MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- All but a handful of Northwest Airlines flights were leaving on time from its hub here early Monday, a day which could bring the most serious test so far of the ability of the nation's fourth biggest airline to cope with a mechanics strike.
The airline has reported that operations have been normal since the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association went on strike shortly after midnight Saturday. Union leaders dispute the claim.
The union claimed that Northwest canceled 54 flights on Sunday, which it said it discovered by sampling flight numbers on Northwest's Web site.
''That it was normal operations was pure nonsense,'' AMFA Assistant National Director Steve MacFarlane said Monday.
A Northwest Airlines spokesman did not immediately return a telephone call Monday morning.
It was no consolation to Phil Carlson on Monday that flight information screens throughout the airport showed that nearly all of Northwest's flights were on time.
The Lakeville man was supposed to leave for a business trip to Denver on a 9:30 a.m. flight. But that was canceled, so he was trying to figure out what he would do for five hours before his afternoon flight leaves.
''I really thought they'd get them out on time, so I didn't worry about it before hand,'' he said while standing in the middle of the concourse with his rolling carry-on suitcase.
Northwest's weekday schedule has 1,473 flights, up from 1,215 on Saturday, the first day of the strike, company spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch has said.
About 4,400 Northwest unionized mechanics, cleaners and custodians walked off the job Saturday morning.
No new talks are scheduled between Northwest and the union, which is refusing to take pay cuts and layoffs that would have reduced their ranks almost by half.
In anticipation of the strike, Northwest switched to its fall schedule Saturday, a week earlier than planned, lightening its domestic schedule by about 17 percent.
Northwest also spent 18 months preparing for the strike, arranging for about 1,900 replacement workers, vendors and managers.
But airline consultant Scott Hamilton of Leeham Co. in Sammamish, Wash., predicted it will be harder for Northwest to maintain its weekday schedule.
''Sooner or later if the replacement mechanics can't keep on top of it, it's going to start causing cancellations,'' Hamilton said.
Bob Rose, president of AMFA Local 5 in Detroit, said that between 6 a.m. and noon EDT on Sunday, Northwest had 85 delayed flights at Detroit Metropolitan Airport and 68 at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, the carrier's major U.S. hubs. Northwest had 234 delays at those two airports on Saturday, Rose said.
''Northwest is hurting. They're hurting themselves, and they're hurting the passengers,'' Rose said.
The union mechanics averaged about $70,000 a year in pay, and cleaners and custodians can make around $40,000. The company wants to cut their wages by about 25 percent.
Northwest also sought to lay off about 2,000 workers, almost halving a work force that is already half the size it was in 2001. The cuts would be concentrated among cleaners and custodians; Northwest has said other airlines use contractors to do that work for less.
AMFA represents nearly 3,500 mechanics, about 790 cleaners and 75 custodians.
Eagan-based Northwest has said it needs $1.1 billion in labor savings. Only pilots have agreed to reductions, accepting a 15 percent pay cut worth $300 million when combined with cuts for salaried employees. It is negotiating with ground workers and flight attendants, and it has said it can reopen talks with pilots once it gets concessions from the other groups.
After talks broke off late Friday, union negotiator Jim Young said the mechanics would rather see the airline go into bankruptcy than agree to Northwest's terms. AMFA represents about 11 percent of Northwest's 40,000 employees.
In addition to Detroit and Minneapolis, Northwest has hubs in Memphis, Tenn., Tokyo and Amsterdam, Netherlands.