MINNEAPOLIS – Business travelers got their first taste of a strike at Northwest Airlines on Monday as the nation’s fourth-largest carrier flew its busiest day since mechanics walked off the job over the weekend.
Operations were largely normal, although industry observers said the airline experienced more delays and cancellations than usual on a typical weekday.
Northwest has refused to release statistics on delays and cancellations since the strike began Saturday. At midday Monday, a check of the airline’s video screens at its Detroit hub showed delays for 23 of 120 departures – about normal. At its Memphis, Tenn., hub later in the day, the screens showed seven of more than 120 flights canceled, none delayed.
Meanwhile, an independent travel expert found widespread delays during the strike’s first two days.
Joe Brancatelli, who publishes a business travel Web site, sampled 99 of Northwest’s 1,381 Sunday flights and found that 53.5 percent of them left on time, according to Northwest’s Web site, he said Monday. Using that method on Saturday, he found that only 46.5 percent of the sampled Northwest flights were on time. The airline has about 1,470 weekday flights.
Company spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch derided Brancatelli’s numbers but refused to say how many flights had been delayed or canceled. Last August, 17.6 percent of Northwest flights were late and 1 percent of them were canceled, according to the federal Transportation Department.
The weekend survey “was unscientific and completely random and included markets that could have been affected by weather or air traffic, which impact the operations of all airlines, not just Northwest,” Ebenhoch said.
Eagan, Minn.-based Northwest also has said that a slowdown by the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association just before the strike began caused a spike in the number of planes out of service or with minor mechanical write-ups.
“We have brought those numbers down substantially during the course of the weekend and continue to make progress in reducing both numbers,” Ebenhoch said. “Our operating performance since (the union) called the strike has been similar to other weekends and Mondays during the month of August.”
But it didn’t seem that way to Phil Carlson.
Carlson, of Lakeville, Minn., was supposed to be on a 9:30 a.m. flight to Denver on Monday for a business trip. But that flight was canceled, so he was trying to figure out what he would do for five hours before his afternoon flight.
“I really thought they’d get them out on time, so I didn’t worry about it beforehand,” he said.
About 4,400 Northwest unionized mechanics, cleaners and custodians walked off the job Saturday morning.
No new talks are scheduled between Northwest and the union, which is refusing to agree to pay cuts and layoffs that would reduce union ranks by nearly half. The mechanics averaged about $70,000 a year in pay, and cleaners and custodians made around $40,000. The company wants to cut their wages by about 25 percent.
Anticipating the strike, Northwest switched to its fall schedule Saturday, a week earlier than planned, lightening its domestic schedule by about 17 percent.
Northwest also spent 18 months preparing for a strike, arranging for about 1,900 replacement workers, vendors and managers.
The union represents nearly 3,500 mechanics, about 790 cleaners and 75 custodians.
Northwest has said it needs $1.1 billion in labor savings. Only pilots have agreed to reductions, accepting a 15 percent pay cut worth $300 million when combined with cuts for salaried employees. The airline 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.
Besides Detroit, Memphis and Minneapolis, Northwest has hubs in Tokyo and Amsterdam, Netherlands.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees airline maintenance and repair, has nearly doubled the number of inspectors watching Northwest from 46 to 80, agency spokesman Greg Martin said.
“In terms of our surveillance and oversight, we’ve not seen anything unusual,” Martin said. “The maintenance work is being done deliberately and carefully to Northwest procedures and FAA standards.”
Martin also said it may take the replacement mechanics longer to do the work during the transition period.
But the union for the FAA inspectors said only 21 maintenance inspectors were assigned to Northwest, including 10 who were pulled away from watching other airlines. The rest are inspectors who cover other things, such as dispatching and cabin safety, said Linda Goodrich, vice president of the Professional Airways Systems Specialists union.
Also Monday, Standard & Poor’s warned that it might downgrade Northwest’s debt because of the strike. Credit analyst Philip Baggaley said Northwest is being hurt more by high oil prices than by strike costs.
He said Northwest has a lot to do before the bankruptcy law changes in October. Those changes will be more restrictive for companies seeking Chapter 11 protection, providing struggling companies an incentive to file for bankruptcy before the changes take effect.
Shares of Northwest Airlines Corp. rose 28 cents, or 5.2 percent, to close at $5.66 on the Nasdaq stock market on the first day of trading since the strike began. Northwest’s shares have traded between $3.77 and $11.83 over the past 52 weeks.