday.

"They told us they were waiting for some mechanics to check the oil level and they didn't have a person who could come out and check the oil. Kept calling them and didn't get favorable response," said Jack Mahand, who was on the flight from Detroit that arrived about two hours late at 5:45. He says after the oil check issue was resolved on the ground in Detroit, passengers then had to wait for someone to push the plane back. Mahand says he was surprised by the problems.

"We heard that there would be a strike and there would be no delays. So we were hoping there were no delays," he said.

Though Mahand says he was annoyed by the hold-up in Detroit, he'll be flying Northwest again on Tuesday and has no intention of changing his plans.

But another passenger on the delayed flight from Detroit was more incensed by the situation. Vince Fritz is a business traveller.

"Very disgusted with the whole thing," he said. "I think the labor dispute is fine; it's between the employees and the employer. But I don't think bringing the passengers into the middle of it is really appropriate. And it's really tainted my view of Northwest, and the mechanics."

And Fritz claims the problem with delays appeared to be widespread.

"A lot of my colleagues at a conference in Quebec had experienced similar problems coming from all over the country. It's not just an isolated incident," he said.

THE MONDAY TEST

However Northwest fares this weekend, Terry Trippler of FareFacts.com says the real test comes tomorrow, when large numbers of business travelers take to the skies again.

"Monday morning's a very busy day. If there are going to be some bigger blips, they'll probably show up tomorrow," Trippler says.

As was the case this weekend, whether those "blips" are the sign of a deeper problem -- or perfectly normal -- will likely remain open to interpretation.

WHY THE STRIKE?

The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association mechanics averaged about $70,000 a year in pay, and cleaners and custodians can make around $40,000. The company wanted to cut their wages by about 25 percent.

Northwest also wanted to lay off about 2,000 workers, almost halving a work force that is already half the size it was in 2001. The cuts would be concentrated among cleaners and custodians; Northwest has said other airlines use contractors to do that work for less.

Northwest, based in suburban Eagan, has said it needs $1.1 billion in labor savings from all its workers. Only pilots have agreed, accepting a 15 percent pay cut worth $300 million when combined with cuts for salaried employees. It is negotiating with ground workers and flight attendants, and it has said it can reopen talks with pilots once it gets concessions from the other groups.

After talks broke off late Friday, union negotiator Jim Young said the mechanics would rather see the airline go into bankruptcy than agree to Northwest's terms. The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association represents 4,427 mechanics, cleaners and custodians, about 11 percent of Northwest's 40,000 employees.

Northwest and its regional carriers operate more than 1,500 flights to 750 cities. It has hubs in Detroit, Minneapolis, Memphis, Tokyo and Amsterdam. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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