Northwest Airlines Inc. has asked its pilots union to accept temporary concessions right away to give the two sides more time to negotiate a long-term deal outside of bankruptcy court.
A short-term agreement would be a step toward postponing a highly anticipated court date on Nov. 16, when a New York bankruptcy judge is slated to start hearing Northwest's argument to terminate its union contracts.
Talks between the nation's fourth-largest airline and six of its unions have intensified since Oct. 12, when Northwest filed court papers seeking sweeping authority to set new wages, benefits and work rules for the airline's roughly 29,000 union workers.
Northwest wants its unions to give up $1.4 billion annually, including their acceptance of wage cuts that range from 5% and 30%.
If bankruptcy Judge Allan L. Gropper grants the request, the airline's unions could legally strike, said Rick Kruger, bankruptcy attorney at Southfield-based firm Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss.
Eagan, Minn.-based Northwest filed for bankruptcy Sept. 14, citing soaring fuel prices, industry-high labor costs and competition from low-cost carriers. Northwest carries more than 60% of passengers who start their trips at Detroit Metro Airport.
Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch declined to say if the airline has asked its other unions for short-term deals or disclose what the terms of any interim agreements would be.
The Air Line Pilots Association told its members the union would consider a short-term deal if other unions reached similar agreements.
On Monday, only the pilots union had confirmed that Northwest had asked for an interim deal. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents about 14,000 Northwest ground workers, had not been approached for such a deal, said spokesman Joe Tiberi. The flight attendants union did not return calls Monday.
As for the terms of an interim deal, ALPA spokesman Hal Myers said he didn't know details. Typically, these agreements implement wage cuts, he said. "That's a change you can make fairly easily," Myers said. Union members would vote on any deal.
In a long-term deal, Northwest seeks $611 million in annual cuts, including $250 million in concessions the pilots made last year.
Meanwhile, the ground workers union has been pressing Northwest to postpone the Nov. 16 hearing, saying it is unlikely that the two sides could reach any agreement soon.
Northwest seeks $190.4 million in cuts from its ground workers. In a posting on its Web site Friday, the machinists said Northwest has not been receptive to the union's suggestions.
"There's no way we can accomplish what needs to be done in the current time frame," Tiberi said.
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