Katrina Skews Northwest Strike Picture

Northwest Airlines suspended operations Monday in 12 cities as Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast — a move clouding readings of how well the airline is faring with substitute mechanics in week two of a strike.

Northwest management insisted again Monday that it is operating normally outside of the hurricane-related problems dogging it now in a number of areas. On Sunday, the Eagan-based airline had a total of 1,381 flights scheduled and completed about 97 percent of them, according to the latest charts released by the airline.

Northwest canceled about 3 percent of its flights, or about 41 flights, according to the chart. Some of Sunday's cuts were due to the hurricane and not the strike, the airline noted, but Northwest wouldn't say how many.

A cancellation rate of 3 percent is an improvement from the first days of the strike but is still higher than Northwest's historic average of one to 2 percent and indicates some choppiness. But clearly, the nation's fourth-largest airline isn't as debilitated as its striking union predicted it would be in the second week of the strike, which began Aug. 19.

Union leaders on Monday said Hurricane Katrina will delay the strike's full impact because Northwest is simply flying fewer planes.

"Sooner or later," maintenance issues will cause Northwest bigger scheduling problems, said O.V. Delle-Femine, national director of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association. AMFA is an independent union representing the 4,400 mechanics and cleaners striking at Northwest.

"They're having a hell of a time getting the planes on time," Delle-Femine said from a picket line in Detroit. "They're having problems."

Northwest management is telling a very different story than the airline's flight crews and passengers, said Steve MacFarlane, AMFA's assistant national director. The union is hearing talk of long delays, cancellations and "filthy" airplanes, he said.

Northwest shares took a dip with the rest of the major carriers Monday. Its shares dropped 8 cents, closing at $5.19.

Jennifer Bjorhus can be reached at jbjorhus@pioneerpress.com or 651-228-2146.