Northwest Airlines said Tuesday that it expects to hire 250 to 350 pilots within the next 12 months, representing the first pilot hires since 2001.
The carrier has struggled this summer with a pilot shortage that has caused flight cancellations.
"Once we have recalled all the eligible pilots from furlough, we will begin hiring new pilots," Northwest CEO Doug Steenland said Tuesday in a letter to employees.
Meanwhile, Steenland said, the carrier will further shrink its flight capacity in August. Northwest will cut domestic flights by 4 percent in August instead of the previously announced 3 percent.
That move is designed to trim the number of hours its pilots will have to fly.
During a seven-day period in late June, Northwest canceled more than 1,000 flights - or 11.9 percent of its schedule - partly because it lacked pilot crews.
"There just aren't enough pilots to fly the schedule," said Monty Montgomery, a spokesman for the Northwest pilots union.
Montgomery said Tuesday that union leaders are "encouraged" that Northwest is moving ahead with plans to recall furloughed pilots and hire new pilots. However, he said, "We wish it would have happened earlier when we told them that this problem was going to exist."
Northwest acknowledged that it had another spike in flight cancellations over the weekend. The carrier said that it dropped 51 flights from its schedule on Saturday and 58 on Sunday, and explained that 36 of those weekend flights were canceled because of planes out of service for maintenance.
FlightStats, a private company that tracks airline flights for consumers, reported on its website that Northwest canceled 72 flights Saturday and 76 flights Sunday, which amounted to more than 5 percent of Northwest's flight schedule.
The airline had a better record on Tuesday, when FlightStats reported that Northwest canceled 2.9 percent of its flights as of 9 p.m. Tuesday.
Typically, Northwest cancels less than 2 percent of its flights on days with normal weather conditions. Montgomery predicted that Northwest will have a higher than normal cancellation rate in late July, because pilots now on the workforce will reach monthly limits on flying hours near the end of the month.
In June, Northwest management said that a high rate of sick calls from Northwest pilots contributed to cancellations.
On Monday, the Northwest branch of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) said that it "is not aware of any improper use of sick calls." Montgomery attributed the increase in sick calls to pilot fatigue, which he blamed on pilots working longer hours under a new concessionary contract.
Union leaders told pilots that abuse of sick leave "will likely not be tolerated by a management under extreme duress" to operate reliably.
Northwest, like other big airlines, cut pilot and other airline employee jobs after the 2001 terrorist attacks. In addition, Northwest reduced its flight capacity by 10 percent in bankruptcy and the pilots union said that more than 700 pilots remained on furlough a year ago.
Neither Northwest nor the union released precise figures Tuesday on how many pilots are likely to return from long-term furloughs.
More than 200 Northwest pilots deferred previous notices to return to work, Montgomery said. Now those pilots will be asked to enroll in training before returning to the cockpit or to resign from Northwest, he said.
"As of Aug. 1, all furloughed pilots wishing to return to Northwest will have received their official training date," Steenland said. "Our training facility for recalled pilots is operating at capacity."
Northwest employs roughly 5,000 pilots and is one of the six major airlines that reduced operating costs since 9/11.
Kit Darby, who operates an Atlanta-based company that helps pilots get jobs, said most of the big carriers are now hiring pilots again. Continental and Delta are hiring hundreds of pilots this year, and they are drawing on pilots from regional carriers to add to their rosters, Darby said.
United Airlines, which also restructured in bankruptcy, announced in June that it will hire and train as many as 100 pilots by the end of this year. United said it will be the first pilot hiring that it will undertake since 2001.
Montgomery said that a captain at a regional carrier would have to take a pay cut to join Northwest Airlines. New hires will get jobs as first officers, who earn lower pay than captains.
In addition to pilot hiring, Northwest will be shifting some planes from international to domestic routes.
Northwest will substitute its 298-passenger Airbus A330 in place of its smaller Boeing 757s on selected flights through Aug. 27, said Northwest spokesman Roman Blahoski. During August, that change will affect Twin Cities passengers traveling to Seattle.
Liz Fedor - 612-673-7709