Financially strapped Northwest Airlines will outsource about 20 jobs at Richmond International Airport this fall, making it the first airline here to make this cost-cutting move.
"Richmond is tentatively scheduled for a transition on Nov. 28," said Joe Tiberi, a spokesman for the Machinists union, which represents customer-service and reservation agents and ramp workers at Northwest.
Northwest has been in bankruptcy protection since September and is trying to cut annual labor costs by $1.4 billion.
Richmond joins Norfolk; Raleigh, N.C.; Cincinnati; Miami; and Cleveland among 69 cities slated for outsourcing between late September and mid-January, according to a list posted on the union's Web site.
Some of the airline's local employees began finding other jobs this spring, a former Northwest official said.
"I could have stuck it out, but I had the feeling I'd be relocated," said Hank Rempe, Northwest's longtime station manager in Richmond. The 26-year vet- eran left in May to become manager of the Hanover County Municipal Airport.
By then, Rempe said, a handful of Northwest employees here had left their jobs, including several who found work at JetBlue Airways, which started service in Richmond this spring.
"They took pay cuts, but we were taking pay cuts anyway," Rempe said.
Employees at the cities targeted for outsourcing will have to choose between a furlough - with the possibility of finding work elsewhere with the carrier based on seniority - and taking a buyout and leaving Northwest, Tiberi said.
Asked about plans for Richmond, Northwest spokesman Dean Breest released a statement that said the airline has reached an agreement with the Machinists to reduce staffing.
Breest declined to discuss the details of the agreement, such as compensation, and would not confirm that Richmond was on the outsourcing list.
Contract employees will wear Northwest uniforms, he said.
"From the customers' standpoint, they should not notice or see any difference at all when they come to the airport," Breest said.
The names of possible subcontracting firms have not been released.
Richmond and Norfolk airport officials expressed some concern about customer service.
While half of the airlines at Richmond's airport use outside contractors for ramp work, "every other airline here has their employees at the ticket counter, doing customer service," said airport spokesman Troy Bell. "This would be the first time it would be 100 percent outsourced."
After the change at Northwest, Bell said, "There will be more of a watchfulness by the airport to maintain a quality customer-service environment."
In June, Northwest had the smallest share of passengers - less than 4 percent - of eight airlines at Richmond International.
At Norfolk International Airport, where Northwest will outsource operations on Dec. 5, Executive Director Ken Scott said he shares some of Bell's concerns.
United Airlines outsourced all its airport jobs in Norfolk several years ago, operating as United Express, he said.
While reporting no major problems from the outsourcing, Scott said, "There's a bit of a disconnect between airport management and the United headquarters" in Chicago.
Northwest faces other labor issues. The company is trying to block a threatened work stoppage by flight attendants on Tuesday.
A bankruptcy judge said yesterday that he would rule later on a motion to bar the planned strike, The Associated Press reported. He also took under consideration a request by the flight attendants union to change the terms of a concessions deal the airline imposed.
NORTHWEST AT RIC
* Market share: 3.9 percent, or 11,872 passengers, in June
* Jobs affected: about 20