Airline Northwest strike threatens flights in U.S.

The first in seven years large strike in U.S. Northwest airline began Saturday, the lightest day for flights. Now, as the working days started, it threatens major disruptions.

Northwest averages 1,215 flights on Saturdays but that increases to 1,381 on Sunday and 1,473 on weekdays, company spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch said Sunday.

The airline will find that maintaining its schedule will be tougher as the work week begins, said Scott Hamilton, an airline consultant for Leeham Co. in Sammamish, Wash.

"Sooner or later if the replacement mechanics can't keep on top of it, it's going to start causing cancellations," he was quoted as saying by Washington Post.

About 4,400 Northwest unionized mechanics, cleaners and custodians walked off the job Saturday morning after refusing to take pay cuts and layoffs that would have reduced their ranks almost by half.

“They seem to have won this round,” Helane Becker, an analyst at New York-based securities firm Benchmark Co., said in an interview yesterday. “I would think that the stock would go higher.”

Northwest shares fell 10 cents to $5.38 in Nasdaq Stock Market composite trading on Aug. 19 as the company approached a midnight deadline in contract talks with the mechanics union. The stock has dropped 51 percent this year, Bloomberg informs.

On Saturday, 72 passengers bound for Pittsburgh from Detroit on Flight 1412 were returned to Detroit after reports of smoke in the cabin. The airline cited a problem with the air conditioner. Also Saturday, Flight 210 from Seattle had four tires blow out upon landing at Detroit. The airline attributed the problem to the braking system. In Guam on Friday, a Northwest 747's front landing gear collapsed, causing the aircraft's nose to hit the runway.

No one was hurt in any of the incidents, USA Today says.

The problems, while serious, may be mere coincidences that made headlines because of the labor dispute, says Erik Rigler, president of G Force, a firm that specializes in aviation accident investigations.

But safety issues, Rigler adds, bear close watching until the dispute is resolved.

Negotiations between the company and union broke down after five months, mainly over the airline's proposal to fire all 600 of its cleaners and custodians and to pare mechanic jobs to 2,350 from 3,600.

Northwest, which has posted $2.5 billion in losses over the past four years, is trying to cut annual labor expense by $1.1 billion, including $176 million from the mechanics, to stem losses and avoid a bankruptcy filing.

Photo by Reuters.

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