Northwest Airlines Corp. said it would recall all 1,131 of its furloughed flight attendants, but it was hard to tell whether that was good news for a recovering airline or preparation for a strike that could kill it.
Northwest, which is reorganizing under bankruptcy protection, said the recalled workers will fill permanent vacancies created by factors including "modest operational growth" and attrition. A spokesman wouldn't comment Thursday on whether a possible strike is another reason for the recall.
Flight attendants have been trying to win legal permission for random, unannounced walkouts aimed at pressuring Northwest to offer them a better contract. A judge could rule at any time on Northwest's request to block job actions.
Mollie Reiley, head of the Northwest branch of the Association of Flight Attendants, said the recall is pure good news because it shows Northwest is recovering. She said the recalled workers won't help the airline fight a strike, which the union calls "CHAOS," for Create Havoc Around Our System.
"I don't see it as any kind of hedge against CHAOS," she said on Thursday. "These people have the right to strike just like we do." She said Northwest told the union it plans to begin hiring additional flight attendants next year.
If not for attrition the recalls would bring the number of Northwest flight attendants back to roughly 9,000, Reiley said. Workers getting recall letters will have seven days to respond, and are being asked to report back to work on Sept. 30, the union said.
Northwest imposed $195 million in cuts on flight attendants with a judge's permission on July 31, after union members twice voted down two negotiated settlements.
Flight attendants have said the pay cuts amount to as much as 40 percent when health insurance increases are factored in. Northwest has said payroll data shows flight attendants moving from an average of $52,600 a year before the cuts to $46,800 now, for a 12 percent cut, although it acknowledged that they also have to work more hours for that smaller paycheck.
"Realistically, people are making hard choices now, and I think you're going to continue to see resignations and retirements at a pretty high rate," Reiley said.
Something similar happened when United Airlines neared the end of its trip through bankruptcy. The airline recalled furloughed flight attendants and last November said it planned to hire 2,000 new ones. But before that, it went through a stretch where as many as 300 to 400 flight attendants left in some months, said Sara Nelson, a United flight attendant who is a spokeswoman for the AFA's United workers.
"Calling back furloughed flight attendants is a good sign for the airline, that it has a plan, that it sees some opportunities," said Ahmed Abdelghany, an assistant professor who teaches management and operations at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Still, tensions between flight attendants and the airline remain high. The union has refused to negotiate until the strike issue is resolved, saying it would be put at an unfair disadvantage. And flight attendants have cited Northwest's $101 million profit in July - even after paying for bankruptcy expenses - as evidence that it is asking for too much from flight attendants.
"Most of us don't even care about the survival of NWA anymore. How can a company survive under these toxic conditions," flight attendant Kathryn Swarts wrote in a letter to the judge overseeing its bankruptcy.
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