Northwest, Pilots Work to Craft Agreement

Northwest Airlines Corp. pilots said Tuesday they are working with the carrier to craft an agreement that would satisfy the union and meet the company's need to emerge from bankruptcy, but a union official warned that pilots would strike if a bankruptcy court imposed an agreement on Northwest employees.

"It needs to be a voluntary consensual agreement," Capt. Mark McClain, chairman of the master executive council at Northwest Air Line Pilots Association told the Associated Press in an interview. "The only good scenario is a consensual agreement."

While McClain acknowledged the airline faces competition and needs to cut costs, he said there is "only so far we'll go. (But) We recognize the competitive nature of what their (Northwest Airlines) peers have and what they want."

Last week, the airline asked a court to do away with contracts it has made with pilots and flight attendants. A series of hearings in New York's bankruptcy court, have yielded no decision yet from Judge Allan Gropper, who is overseeing the case.

While Northwest has contended a strike by its pilots would be illegal, McClain said that if an agreement is imposed on the carrier's pilots, the union is ready to walk off the job.

"We do not believe that unions have the right to strike if the judge imposes terms," said Kurt Ebenhoch, spokesman for Northwest. "We do not believe a work stoppage would be in the best interest of the airline, its employees, our customers or the communities we serve."

The airline, in five days of hearings, has argued it needs to cut labor costs to be more competitive with low cost carriers. The pilots and the carrier's flight attendants have maintained they have already given enough concessions and contend Northwest management is asking for more than it needs.

Typically a decision in bankruptcy court on such a request is made within 30 days so both sides have until February 26 to come up with a consensual agreement.

McClain said the union and the carrier are in the process of "re-framing" their negotiations by focusing on issues that both sides can find in common. "We are redrawing new blue prints for negotiations," he said. "We are committed to the process."

A key point to that new framework for discussions, said McClain, will be so-called scope laws, a pool of agreements designed to protect pilot jobs.

Northwest ALPA union has 5,000 members who are active pilots and 711 pilots that have been furloughed. A first year pilot at the carrier earns $27,000, while a pilot with seven years experience earns $60,000. The highest paid pilot at the carrier, the captain of a 747-400 aircraft with 25 years of experience, earns $160,000.

Northwest's pilots are among a group of employees that includes flight attendants and baggage handlers, among others, who are being asked for $1.4 billion in wage and benefits concessions annually.

Northwest management has said it needs the cost cuts to compete with low cost carriers. Managers and industry experts who have testified on Northwest's behalf have said the cuts are needed to borrow money on Wall Street to finance the company's business and back its emergence from bankruptcy.

Beyond that, the airline has ambitious plans to refit its aircraft fleet, considered aged by industry standards. Over the next decade, Northwest plans to spend $10 billion to $11 billion on new planes and much of that expansion will be financed through the sale of corporate debt.

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