Northwest Wants to Outsource Numerous Flight Attendant Jobs

Northwest Airlines, flying while in bankruptcy, wants to position itself to outsource all flight attendant jobs on international flights, as well as all attendant jobs on planes with 100 or fewer seats.

That's the word from the flight attendants' union, which Northwest is leaning on for $195 million in annual wage and other givebacks.

Northwest's outsourcing proposal could eliminate the jobs of thousands of the carrier's some 9,800 flight attendants, said Bob Krabbe, assistant contract administrator for the Professional Flight Attendants Association. Many jobs could go overseas to lower-paid foreigners.

"We'll fight this vigorously," he said. "If the company has its way, the only flying that would be exclusive to our flight attendants would be within the U.S. on aircraft with 101 seats or more. The company would be able to outsource all international flying --and all flying on planes with 100 or fewer seats. That's big. It would mean thousands of flight attendants' jobs."

Northwest would not discuss the union's account of the airline's plans, saying it does not comment on contract negotiations.

Currently, Northwest has about 500 flight attendants who are foreign nationals based in Asia. Those attendants are limited to flying south and west of Tokyo, said Krabbe.

Hiring lower-paid foreign flight attendants could fit with Eagan-based Northwest's drive to cut costs.

The airline, which has lost about $3 billion on its operations since the start of 2001, is seeking $1.4 billion in givebacks from its employees.

Northwest flight attendants earn from $19,500 to $48,000 a year, depending on experience. The airline wants to cut their pay by as much as 22 percent. But it's expected that Northwest will soon raise that target.

If the airline doesn't get the concessions it wants at the bargaining table, it can ask the judge overseeing its Chapter 11 bankruptcy to impose new contracts.

Airline records indicate that Northwest's international operations provided about one-third of its passenger revenue $2.8 billion in 2004. That's a similar ratio to American, United and Continental airlines, which derived a like share of their passenger revenue from international operations. Last year, Northwest's international service accounted for 42 percent of its revenue passenger miles. Revenue passenger miles are the number of miles an airline flies paying passengers.

Outsourcing of aircraft maintenance work has been a big trend in the airline industry. It was a major flashpoint in the confrontation between Northwest and its mechanics, who struck the airline Aug. 19. The mechanics' walkout continues, and Northwest is servicing its planes with a mix of replacement workers, outside vendors and managers licensed as aircraft mechanics.

But outsourcing most or all flight attendant jobs on international flights would be an industry first, said Vaughn Cordle, chief analyst with Airline Forecasts, an independent research firm, and a pilot with a major airline.

"No major U.S. airline is doing that," he said.

The PFAA's Krabbe concurs.

"They keep comparing us to United," he said of Northwest management. "But this has never been an issue at United. There's no need for the company to do this to survive. I think they're after the cheapest people they can find. But you need people with customer service skills, whose mettle has been tested and will be assertive in difficult situations."

United, which also is in bankruptcy, this past spring outsourced 50 telephone reservation jobs to India as it looked to trim costs. It had already sent 200 call center jobs to Nova Scotia.

Michael Boyd, president of The Boyd Group, a Colorado-based aviation-consulting firm, said it's not unusual for international carriers to try to boost the number of "local" flight attendants they have living overseas.

"It is much cheaper to hire local flight attendants based in Taipei than it is to staff flights with U.S. flight attendants," he said. "Northwest has to do it if it's to remain competitive with Singapore Airlines, a whole slew of mainland Chinese airlines and other (Asian) carriers. They have to get their cabin costs down."

Last October, the Bangkok Post reported that JALways, a tourist-oriented subsidiary of Japan Airlines, hires only Japanese or Thai women as flight attendants.

Most 53 percent are Thai, the Post said. The airline was poised, the paper reported, to open a new round of recruitment for Thai cabin attendants, aged between 20 and 26. First-year Thai JALways cabin attendants earn around 50,000 baht a month, the Post said. That's about $1,200 U.S.

As far as flight attendant staffing on planes with 100 or fewer seats, Boyd expects that's part of a Northwest effort to shift all such flying to its regional carriers, Mesaba and Pinnacle airlines, which employ lower-paid pilots and flight attendants. Currently the largest plane either one flies has 69 seats.

As of June 30, Northwest had 99 100-seat DC9-30s in its mainline fleet, along with 342 jets with 110 to 403 seats.

"Jobs," said Boyd. "That's what it's all about."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press