MINNEAPOLIS_A bankruptcy judge refused on Thursday to allow Mesaba Airlines to reject its contracts with union workers.
Pilots, flight attendants and mechanics at the feeder carrier for Northwest Airlines Corp. had threatened to strike if Mesaba was allowed to impose its terms on them.
"Clearly, the parties can - and should - continue efforts toward a consensual resolution," Judge Gregory Kishel wrote in his order.
Mesaba is the only air service in many of the 98 mostly Midwestern cities it serves.
Both sides have said they hope to make a deal. Mesaba is also trying to win concessions from flight attendants and mechanics. All three groups conducted informational pickets in the Michigan cities of Flint, Lansing, and Kalamazoo on Wednesday.
Mesaba believes a strike would be illegal and would seek a court order to stop one, spokeswoman Elizabeth Costello said.
Mesaba is asking Judge Gregory Kishel for permission to throw out its union contracts with the three groups. In other airline bankruptcies, that has prompted unions to make a deal for pay cuts and work rule changes, and judges have been able to avoid ruling.
However, a judge denied a request by Delta Air Lines Inc. regional subsidiary Comair to throw out its union contract with flight attendants last month, and ordered more negotiations.
Mesaba gets all of its planes and passengers and nearly all its revenue from Northwest, which filed for bankruptcy protection in September. Mesaba, a unit of MAIR Holdings Inc., followed about a month later.
Mesaba's labor trouble comes just as it is trying to keep its Northwest business or win business from another carrier. Northwest has put its regional flying out for bids, and its current regional carriers, Mesaba and Pinnacle Airlines Inc., have said they are seeking the business.
In the meantime, Northwest has said it will trim Mesaba's fleet to just 49 Saab turboprop planes that seat no more than 34 passengers. That's down from a fleet that was once about 100 planes, including a growing number of small jets.
Costello said Mesaba tried, but failed, to win regional flying for Continental Airlines Inc. a few months ago.
"Our costs were quite frankly too high, and it went to another carrier with lower costs," she said.
It's tough for regional carriers to switch from serving one major airline to another, said Doug Abbey, managing partner at a Washington-based aviation consulting firm called The Velocity Group, an aviation consulting firm in Washington, D.C.
He said Air Wisconsin switched from being a United Airlines feeder for many years to serving US Airways.
But Mesaba has been flying for Northwest since 1984, and its route structure is intertwined with Northwest's.
"Mesaba's fate is intrinsically linked with that of Northwest," Abbey said. Without that, and "lacking any other large-scale contract to feed another carrier, Mesaba would be left out in the cold."
On the Net:
Mesaba Labor Coalition: http://www.mesabalabor.org/index.php
Joshua Freed can be reached at jfreed(at)ap.org