A federal bankruptcy judge could rule early next week on whether to bar Northwest Airlines flight attendants from a planned strike that could disrupt flights, a spokesman for the flight attendants union said.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Allan Gropper heard arguments Wednesday over a preliminary injunction to prevent any type of strike action, which the flight attendants plan to begin on Tuesday. He also considered a request by the union to change the terms of a concessions deal the airline imposed.
"I think a cooling off period would be of enormous value, but I have no power, unlike the NMB (National Mediation Board), to impose a cooling off period," Gropper said before he adjourned the hearing.
Rick Thornton, a spokesman for the Association of Flight Attendants, said Wednesday the judge might rule by Monday, one day before the strike is scheduled to start.
A Northwest Airlines labor executive said that strike actions by its flight attendants could cripple it to the point of shutting down.
The company's 8,000 flight attendants had said they would begin random, unannounced work stoppages starting at 10:01 p.m. EDT on Aug. 15 to protest terms of a contract imposed on them that calls for $195 million in concessions.
Northwest Airlines Corp. Vice President Julie Hagen Showers said job actions by flight attendants, even intermittent strikes, would put the airline in danger.
"It would clearly put us on the brink of collapse and in danger of liquidation," she said. "If we lost 20 percent of our traffic, we could not sustain ourselves. If we simply allowed it to happen, the company would liquidate."
A strike would affect 130,000 passengers on 1,200 flights a day, the company said in court.
The AFA announced its strike plans on July 31, when Northwest Airlines imposed new contract terms after the flight attendants had rejected a second tentative agreement for concessions.
The flight attendants joined the AFA on July 7. The union pioneered the use of CHAOS, or Creating Havoc Around Our System, a form of striking that includes intermittent, targeted work stoppages. An AFA spokeswoman said the union had been and is conducting training sessions in preparation for the strike.
The AFA argued that its members have the right to strike since the company altered their contract unilaterally. Northwest said the Railway Labor Act, which governs the airline industry, barred a strike.
The judge said, "The question before me today is a fairly narrow one of the intersection between the bankruptcy code and the Railway Labor Act."
The flight attendants also asked the judge to alter the terms of the 21 percent in wage cuts and work rule changes that the airline imposed. Northwest Airlines attorney Brian Leitch said, "This is not a case where draconian pay levels have been proposed. We don't have much room to move."
The company needed a new deal with flight attendants to put into effect a total of $1.4 billion worth of concession agreements with other unions. The flight attendants were the last group that had not reached a deal. Pilots, baggage handlers, ground workers and clerical workers had agreed to concessions earlier.
Northwest filed for bankruptcy protection on Sept. 14, 2005. In a filing this week with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Northwest said it is on-track to exit bankruptcy in the first half of 2007. It said its business plan assumes oil priced at $75 a barrel, and that it has hedged a quarter of its fuel for up to $79.60 a barrel for the rest of this year, but has no fuel hedges in place after that.
AP Business Writer Joshua Freed in Minneapolis contributed to this report.
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The union wants Northwest to trim concessions to $156 million because the airline is doing better than it projected.
U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero is scheduled to consider the appeal at a hearing Friday, hours before the union says it will begin scattered work stoppages.
Under Gropper's ruling, "the flight attendants won't have any claim" unless they reach a new deal by the end of the bankruptcy.
During a CHAOS strike, like the one Northwest Airlines flight attendants threatened to launch last week, there's very little actual striking.