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Northwest keeps flying

MINNEAPOLIS — Not every plane was on time, and not every planned flight took off. But Northwest Airlines flew on Saturday, without any help from its striking mechanics.

The nation’s fourth-largest airline replaced the strikers with roughly 1,900 contract workers, vendors and managers. Now Northwest and its striking workers are both watching to see if those replacements know what they’re doing.

“If they are qualified mechanics, the way the PR people say they are, then I’m not too worried,” said Gail Loffler, who was waiting for her husband to arrive on a Northwest flight from Portland.

Northwest’s union mechanics, cleaners and custodians walked off the job Saturday morning rather than take pay cuts and layoffs that would have reduced their ranks almost by half. They said they believe replacement workers won’t be able to maintain Northwest’s fleet, the oldest among domestic airlines.

Saturday afternoon, Northwest was already facing at least one maintenance job: A jet landing in Detroit blew out four tires on the runway; no injuries were reported, and the airline said the cause was likely “an anti-skid braking issue” that had nothing to do with the strike.

Earlier Saturday, Northwest Vice President of Operations Andy Roberts apologized to travelers inconvenienced by what he described as a union slowdown Friday. He said the backlog of minor maintenance issues would be cleared up during the weekend.

“We certainly don’t expect delays to increase,” Roberts said. “As we work through these maintenance writeups, the operation should continue to improve.”

Northwest said there were few cancellations and most flights were on time, though the company declined to provide specifics. It switched to its fall schedule Saturday, a few weeks earlier than usual, lightening the schedule by about 17 percent.

“We never thought there was going to be an instantaneous effect from us walking off the job,” said the union’s national assistant director, Steve MacFarlane.

“As airplanes break through the normal flight day, these airplanes need to get fixed. And if these guys can’t fix them they get set off to the side,” MacFarlane said. “We’re confident that over a period of time it begins to snowball, and they’re going to have a real problem maintaining their schedule.”

Northwest’s pilots said the airline appeared to be running smoothly, said Hal Myers, spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association. The union is running an around-the-clock call-in center to answer pilot concerns about maintenance issues.

Myers said there were reports from Detroit on Friday that some of the tractors used to push airplanes back from the gate had damage to their ignitions, and that keys were broken off in the locks of some jetways. But “we didn’t see anything done to aircraft that would pose a safety threat,” he said.

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.

Mike Tyrna, an aircraft cleaner for Northwest for 16 years, said union members had no choice but strike.

“I know this has devastated a lot of people,” he said. “But we can’t deal with this. It’s impossible in this economy to take a pay cut that extreme. We have families. We have things we have to pay for too.”


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