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Northwest to lay off up to 1,400 flight attendants

Northwest Airlines plans to lay off as many as 1,400 flight attendants by January. The company says it needs to downsize its operations to cope with record-high fuel costs.

St. Paul, Minn. — Northwest announced it will cut flight attendant jobs, shortly after it announced it will lay off 400 pilots over the next few months. The company is reducing the number of seats it puts in the air by 5 to 6 percent in the final three months of the year.

The layoffs will begin with 900 furloughs on Oct. 31, including 480 in Detroit, Northwest's largest hub, and 355 in Minneapolis. The company will cut another 500 jobs in January, but the flight attendants union says that number is subject to change.

Northwest employed about 8,500 flight attendants on May 31.

It's been a rough few years for the newest flight attendants at Northwest Airlines. Many of them have been on furlough much longer than they've actually flown for the airline. Northwest laid off many flight attendants after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when Americans were afraid to fly.

This summer the airline brought back nearly 700 laid-off flight attendants. Northwest wanted to have enough workers available in case some of the flight attendants struck in sympathy with the mechanics union. Now, after two months on the payroll, many are out of a job again.

These folks have been up and down quite a bit. For Northwest to have done this to them, it's pretty uncaring on Northwest's part.
- Bob Krabbe, PFAA spokesman

Bob Krabbe, a spokesman for the Professional Flight Attendants Association, says its been a difficult period for many who are facing a layoff.

"These folks have been up and down quite a bit. For Northwest to have done this to them, it's pretty uncaring on Northwest's part," says Krabbe.

Northwest recently filed for bankruptcy and has been losing $4 million a day. The company is also coping with fuel costs that skyrocketed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Krabbe says he expected the layoffs, and he doesn't think they will affect his union's ability to negotiate with the company. Talks are underway, and one of the key issues is Northwest's desire to outsource some flight attendants' jobs.

The airline proposes using non-union flight attendants for overseas flights and flights on planes with fewer than 100 seats, Krabbe said.

Northwest is a major carrier in Asia. Currently, it can use locally hired, non-union flight attendants on flights south and west of its Tokyo hub.

Krabbe said that currently amounts to about 500 flight attendants. Northwest's proposal would be a major shift of work away from flights staffed by PFAA flight attendants, Krabbe said.

"We're going to fight that vigorously," Krabbe said. "If the company were to have its way, we would be looking at losing literally thousands of jobs to overseas labor. This is something that we have not seen at any other airline. United (Airlines) in its worst days has never tried to do this."

The layoffs come soon after Northwest filed for bankruptcy, and another union launched a campaign to replace the Professional Flight Attendants Association.

"We are simply responding to the call, and the need of the majority of Northwest flight attendants," says Patricia Friend, who heads the Association of Flight Attendants.

That union represents more than 35,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines. Friend says Northwest flight attendants contacted her union last month, and her organization has been racing to keep up with their interest in switching unions.

Friend says the AFA couldn't have done anything to prevent the coming layoffs. But she says the AFA can help the flight attendants protect their jobs during bankruptcy.

"They are eager to have the representation of a union of our strength and expertise and our resources. This process will go quite quickly," says Friend.

The Professional Flight Attendants Associations has vowed to oppose what it calls an ill-timed raid that could strip union members of their ability to control their own destiny. The raid may actually help the union's current leaders.

Flight attendant Cathy Koski received a letter last week from Patricia Friend and the Association of Flight Attendants, asking her to join them. Koski's never been a dedicated union member in her 21 years of flying at Northwest, but she says now that's changing.

"I have seen Pat Friend on CSPAN testifying before Congress. She's quite visible. But I just think the timing is terrible," says Koski.

Koski says she's outraged by the letter, and feels a new loyalty for her union. Koski is convinced her coworkers will agree.

Labor analyst John Budd from the University of Minnesota says the union's takeover attempt may just cause more division among Northwest's flight attendants.

"The potential for a raid here of PFAA by AFA has probably the greatest likelihood of distracting the PFAA leadership from the important issues they should be attending to," says Budd, "and dividing the rank and file at a time when they should be finding ways to come together and having the most solidarity possible."

Budd says the Association of Flight Attendants may hurt Northwest flight attendants more than they can help them, since it will take a while to organize them -- longer than it may take Northwest to go through bankruptcy proceedings.

AFA's Patricia Friend disagrees.

"Everyone should be perfectly clear. Our biggest concern right now is for the welfare of the Northwest flight attendants, and for the long-term affect in this country on the profession of flight attendants," says Friend.

Whoever represents the flight attendants at Northwest Airlines, there are likely to be fewer of them to represent, since Northwest is likely to keep shrinking in bankruptcy.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)