Sunday, August 31, 2014
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Northwest, union argue over impact of mechanics' strike
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Passengers closely checked the flight information displays at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport Monday, checking for delays or cancellations as a result of the mechanics' union strike against Northwest airlines. (MPR Photo/Art Hughes)
On the third day of the mechanics strike at Northwest Airlines, the war of words continued on two fronts. Analysts disagree over whether Northwest is seeing an uncomfortable level of delays and cancellations. And conflicting voices within the Federal Aviation Administration offered divergent views about the safety of the work being done by Northwest's workforce of replacement mechanics.

St. Paul, Minn. — After a weekend without an official press release, the striking mechanics union seized upon the first outside analysis of Northwest's flight schedule.

New York-based travel writer and publisher Joe Brancatelli, whose Web site caters to business travelers, used a random sample of 99 Northwest flights to track weekend performance.

DUELING NUMBERS

On Sunday, when delays and cancellations appeared around the Northwest system, Brancatelli calculated the airline was on time for 53 percent of its flights. This compares to last year's official August on-time percentage of 81 percent. Brancatelli says it doesn't look good.

"Over two days, Northwest had 19 planes scheduled to fly into Boston. Fifteen were late, three were cancelled, one was on time," Brancatelli says. "Somebody who is flying to Boston, with a 5 percent chance of being on time, is not going to book Northwest. And as every day goes by and the numbers don't improve, more people will book away."

Brancatelli says the delays are forcing pilots and flight attendants to use up the time they're allowed by law to stay on the job, which will create scheduling headaches for the airline and even more delays.

Northwest has criticized Brancatelli's survey, saying it is "unscientific" and therefore unreliable.

Another industry analyst, Jon Ash of the InterVISTAS consulting firm, says the airline will iron out whatever minimal maintenance difficulties are causing delays.

"I'm not sure the consumer sees a very significant or noticable difference for the most part. Obviously there are cancellations, and there are probably more delays than there were a month ago," says Ash. "But all things considered, from everything I hear and can see, the Northwest plan is being executed in a fashion in which they expected it would be."

In the meantime, Ash says Northwest is smart to keep quiet about its on-time performance and avoid drawing attention to any problems it is having. As through the weekend, the airline would not discuss its operations, saying only that the day was "normal."

FAA OVERSIGHT ALSO IN QUESTION

A Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman, Elizabeth Cory, says some delays are for the sake of safety.

"What we are seeing is that the work is being done safely and correctly, but in some cases it is being done a bit more slowly," says Cory. "I think the flying public would rather see the work done safely than the work being rushed."

Cory says inspectors report replacement mechanics at Northwest are getting more comfortable with Northwest planes and procedures. Cory says 80 such inspectors are on duty and assigned to Northwest.

But the union that represents those inspectors -- the Professional Airways Systems Specialists -- is publicly refuting the agency's rosy assessment of the situation at the airline. The union claims only 21 inspectors are watching Northwest maintenance.

Linda Goodrich, the union's regional president for flight standards, describes the situation at Northwest as "minimal oversight." She also says in the past five days, Northwest has accrued almost three times its normal level of "deferred maintenance items."

"That means that when an issue comes up, instead of dealing with it right then, where legally you can hopefully, they will put it off until some other time or have it done at an outsourced location. But it won't be dealt with right then," says Goodrich.

Goodrich also says the number of grounded planes at Northwest has gone from "just a few" before the strike began to 50 currently.

Northwest did not return a call to confirm how many planes are grounded or how many deferred items are on its books.

Despite the differing accounts of the strike, Wall Street has taken it in stride. The first business day with union mechanics off the job saw Northwest's stock price rise more than 5 percent.

PASSENGERS STILL FLYING NWA

Even with the reports of flight delays and cancellations, so far most Northwest passengers appear to be staying loyal.

The one-time charter carrier Sun Country Airlines has a window of opportunity. The company is based in Minneapolis and flies to a number of major U.S. cities. CEO Jay Salmen says sales are up 10 percent on those flights.

"We're seeing very good volume in our core cities. New York, L.A., San Francisco, San Diego, Phoenix, Dallas, Denver," says Salmen.

Those are routes where Sun Country goes head to head with Northwest Airlines. Salmen won't say whether the rise in sales is exclusively because of the strike.

At this point, Sun Country appears to be the only carrier reporting significant increased ticket sales. United Airlines is trying to curry favor with frustrated Northwest passengers.

Spokesperson Robin Urbanski says their business has been up a small amount, but wouldn't give a specific number. She says United will honor Northwest tickets during the strike, at no charge to the passenger.

"It's about helping customers. It's about helping them and saying, 'United is here to help you get where you need to be,'" says Urbanski. "So if customers are happy, maybe they'll consider flying United next time."

Urbanski says United has only had a few takers so far.

Delta Airlines has a partnership with Northwest. Spokeswoman Chris Kelley says Delta is prepared to carry passengers from cancelled Northwest flights, but hasn't had to yet.

If Northwest maintains its flight schedule, with no massive cancellations, then it probably won't lose many customers according to travel expert Tom Parsons. Parsons is CEO of the discount travel Web site Bestfares.com, based in Dallas.

Parsons says he wouldn't fly Northwest right now because of the uncertainty, but that doesn't seem to affect his customers. What does matter to customers is the cost of a ticket. Parsons says, if Northwest matches the ticket prices of its competitors, it'll keep its passengers.

"I think there's a good chance, even if you live in Minnesota and Michigan, you will probably first try to buy cheaper airfare on a competing carrier. But if that competing carrier doesn't have any cheap seats left and Northwest does, I think you'll fly Northwest anyway," says Parsons.

There's another thing to consider. It's one of the slowest travel times of the year as summer tourism gives way to fall back-to-school schedules.

Parsons says it's easy for Northwest to handle the strike now since there aren't as many passengers in the system. It would be different if it were, say, Thanksgiving week. Parsons says the mechanics union picked the worst week of the year to strike.

OTHER UNIONS WATCHING

Although other unions at Northwest are not officially supporting the mechanics, they are keeping a close eye on what happens in the strike.

Peter Fiske, a member at-large of the Professional Flight Attendants Association, says his union may be the next target for Northwest. He says contract talks with the airline are making progress. However, he's been encouraging members to brace themselves for possible job actions of their own.

Northwest is asking the flight attendants union for $143 million in concessions. Fiske says the flight attendants recently received a proposal outlining one way Northwest could achieve those savings.

"That proposal contained a significant number of outsourcing of jobs, and 50 percent of our international flying and a significant number of routes of our domestic flights that have jets that are 100 seats or less," says Fiske. "So we're talking about huge job losses for our members. And certainly what we see happening with AMFA, they're getting ready to do to us."

Fiske says the flight attendants union is encouraging off-duty members to show solidarity by joining striking mechanics on the picket lines.

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