NWA Srike Aftermath: More Fliers Sit Back and Relax

Lengthy waits at the airport. Minutes slowly ticking away in a stuffy plane. Racing to a new gate or rebooking on the phone with the hope of getting home soon or getting to that meeting on time.

FEWER FLIGHTS Northwest Airlines plans to operate fewer flights starting today. At Detroit Metro Airport, that will mean 27 fewer Northwest, Mesaba and Pinnacle flights departing the airport every day. It's the first in what could be a few schedule reductions that Northwest plans to make as it reorganizes through its Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Overall, the airline is cutting 182 daily flights, bringing its total number of flights a day to 2,580.

Northwest hasn't cut out any destinations.

Reductions at Detroit Metro will come from cutting one flight a day to 25 destinations including Grand Rapids; Birmingham, Ala.; Little Rock, Ark.; Charlottesville, Va., and two flights a day to Cleveland.

These frustrations have become more common for passengers of Northwest Airlines Inc., which earned some of the worst on-time numbers in the industry in August and September when its mechanics went on strike.

"Northwest doesn't have the greatest on-time track record. However, there was a difference before and after the strike," said Anthony Scaglione, 30, of Commerce Township, who flies Northwest twice a week. Half of his flights after Northwest's union mechanics went on strike Aug. 20 have been delayed more than a reasonable 15 minutes. Two weeks ago, Scaglione said, "was the first time, in a long time, we actually left the gate on time."

Since the strike, frequent travelers have detected some subtle changes, too. Some have noticed stressed-out staffers. Others say planes are fuller than usual now that Northwest has trimmed its schedule, and it's tougher to get a frequent-flier bump-up to first class.

But Scaglione has noticed the delays he used to plan his schedule around aren't as frequent as they were a few weeks ago and the ones that remain are getting shorter. Indeed, it appears Northwest's on-time statistics are improving from the dismal numbers the airline posted in August and September.

For the first few weeks of October, Northwest recorded on-time rates that rival and even surpass other major carriers -- a sign that the frustrations travelers had put up with in recent months might not become a more regular part of flying Michigan's largest airline, which serves more than 60% of passengers at Detroit Metro Airport.

A rocky start

Cindy Talley has one reason for booking her next trip on Northwest Airlines. The 34-year-old geologist from Garden City wants to use up her frequent-flier miles.

She didn't feel that a few months ago. It took one awful flying experience on Northwest to make Talley skeptical.

"I'm just more leery about it," said Talley. "I'm more aware of what could go wrong."

Talley turned leery a day after Northwest's 4,400 union mechanics walked off the job. On Aug. 21, she was getting ready for her flight from Chicago's Midway International Airport to Detroit Metro.

The departure boards said her flight was on time. But when it came time to leave, there was no plane at the gate. Talley called Northwest's 800 number and learned that her flight was going to be two hours late. A half-hour later, the boards said Talley's flight to Detroit as canceled, and a gate agent said there would be no flights to Detroit until the next day.

Talley had just started a new job and didn't want to ask for a day off with little notice. So it was a good thing she had reserved a car just in case.

"I knew that, in my situation, I wasn't going to be able to mess around," Talley said. "I needed to get home."

Travelers and airline experts expected delays and cancellations on Northwest after the strike. During the first day of what has stretched into a 73-day labor dispute, fewer than half of Northwest's flights arrived on time.

In August, Northwest was able to get 67% of its flights to their destinations on time, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which assembles numbers from the airlines.

FlightStats, a firm that measures delays and cancellations, says 69% of Northwest's flights arrived on time in August. In both surveys, only AirTran Airways and Atlantic Southeast Airlines, a feeder carrier for Delta Air Lines, fared worse than Northwest.

"In August you had to give Northwest the benefit of the doubt," said Terry Trippler, Minneapolis-based airline expert with Cheapseats.com. The company's crop of replacement mechanics was getting used to a new work environment and Northwest said it had to park nearly 60 aircraft, or three times as many planes as usual, for maintenance problems just before the strike began.

Improving numbers

After the hassle in Chicago, Talley worried about her next Northwest trip. This time she and her husband were headed to Portland, Ore., Sept. 9. "We were hoping for the best. We were really preparing ourselves for an ordeal."

The flight to Portland didn't have any problems. On the way back Sept. 16, a maintenance issue kept Talley and her husband, Louis, waiting in Minneapolis for a connecting flight for nearly two hours longer than their 40-minute layover. But even that was a relief.

"Compared to what it was in August, that little delay in Minneapolis was not awful," she said.

For Scaglione, a management consultant, the delays became so bad, he started scheduling meetings later in the day when he took early morning flights out of Detroit.

But he isn't taking measures that drastic anymore.

"There have been a higher number of delays, but also I think there's a decrease in number and length of delays as we get further and further away from the strike," he said.

Northwest's numbers tell a similar story. FlightStats says Northwest was able to get 76% of its passengers to their destinations on time in September. While an improvement, the figure keeps Northwest near the bottom of the nation's airlines for on-time arrivals. Only Colgan Air, a commuter carrier, had a worse -- 72% -- rating.

Northwest says FlightStats data aren't as complete as numbers from the Department of Transportation. The department's numbers for September are to come out Wednesday.

But FlightStats figures show steady improvement for Northwest's on-time performance.

FlightStats reports that Northwest's on-time rating improved steadily in October. The best so far has been the third week when Northwest landed 85% of its flights on time, compared to 86% for Delta and 83% for United.

Flight delays can be random and common at any airline, which is why some travelers said they don't fault Northwest and don't mind putting up with them.

"Delays are part of the travel deal," said Brian Speck, 45, of Grand Rapids as he waited for a delayed flight to Harrisburg, Pa., out of Detroit Metro Airport on a recent afternoon.

For Scaglione and Charles Jacobson, 44, from Clearwater, Fla., flying first class was often part of the travel deal. With their frequent-flier status, both were able to upgrade to first class.

Northwest has reduced its flights twice in the last three months and expects to do more trimming early next year. In August, the airline switched to a smaller fall schedule earlier than usual to ease operations during the strike.

Today, Northwest is to cut its schedule again. Overall, the airline is cutting nearly 7% of its flights across the board, including 27 in Detroit.

The reductions should help Northwest deal with high fuel prices and follow through on its plan to shrink the airline as it reorganizes through Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

"Earlier in the year I was getting first class a lot. Now it's looking harder and harder," Jacobson said. "The flights do seem more crowded, packed to the gills," Jacobson said.

Detroit Free Press

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