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Analysis shows plenty of flight delays as mechanics strike continues at Northwest
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A Northwest Airlines customer service agent awaits travelers at the airline's ticket counter at O'Hare International Airport. (Tim Boyle/Getty Images)
Using a sample of almost 180 flights, an analysis by Minnesota Public Radio has found 58 percent of Northwest Airlines flights did not arrive on time on the first business day of its mechanics strike. This is slightly better than another widely-cited estimate, but quite a bit worse than the airline's performance in August a year ago. Northwest continues to say operations are "normal."

Minneapolis, Minn. — Northwest is operating with 1,500 replacement mechanics, after its mechanics union walked out over job and wage cuts the airline says it must obtain.

As Northwest began operating without the mechanics, a central question has been whether their absence would have any effect on the flight schedule. The airline has consistently said operations are "normal," and recently elaborated to say it may cancel up to four percent of flights.

Minnesota Public Radio looked at 179 domestic Northwest Airlines flights from Monday, and found 42 percent arrived on time. "On time" is defined by the FAA as no more than 14 minutes late. The survey also found more than four percent of flights cancelled. Flights were affected for various reasons, and many had no reason given. None was delayed or cancelled because of weather.

The survey is not scientific -- a scientific study of all 1,473 daily flights would be difficult to compile without data from the airline. We examined every flight between Northwest's hub airports of Detroit, Memphis, and Minneapolis-St. Paul, as well as one big destination on each coast -- Los Angeles and New York La Guardia.

To get additional flights into the mix, we included all the legs of any given flight number. For example, Flight 519 traveled from La Guardia to the Twin Cities, and then from the Twin Cities on to Fargo. Both legs are in the survey.

Our finding of 42 percent on time on Monday is better than the 38 percent on-time rating found by the business travel Web site, which tracked a separate set of 99 flights. It does not compare well to Northwest's on-time performance on the exact same day one year before, when 81 percent of flights arrived on time.

Northwest declined to confirm, deny, or criticize our survey results. The airline instead forwarded a statement saying it regretted any inconveniences passengers were suffering as a result of a slowdown caused by outgoing union mechanics before the strike began. It said the airline completed 97 percent of its schedule on Monday, and operations remain normal.

Mike Krebsbach is president of the North Central Business Travel Association and runs Minneapolis-based Personnel Decisions. His business has 150 employees traveling around the world at the moment, most of them on Northwest. He says he's got no complaints about service from the airline.

"We had some hiccups Monday morning. Other than that, we've heard nothing from anyone. So it seems like everything came off pretty well," Krebsbach said.

Much the same from one of the country's biggest travel agents, Twin Cities-based Carlson Wagonlit Travel. Chief Operating Officer Jack Oneill says he has a hard time believing the airline's on-time performance has been below 50 percent.

"There has not been a big increase in call activity or changes. I think Northwest people are doing a good job operating the airline," he said.

Oneill adds, though, that business travelers have a low tolerance for flights that don't land on time. If the bad news continues, they may book elsewhere if they can -- though Oneill says their options are limited in the Twin Cities.

While many are not feeling the delays, others are feeling them acutely. Laurel, a traveler from Woodbury who requested that we not use her last name, was still in the airport nearly a day after her Monday night flight to London was to depart.

Laurel and her father say her odyssey included getting the airplane to the gate, fixing the battery, fixing the toilet, cleaning the plane, changing planes, an overnight stay in a hotel, and another full day in the airport. Through it all, she says employees never mentioned the strike.

"They said nothing about it," she told MPR. "They didn't mention it at all, they were just like, 'We're having difficulties.' Doesn't make me want to fly Northwest again."

Still, many other travelers on Tuesday reported no problems at all. As the stories rack up on both sides, ticketholders will be listening.